What will the post-pandemic arts scene look like?
As artists scramble to stay afloat, the future remains uncertain
When Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency on March 13 to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Southern Vermont's arts scene changed profoundly.
Theaters, galleries and museums emptied. Plans for summer music and theater seasons evaporated, along with audience members who also spend on rooms and meals. Some performances went online, via podcast or online video; others have been on hiatus. Numerous theater and musical festivals have been canceled, in Dorset, Weston and Marlboro. More such announcements are expected.
Nearly two months after Scott's emergency order shut down all but essential businesses and prohibited gatherings, the region's sizable creative economy is tying to figure out what a "new normal" might look like as the state economy slowly reopens.
"Everyone is starting to recognize the arts in Vermont and the creative economy in Vermont are not going to go back to the way they were before," said Community Engagement Lab co-founder Eric Booth, whose organization is holding a series of forums on the arts' future in the Green Mountain State. "The goal of this conversation is to get ahead of that and say if in fact things are going to change, here's an opportunity for artists to make more substantive contributions to the vitality of communities."
In the meantime, artists and arts organizations are innovating with technology to maintain and grow connections with patrons and fans, and pursuing funding streams to keep themselves alive.
The creative economy is a massive segment of Vermont's overall economy. According to a 2018 Vermont Arts Council study, the state's arts and culture sector provides 40,893 jobs annually, representing 9.3 percent of all employment in Vermont.
In Southern Vermont as a region, the creative economy is responsible for 5,567 jobs — 9.9 percent of all jobs in the region — according to that same 2018 data. "That concentration [of arts jobs] is one of the highest across the state," Vermont Arts Council Executive Director Karen Mittleman said Thursday.
The Vermont Arts Council and Vermont Humanities Council are jointly administering a federal arts emergency funding program, seeded by more than $700,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. As of Thursday there were 100 applicants for that program, representing $13.9 million in lost revenue, the Vermont Arts Council and Vermont Humanities Council said.
"The first 100 applications we've received illustrate the devastating impact that COVID-19 has already had on a community theater or a museum that is shut down, and will see absolutely no revenue for the spring or summer season," Mittelman said. "Many of these organizations are struggling for survival."
A previous round of grant funding for artists returned 183 requests in one week, Mittleman said. A second round of funding, with applications due Wednesday, May 13, is already up to 224 requests, she said.
For some arts organizations, there's sadness and frustration, and trepidation about what the future holds. But those organizations are also doing what they can to remain relevant and keep producing art, online and in person.
In the village of North Bennington, the Vermont Arts Exchange held a car parade on April 25 to allow for some reconnection and self-expression, as well as a thank-you.
"We need to get out. We need to see people. We need to express gratitude for essential workers and thank the teachers," Vermont Arts Exchange Executive Director Matthew Perry said.
The organization is also planning future events with social distancing in mind, including a Dixieland concert for the residents of the Vermont Veterans' Home in Bennington.
"It's happening now. We can't wait for it to happen," Perry said. "Musicians need to work, and people need to gather and listen to live music."
In Brattleboro, Erin Maille O'Keefe, a teaching artist and co-founder of Brattleboro Area Mutual Aid, a network of neighbors helping neighbors, has been working with the Vermont Folklife Center to create a "conversation corps" of high school students who are reaching out to elderly residents living alone. What initially began as a means of providing social connections through art has become a historic preservation project, O'Keefe said.
"It's a beautiful way of capturing the Vermont experience and the experience specific to this moment in history," she said. "Art is the creative process and the creative process is iterative. And we're in a place in history where we have to iterate on a daily basis. It also has the ability to connect us all."
In Windham County, the Yellow Barn Music Haul made trips to medical centers, senior living facilities and firehouses.
The Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro used multiple social, conferencing and video platforms to hold its Solo Piano Jazz Festival last month, and had more than 8,000 online viewers, according to executive artistic director Eugene Uman — far more than the festival could have accommodated in person. The Brattleboro Museum & Arts Center hosted an online presentation by New York Times West Africa bureau chief Dionne Searcey that drew 80 online viewers people, Executive Director Danny Lichetenfeld said — about double what the museum might have reasonably expected pre-COVID. The museum also distributed art supplies to children, packaging them with school food deliveries.
The Bennington Museum has been sharing its collection in print and online with the Bennington Banner. Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester hosted online drawing classes and a "paint and sip" event. Next Stage Arts Project created video content for families with children at home. The Baker Street Readers turned their dramatic readings of Sherlock Holmes mysteries into podcasts.
The trouble with online performances, however, is that they don't always result in the financial support that arts organizations need to keep going.
"We did receive a lot of donations from the Solo Jazz Piano Festival, but we're not counting on that response for each of our upcoming concerts," Uman added.
"Across the United States, people are asking how do we monetize what we are currently giving away, because this is not sustainable," Booth said. "The heroic pivot has been to discovering what you can deliver [online]. But there are very few examples of figuring out how that becomes a sustainable business model."
Uman said the Solo Piano Jazz Festival's online audience was generous, and he hopes an upcoming concert next Saturday featuring renowned drummer Terri Lyne Carrington draws similar interest. "Because of our success we are moving forward feeling that this is something we can accomplish again in the future," Uman said. "But we are still feeling cautious because there are so many unknowns."
The pandemic raises concerns about how a global recession and widespread joblessness will affect organizations' ability to pay the bills. But these considerations vary from venue to venue, depending on revenue sources and short- and long-term expenses. Lichtenfeld, at BMAC, and Philip Maneval, of Marlboro Music, both said their reliance upon gate receipts is low, and noted that larger big-city arts institutions that rely on tickets and gift shop sales are being more adversely affected by the sudden loss of customers.
Lichtenfeld said BMAC's planned $30 million expansion is on pause until some clarity emerges.
"We want to make sure before we ramp back up that our plans are in alignment with what makes sense for museum and community we serve," he said.
So far, local arts leaders, when asked what the future will bring, say there are more questions than answers.
Will a global recession hurt fundraising efforts and limit spending on entertainment?
How will this impact communities that depend on art as an economic engine as well as a community resource?
Will crowds be smaller by rule, limiting the size of events and gate receipts? Will patrons balk at attending events and gatherings over coronavirus fears?
"There is no script. We're all making this up," said Keith Marks, executive director of Next Stage Arts Project in Putney. "Everyone is hoping for best practices to emerge but ultimately it's going to be culture of the location that will dictate the right road map forward."
Those best practices for protecting health and safety might present a challenge to performing arts organizations, whether it's the cost of installing additional hand sanitation or mandating that customers sit a certain number of feet apart.
"If we're going to ask theaters and music venues to reduce the number of audience members, how will those organizations be able to sustain themselves, or employ the same number of people? It's going to be pretty tricky," Coffey said.
Booth is convinced the state's creative economy will emerge from the pandemic different from what it was before, and a stronger part of the communities it serves.
"We are not going back to the way it was. In a lot of other states that is worse than the crisis — they are really stuck in the mindset of 'It's gotta be the way it was,'" Booth said. "If you join conversations in Vermont, you hear a lot of people saying 'What do I do now that can help my community accomplish the economic changes it absolutely needs?' It's not just hopeful, it's determined. So I do have confidence there is an emerging value proposition that is different than what we've seen in the past, and in the long term is going to make the arts in Vermont even more sustainable economically."
"I see the future as tomorrow, today, the next few hours," Perry said. "Especially with something like this pandemic, with something so uncertain, you just need to be prepared for the immediate future. The future is now and I deal with it right now and as things change ... It's like making a piece of art you start and it changes and as it changes you have to go with it."
Coffey hopes the crisis will lead to Southern Vermont fully embracing the creative economy and its importance in the region's vitality, and the state understanding the importance of that asset.
"We're the gateway to Vermont in so many ways. We're beautifully positioned in relation to audiences in New York and Boston," Coffey said. "Maybe one of the outcomes from COVID-19 will be to recognize that and really leverage the power of the creative community as we try to rebuild the economy."
Reach Greg Sukiennik at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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