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'What we really need is a crystal ball, but we don’t have that': Arts, cultural organizations contend with planning a season during a pandemic
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'What we really need is a crystal ball, but we don’t have that': Arts, cultural organizations contend with planning a season during a pandemic

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They survived shut-downs, budget and staffing cuts, and scrambled to transition from traditional, in-person platforms to a digital one where possible. Now, arts and cultural organizations face a new challenge: planning a season in a pandemic.

Instead of planning seasons packed with live programming and events for hundreds to flock to, simultaneously providing work for dozens, arts and cultural organizations are contending with a pandemic that derailed everything they were normally able to offer.

Many theatre companies, museums and art galleries had to cancel or postpone last year’s seasons. Cautiously optimistic that some safe in-person programming will be possible this year, local organizations are focusing primarily on outdoor programming and digital offerings, with limited indoor options and contingency plans in place should they need to pivot.

“What we really need is a crystal ball, but we don’t have that,” said Kim Soerensen, executive director of the nonprofit Riverviews Artspace.

Riverviews Artspace lost 93% of its programming in 2020, Soerensen said, and this year’s budget for programming is 20% less than normal, as much as the budget can be cut while still paying for the building and utilities. Artists who sell their work through the organization saw a 65% drop in sales, and many artists employed by Riverviews Artspace to teach various classes also lost those jobs.

Through the help of grants, Paycheck Protection Program loans and Economic Injury Disaster Loans, the organization made it through 2020, Soerensen said. However, she said Riverviews Artspace will rely more heavily on community support this year.

Although Riverviews cannot do all the programming it had hoped, gallery exhibits will continue either in-person by appointment limited to a party of 10, and will also be viewable online. April will remain “poetry month,” allowing students to submit poetry as part of the month-long event which Soerensen said fits well online. Pop-up workshops with extremely limited capacity and compliance with all public health guidelines will also be periodically available.

“We just have to remain flexible and nimble,” Soerensen said.

Though she said she fears a “bleak” cultural landscape following the pandemic as it continues taking a toll on the arts, Soerensen clings to hope.

“We will survive, and the arts have to thrive again. People will need them even more than ever, and that’s what we’re there for,” she said. “We will make it happen.”

Endstation Theatre Company, a nonprofit organization that partners with Randolph College for its productions, produces only a summer season each year, so managing director David Lee said that is where the organization’s focus is, providing something of an advantage.

Last fall, after the summer season was canceled, Endstation put on an outdoor concert, marking off socially distanced squares on grass for the audience to sit in. Although the crowd size was smaller than normal, Lee said the outdoor production proved successful and more adaptable than indoor venues, where capacity and guidelines change the most.

In light of the outdoor concert’s success, plus Endstation’s previous outdoor productions before the pandemic, Lee said the organization is planning more outdoor productions for this summer’s season.

“It really feels like trying to build a house on a moving foundation,” Lee said of season planning in a pandemic.

Normally, Lee said Endstation produces two to four large-scale productions every summer that involve a sizeable cast and crew, with one-third of the organization’s funding coming from ticket sales.

This summer, the organization has to scale back in resources and budgeting. To do so, Lee said Endstation is trying to plan more numerous, but smaller-scale, productions requiring smaller crew, cast and housing arrangements for those involved.

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In its partnership with Randolph College, Lee said Endstation remains uncertain how many students will be available or comfortable to participate in the productions come spring and summer, given the volatile nature of the pandemic and its impacts on education systems as well as the arts.

An additional challenge Endstation faces is whether it is safe to bring artists into Lynchburg from outside as it normally would.

“There are challenges to be met, but they’re being met,” Lee said. “It’s just an interesting puzzle to solve for us.”

Appomattox-based Wolfbane Productions pivoted to creating online content after postponing, then cancelling, its 2020 season. Educational and entertainment videos were created and curated on the organization’s Patreon website, where audiences could choose from a variety of subscription plans to access the content.

Wolfbane’s executive director, Ken Arpino, said the organization always hoped to offer a mix of traditional theatre programming with digital, so being forced to pivot to a video-centric platform had some blessings in disguise.

While there are limited in-person shows scheduled for 2021, digital programming will also continue.

“Flexibility is the name of the game,” Arpino said.

The Academy Center of the Arts, known not only for live theatre but a variety of educational programs and camps, concerts, and a destination for traveling performing artists, survived 2020 but still lost the majority of planned programming.

Half the Academy’s operating budget comes from charitable donations, said Geoffrey Kershner, executive director of the Academy. He said donors remained generous and faithful during 2020, and the organization will need that support more than ever to supplement assistance they may get from grants in 2021.

The Academy is planning its season with multiple contingency plans, Kershner said. Traditional in-person programming following pandemic guidelines is in the works, and the organization is also eyeing outdoor programming opportunities. Most staff have backgrounds in adapting to work with whatever resources and situations are available – or unavailable, Kershner said, equipping them to handle the unexpected pandemic’s impacts.

In 2020, the Academy offered a series of low-cost Zoom-based classes at small fees for the community to participate in. Digital offerings will likely continue this year, Kershner said.

With live theatre and indoor concerts are not abundant yet, the Academy is renting out its larger facility for certain events like company work training sessions or small weddings to help make ends meet.

“The organization’s mobilized and is actually really proactively working toward solving problems as opposed to waiting for salvation,” Kershner said. “No matter what the year throws at us, this team is going to figure out how to evolve and adapt and continue to provide value for the community. We’ll find a path out.”

Since the pandemic closed the Lynchburg Museum Systems’ doors, the organization has likewise become innovative with its outreach.

The museum system is focusing especially on digital content, said Ted Delaney, Lynchburg Museum Director. It is working to digitize collections and make them available online, and this year the team plans to film virtual exhibit tours that will let the community experience things safely. Part two of the museum’s “We the Women” exhibit localizing women’s suffrage will be a highlight of filmed exhibition tours.

With the help of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding, grants, and donations, plus the funding the museum system regularly receives from the city of Lynchburg as a city department, professional filming gear and editing software were obtained for digitizing and filming efforts, Delaney said, in addition to payment of utilities and bills.

Outdoor history walks for limited group sizes are another program the museums team is working on, Delaney said, with a projected launch in the late spring or early summer. He also said the museums want to find a way to maintain connection with students and educators in the city school systems who have been unable to take field trips during the pandemic.

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