Nebraska's arts scene mostly resurrected following pandemic lows

Oct. 26, 2022, 10 a.m. ·

A Line Awaits Outside The Bourbon Theater In Lincoln At Night
A crowd waits to get into the Bourbon Theater in Lincoln. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

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On a recent Saturday at the Zoo Bar in Lincoln, the venue was packed tight. With the smell of alcohol in the air, the band onstage plays a funky jam while people sway to the music. In 2020, when COVID-19 first hit America, lockdowns and fear made such scenes unimaginable. For audience member Kami Brinkerhoff, COVID is still something she thinks about.

“Well, sure it is. But at the same time, there's greater numbers that are vaccinated and there's more awareness to it,” she said. “If you're not well, you don't go out in public.”

Brinkerhoff’s response is indicative of a massive turnaround in Nebraska’s arts community since the early days of the pandemic.

Few in the arts industry were hit as hard during the pandemic as performers.

Khaleefa Muhammed stands upright in his office
Khaleefa Muhammed AKA Hakim (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

Khaleefa Muhammed, who performs under the stage name Hakim, lives in Lincoln and has been entertaining since 2014 (2000 if you count his sixth-grade talent show). He’s also a businessman. At his independent Delta 8 dispensary, he reminisces about when he knew the pandemic was going to turn life upside down.

“I realized when the shutdown of my business, I know, it's a little unrelated to music, in a sense,” Muhammed said. "But when they shut down the business, as far as, like, the barbershop at the time, I was like, 'Okay, wow, this is this is serious, this is real.'"

When his performance schedule dried up, he estimates he lost 20% of his personal income. But as Nebraskans have started going back out to see live performances, Muhammed said things are better than good. Between a resurgence in performances and his strict post-lockdown rules on performance fees, Muhammed figures he’s making more money now than he did before the pandemic.

“It just started recently,” he said. “I've had like, four or five shows this month.”

Muhammed isn’t the only artist seeing a pickup in work. Arts, entertainment and recreation-related employment reached just over 17,000 in June of this year, from about a low of 7,400 in April 2019, according to the Nebraska Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many Nebraska arts organizations managed to survive the pandemic with a little help from the federal government. Executive Director of the Nebraska Arts Council, Suzanne Wise said her organization pumped more than $1 million of federal pandemic assistance back to suffering organizations around the state.

Zoo Bar Owner Pete Watters Leans Over the Bar Inside His Empty Bar.jpg
Zoo Bar Owner Pete Watters (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

“I would say roughly 70% of the arts organizations in Nebraska, survive the pandemic without too much damage,” Wise said.

Even so, she said challenges remain, a testament to the pandemics staying power.

“I know of a situation just pretty recently, where a play was being staged, and a couple of the actors caught COVID, even now,” she said. “It was just almost impossible to continue doing rehearsals and do it in a safe space.”

In crowded music venues like the Zoo Bar, COVID may very well still be affecting performance dates. When performers do show up, however, patrons have been showing up in force. From March 2020 to now, jobs at bars have risen from a low of 1,700 to a five-year high of more than 5,300.

Pete Watters has run the Zoo Bar for more than 20 years. He said the last few years have been rough, but once pandemic-related restrictions ended, there’s been a noticeable resurgence. Still, he said not all of his regulars have returned, especially older ones.

“They’re habits changed frankly," he said. "Some people came out like caged animals and some people were like, 'Hey, this isn’t so bad.'"

Overall, he reckons profits are about 15% below where they were pre-pandemic, a situation which he says is “not terrible”. Still, Watters doesn’t think he’s out of the woods yet. He said the fall and winter will serve as the true test of whether things are “back to normal.”

The Crowded Interior of the Zoo Bar as a Band Plays Onstage
Patrons party at the Zoo Bar on a crowded evening as a band plays onstage (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)