With vaccinations rising, COVID-19 deaths falling, venues still shuttered and many artists out of work for more than a year, arts organizations want to know “How soon can we reopen? How fully? With what practices in place?”
In January, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report, “The Art of Reopening: A Guide to Current Practices Among Arts Organizations During COVID-19.” On Tuesday afternoon, March 23, they followed up with a webinar, “The Art of Reopening – A Virtual Conversation on Reengaging Arts Audiences in Physical Spaces.”
Seven thousand people attended.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease specialist, gave the opening remarks. Sunil Iyengar, director of the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis, moderated a panel with three leaders of arts organizations featured in the report.
Scott Altman is president and CEO of Cincinnati Ballet; Rebecca Read Medrano is cofounder and executive director of GALA Hispanic Theatre in Washington, D.C.; and Chloe Cook is executive director of Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema in Birmingham, Alabama.
We thought it would be helpful to pass along some moments from the hourlong discussion, since Tuesday’s webinar is the freshest report we have from a constantly changing arts landscape that will change even more with the American Rescue Plan and SVOG (Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, formerly Save Our Stages) program.
What Fauci said
Fauci is as eager as the rest of us to return to the arts, but he urged that “we must not declare victory prematurely. Our most important task as a nation right now is to reduce the level of circulating virus to a very low level, much lower than the tens of thousands of cases we currently are seeing each day.”
His advice: “Get vaccinated when you are eligible, continue to wear a mask, and socially distance when out in public.”
The three COVID-19 vaccines the U.S. now has are “extraordinarily safe and efficacious.” And “if we are careful in reopening and resuming activities, based on current projections, I believe we could likely see a return to more fully open movie and Broadway theaters sometime in the fall. This is no guarantee. … If we continue to vaccinate as many people as we can as quickly as possible, however, I believe we will achieve a broad umbrella of protection, somewhere between 70 to 85 percent of people vaccinated, by late summer to early fall.
“Those who are vaccinated will not only protect themselves, but also serve as a dead end to virus spread, protecting the minority remaining who either cannot or have not been vaccinated.”
Fauci did not specifically mention “those who refuse to be vaccinated.”
What arts organizations did when COVID came
At Sidewalk Film Center, Cook closed the new cinema, which had only been open for five months. “Within seven days, we had developed new programs that were COVID safe,” including virtual filmmaking competitions and educational programs. A drive-in series was added during the summer, held in the parking lot of a shuttered big-box movie theater. Sidewalk’s annual film festival moved to a local multiplex drive-in. People came from as far away as 60 miles.
Altman reported that the Cincinnati Ballet offered stay-in-shape classes for dancers, launched digital training programs for kids and families, and broadcast archival ballets. They produced ballets live in the parks, painting distancing circles on the grass and doing temperature checks. For the holidays, they partnered with a local television station to broadcast a one-hour “Nutcracker.” More than 130,000 people tuned in; normally, 25,000 would see it live.
GALA had just opened a commissioned play about Indigenous leader Rigoberta Menchu when the pandemic hit. Washington, D.C., shut down, and two days later, Medrano tested positive for COVID. All the people who had been at the play were contacted (no one else got sick) and the rest of the season was canceled. GALA started recording performances by artists in their homes. For their children’s program, which normally reaches about 5,000 people, they recorded artists reading children’s books, and “since then about 40,000 to 50,000 people have logged on.”
Medrano called out the “real scarcity of culturally relevant Spanish-language material online. It’s incredible, given that this country is the second-largest Spanish speaking country in the world, after Mexico.”
Mixed messages, misinformation and misunderstandings
Cook wishes there had been more of a nationwide unified response to the pandemic. “A lot of people, not only in the arts but across all industries, were really challenged to make a decision about the survival of their organization or business versus the potential survival of their staff members, their audiences and their customers. That’s the single piece of information that I wish I’d had …
“The pandemic dropped off pretty significantly in May, and even though we could have reopened, we just didn’t feel that was the right thing to do. So we didn’t reopen our space until September, and I really wish I hadn’t been in the position to have to make that call, because you never know what the results of that are going to be, the long-term effects of being closed longer than you have to be. Down the road, donors are going to come to you as a nonprofit and say, ‘You could have opened in May, and you could have been generating income, and why didn’t you do that?’”
For Medrano, “the challenge was a lot of misinformation or changing information. Theater organizations have to plan. We’ve all been brought up to plan, and then you have to replan and drop your plans and convince your staff and your board that you’re doing the right thing when you yourself don’t know you’re doing the right thing, because tomorrow the news is different about the pandemic.
“Messaging is very difficult, and there’s a lot of misunderstanding in the community, especially in the Latinx and BIPOC communities. One thing we want to do when we reopen is message about vaccinations, because a lot of our teaching artists who are Latinx don’t want to get the vaccine. Is it legal that we don’t hire them? There’s not a lot of guidelines around whether you’re allowed to not hire people if they don’t take the vaccine.”
Altman echoed “the disparate information that came from variable sources. Who do you listen to at any given time?” He praised “the vigorous sharing of best practices that emerged among peer groups – local peer groups, regional, national, sector peer groups” that resulted in “unprecedented collaboration and new camaraderie.”
Plans for moving forward
Cook’s plans for Sidewalk Film include audience caps, “a very strict mask policy that’s enforced” and assigned distanced seating. “Legally, we can be at 100% capacity if we’d like to be, but that is not what we feel is the wisest option for us, so we’re not there yet.”
The film festival is on the calendar for August, “but it will be in reduced capacity venues and will have a lot less of the social and party elements that might normally be part of our festival. … We hope to be back in our historic theater district this year with a combination of indoor and outdoor events and film screenings. Beyond that, I wish I knew.”
Altman said that Cincinnati Ballet will be “back in the park in May, then we go back into the theater at 25% capacity in June.” The next fiscal year will be “slow and steady … with gentle engagement. … We’ll go slowly into the theater in the fall, and then all hopes are high for getting back to normalcy by the holiday time. … We wish we had a crystal ball. We’re watching, obviously, the rollout of vaccines.”
GALA was “just recently approved for reopening,” Medrano said. “We will go forward with the plan that’s been cancelled three times. … But who knows after that? We have a huge tango play coming up, a dance musical, with some artists who are supposed to come from Argentina, so we don’t know what’s happening with that. … We have the same priorities of keeping everybody healthy and safe. We will use this window to talk to our audiences about please get vaccinated. If you know somebody who feels differently, let’s talk about it.”
Proof of vaccination for arts events?
Proof of vaccination may one day be required for travel. Israel already has a vaccine passport.
The UK and other governments are considering issuing certificates to vaccinated people. To get into a bar, hotel, or swimming pool, you first would have to show your certificate.
In a way, this is similar to being wanded and having bags checked at the Orpheum and the State. Except medical records, like proof of vaccination, have privacy issues.
Tuesday’s webinar ended with this question from the audience: “What effect do you expect mass vaccinations to have on reopening? Will a ticketholder need to show proof in order to be allowed in?”
Medrano replied, “We were considering offering discounts to people who got vaccinated, but I’m not sure that’s legal. … I don’t think we could stand at the door and say, ‘You can’t come in because you’re not vaccinated.’ Our approach would be the same questions we ask: ‘Have you been in contact with anybody? Have you had a fever? Have you felt sick?’ Masks, temperature taking, all of that: I will continue to enforce it.”
Cook added, “We’re part of the National Association of Theatre Owners, and the advice from them has been you cannot require such a thing for a wide variety of reasons. We’re not planning to require that. We are planning to utilize our screen as a mechanism for advertising vaccine opportunities for anybody who is in our space, and maintaining a mask policy, the temperature check at the door – all of those things until we’re given that big thumbs up.”
A follow-up question for all of us might be: If you’ve been vaccinated, will you want to attend live events with people who haven’t been vaccinated?
More to come
In conclusion, the NEA’s Iyengar announced that “due to the extraordinary response … we will be hosting monthly virtual convenings.” Check the NEA’s website for more on that.
V is for virtual, L is for live and in person.
V Streaming now: “Prelude to Debussy.” When did you first hear the music of Debussy? If you don’t know and you don’t care, this might not be the film for you. But if you remember the moment when you became conscious of “Claire de Lune,” “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” “La Mer” or “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” for example, dive in. Pianist-turned-filmmaker Ophra Yerushalmi invited musicians, singers and authors to describe how Claude Debussy affected their art. Her reverent documentary is full of gorgeous music, lovely scenes (water, clouds, glimpses of Paris, pianists at grand pianos) and interesting talk. Dare we say it’s … relaxing? On demand at WNET’s All Arts.
V Streaming Sunday, March 28, 4 p.m.: VocalEssence: “Call of the North.” VocalEssence performs music from all over the world, but this concert will be all about Minnesota composers and poets. Introduced by Minnesota First Lady Gwen Walz, filmed at the IDS Center, it will include selections by Dominick Argento, Timothy Berry, Steve Heitzeg, Libby Larsen, Reinaldo Moya, Stephen Paulus, Shruthi Rajasekar, Timothy Takach and David Evan Thomas. A new work by Carol Barnett, “When All Falls Silent,” will be a world premiere. In among the music will be poems by Patricia Hampl, Mary Moore Easter, Anthony Ceballos, Anna George Meek and Michael Dennis Browne, performed by the poets themselves. Philip Brunelle will conduct the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers, with Mary Jo Gothmann on piano. Following Sunday’s premiere, this concert will be available on demand until June 30. FMI and tickets ($15 single stream, $49 season).
V Livestreaming tonight (Thursday, March 25), 7 p.m.: Club Book, hosted by Ramsey County Library: Robert Kolker, “Hidden Valley Road.” The investigative reporter and New York Times bestselling author followed “Lost Girls,” which became a Netflix movie, with “Hidden Valley Road,” an even bigger blockbuster. The story of the Colorado family with 12 children and hereditary schizophrenia drew Oprah’s attention and jumped to the top of the bestseller lists. Go here to join; no registration needed. Did you miss chart-topping historian H.W. Brands (“The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and the Struggle for American Freedom”) on Tuesday? So did we. Watch the archived version or listen to the podcast.
V Livestreaming Friday, March 26, 7 p.m.: Dakota: Davina and the Vagabonds. Davina never disappoints. In her pre-COVID years of touring, she made fans around the world, wowing crowds large and small. Performing to an empty house is not her favorite, but she’ll bring her band, her energy and her signature blend of roots and blues, jazz and pop, standards and originals to the Dakota’s stage, her home base in Minneapolis. FMI and tickets ($15).
V Streaming Tuesday, March 20, 7 p.m.: Walker Art Center: Insights 2021 Design Lecture Series: “Hassan Rahim, 12:01.” Rahim is co-founder of Shabazz Projects; his clients include VSCO, Sony Music, Urban Outfitters, Warp Records and more. Skateboarding, clubbing, art and fashion collide in his poetic output. His talk has been prerecorded, but during and after the webcast, he’ll be available to converse with audiences in the YouTube Premieres comments section. Free on the Walker’s website and YouTube Premieres.