You could argue that 1918, when a deadly pandemic overlapped World War I, was worse than 2020. There were midterm elections that year as well, which the San Francisco Chronicle described as “the first masked ballot ever known in the history of America.” Not much is known about how the 1918 pandemic affected the arts. For music, it was “a temporary inconvenience.”
In 2020, with the coming of COVID-19, the arts collapsed. Everything closed, was canceled or postponed. Events and seasons were rescheduled, reconfigured and erased. Countless people lost their jobs, their gigs, their sources of income. Almost a year later, no one knows when things will return to normal, or what normal will be.
If 2020 taught us one thing, it’s that live audiences are essential to the arts. Like diners are to restaurants, another sector ravaged by the coronavirus. Except restaurants can do take-out, and no one expects their food to be free.
But the year wasn’t entirely gloom and doom. Amid the sadness, uncertainty, frustration and fear, individuals and organizations found ways to do good work. Following are a few of the things that inspire hope as the year slouches away.
Penumbra Theatre reinvented itself. Under Sarah Bellamy’s leadership, the legacy Black theater in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood is becoming more than a place for theater arts. In August, it announced that over the next three years, it will evolve into a center for racial healing, nourishing Black artists, facilitating wellness and advancing equity while still presenting plays. It’s a bold move, and radiantly optimistic. Funders approve. This fall, Penumbra received $4 million in multiyear grant funding.
A summer of racial reckoning sparked changes. When George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, the world protested. Genuinely shaken, arts and culture organizations in the Twin Cities issued statements against racism, injustice and inequity and vowed to do better. The Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO started regularly including works by Black composers in their programming. In November, the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation and the McKnight Foundation launched a digital gallery featuring work by 50 BIPOC artists.
Last week, the Ordway announced that instead of giving out Sally Awards this year, it would celebrate three former Sally winners, all Black men: Seitu Jones, Gary Hines (Sounds of Blackness) and Lou Bellamy (Penumbra). Something’s happening here, and it feels like there’s no going back.
Crooners kept live music alive. The supper club in Fridley closed when they had to and opened whenever they could. After COVID restrictions ended indoor events, it held live concerts in four outdoor venues: its parking lot (people stayed in their cars, drive-in-movie style), a patio, a big tent and a bigger tent. (Remember, this is Fridley, not downtown Minneapolis.)
From June 1 to Nov. 19, Crooners staged 227 concerts and paid the artists. It also readied its indoor spaces – the small Dunsmore Room and the larger mainstage room – for the return of live audiences, upgrading HVAC systems and spacing out the seating. Crooners presented more live concerts than any other venue. It’s currently remodeling the main room again and making plans to roar back when it’s safe to do so.
The Playwrights’ Center started packing. After 40 years in an old church in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood, the increasingly important Playwrights’ Center will enter its next phase in a spiffy new space. Funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Knight Foundation and $850,000 from the 2020 Minnesota bonding bill, the center will relocate to St. Paul’s Creative Enterprise Zone and a former warehouse building remade by HGA, the architects and engineers behind the Northrop remodel and the Ordway Concert Hall. There it will have twice as much space, a 150-seat theater, public gathering areas, state-of-the-art technology and more of what it needs to make playwriting more equitable and diverse.
The Minnesota Orchestra persisted. When COVID came, it canceled concerts bit by bit: first through March, then through April, then the rest of the 2019-20 season through June, intending to start 2020-21 in late September as planned. When it couldn’t do that, it partnered with TPT and Classical MPR on a series of livestreamed concerts from Orchestra Hall, with smaller groups of masked and distanced musicians playing to an empty house. Earlier this month, it announced four more livestreams to carry us through March 2021. Produced by TPT, the livestreams have been excellent, free to watch and available on demand after the original broadcast. If you want to see the effort that goes into a livestream, watch this video.