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Rock the Garden 2021 won’t happen; SPCO cancels the rest of its 2020-21 season

Also: catching up with Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.

The Walker Art Center and 89.3 The Current will not present Rock the Garden in 2021.
The Walker Art Center and 89.3 The Current will not present Rock the Garden in 2021.
Walker Art Center/Pierre Ware

COVID has taken its first punch at summer in the Cities 2021, knocking Rock the Garden into summer 2022. The Walker Art Center, co-sponsor with The Current, issued a statement this morning saying, in part: “Due to uncertainties around planning for a large-scale outside event next summer, the Walker and The Current will not present Rock the Garden in 2021. After thoughtful consideration of how Rock the Garden could be coordinated and held in the time of COVID-19, the two organizations determined that the event in its current form could not be done in a way that would guarantee the safety of community members and artists.”

Rock the Garden has been a summer tradition for nearly two decades. After a stuttering start in the late 1990s and a three-year break in the mid-2000s, it was a sure annual thing. This year’s event was scheduled for Saturday, June 20, with a first-time lineup of nearly all women.

But COVID had other ideas. On April 3, three weeks after the virus closed much of the state, Rock the Garden 2020 was canceled. Back then, June 2021 seemed like ages away. It wasn’t. Also, for Rock the Garden to happen then, much of the programming would have to be locked down by the New Year, almost literally around the corner.

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“There’s been tears and gnashing of teeth on our end for months,” Philip Bither, the Walker’s senior curator for performing arts, said by phone on Tuesday. “Not just with what was becoming pretty evident about Rock the Garden, but a whole season of programs that needed to be rethought and extended or digitized. It felt best not to plan something elaborate that we would then have to take apart, because the size of the virus is so out of control right now.

“A lot of people are holding off in hopes that things can move forward. We felt like it would ultimately be a healthier step to start thinking about and planning for ’22, with plenty of time to make sure we can have a full 10,000 or 11,000 people on the side of the hill, with multiple stages. It just felt that wouldn’t be possible. Not to mention having to identify and secure artists in the next couple of months.

“We feel like people’s good feelings about the event, and excitement about the uniqueness of this one-day experience in such a beautiful setting, will still be very strong even a year from now, as we gear up for locking in the lineup for ’22.”

Did the recent election, and the possibility that the next two months could be chaotic, factor into the decision to skip Rock the Garden 2021?

“No. I don’t see it directly related to the decision that had to be made around Rock the Garden,” Bither said. “It’s more of the bigger cultural picture. I’m excited that, from all accounts, President-Elect Biden, and in particular Kamala Harris, have been real supporters of the arts. I think we could see some new blossoming of support for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, for encouragement and belief in the power of culture and of performing arts.

“It just has been a shame to see such a reduced visibility and any kind of real care about art and artists. I think it’s one of the things that the world really values about America, is its incredible robust cultural life.”

Looking back, Bither said, “We’ve learned lessons in these last eight months. There was optimism around how quickly this [virus] can get resolved, and how soon we can safely gather in large numbers.”

The SPCO cancels all remaining regular concerts for 2020-21

In early August, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra canceled all concerts through December 2020, eliminating 42 previously announced live performances. Since October, SPCO musicians have played a series of concerts on the Ordway Concert Hall stage, with no in-person audience. These are available as free live video streams to anyone who wants to watch them.

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The plan then was to resume performances with live audiences in January 2021, with a full slate of concerts, nearly 60 in all, from Jan. 8 through the season finale in June. As usual, the SPCO would play some in its home at the Ordway Concert Hall and the rest in its neighborhood venues throughout the Twin Cities.

But the big SPCO truck won’t be going anywhere for a while. As of Tuesday, the rest of the SPCO’s 2020-21 season has been canceled. The orchestra simultaneously announced a new series of eight more livestreamed performances to be held on Jan. 16 and 30, Feb. 13, March 20, April 10, May 8 and 22, and June 12, in case you want to mark your calendars now. We’ll know the programming soon. As before, each concert will be rebroadcast on the day following the live performance.

As of Tuesday, the rest of the SPCO’s 2020-21 season has been canceled.
Courtesy of the SPCO
As of Tuesday, the rest of the SPCO’s 2020-21 season has been canceled.
The original series of live video streams continues this weekend with “Lamentations” on Saturday, Nov. 14, at 8 p.m., to be repeated Sunday, Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. It is “a program centered on grief but anchored in hope,” with music by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms.

Catching up with Sheila Smith, post-election

Like many of us, Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts (MCA), has been focused on the recent political campaigns and elections. She also has been co-chairing Arts for Biden Minnesota, which mobilized artists across the state to create get-out-the-vote projects.

With Joe Biden declared president-elect, we asked Smith to share her thoughts on the current state of the arts and what a new administration might mean for the future of the arts in Minnesota. Her forecast: partly sunny.

“First off, the arts community is still in the depths of a terrible crisis because of coronavirus,” Smith said. “We are still in danger of losing many arts organizations and artists who are unable to make a living because they can’t gather and present things to the public. And so, we are hoping for another CARES Act [Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security] package.

“We’re hoping that the new round of support for coronavirus includes some help to states and cities for how devastating the coronavirus has been on their budgets. Because if that’s not included, then the state and local budgets are going to also be in a severe crisis, which is bad for all nonprofits including the arts. In terms of timeline, that is the most important thing that we’re watching.”

Is there any sign there will be another relief package within the next 70 days?

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“There are a few signs of life,” Smith said. “Now that we’re past the election, it is possible that they would pass one in a lame duck session. We’re watching that and being hopeful. There’s a variety of proposals that would help the arts industry specifically, like Save Our Stages. Another round of PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans would be very helpful to keep organizations from having to lay off even more people, and just trying to help people get through the winter.

“The news of a vaccine that is 90% effective – that’s mind-blowing. We were hoping there would be one that was 50% effective, so that’s fantastic news. The sooner that gets rolled out, the sooner the arts community can get back to normal and start serving the public again, and the sooner we can all get back to normal, which would be wonderful.

Sheila Smith
Photo by Adam Kissick
Sheila Smith
“The change of presidents is also potentially going to positively impact the arts sector. President Trump proposed deleting all support for arts and culture every year in his budget proposal, but Congress did not go along with that on a bipartisan basis. We are very grateful for the bipartisan nature of support for the arts in Congress.

“We look forward to having a president who could potentially not only propose an increase in arts and culture funding, but also go back to supporting the arts in a variety of other agencies, which was the trend previous to the Trump administration. An example would be the military’s use of arts therapy for members with PTSD. This was apparently a very fruitful collaboration.”

How does this all affect Minnesota Citizens for the Arts?

“There are still some races to be sorted out in the Minnesota Legislature. We’re waiting to see how that all finishes up. I don’t think there will be huge changes. We’re still going to have divided government, and as far as I know, we’ll have the same committee chairs. We’ve been fortunate in that the committee chairs overseeing arts and culture in Minnesota have been supportive on a bipartisan basis. We’ll hope to see that continue.

“The dark clouds on the horizon are the state budget deficit caused by corona, which turns us back to the federal level to see if they can pass another CARES act to help the state budget. Then perhaps the threats to all funding for all things in state government won’t be so severe. It’s all connected.

“It would be a game-changer if we could by spring have the population vaccinated and start to reopen everything from theaters to choirs. Just to have the capacity for everybody to get back to normal and start having public events and selling tickets. What a joyful thing that will be, the first time I get to go back to the theater. I think I’m going to cry my eyes out with joy to be there again.”