How local arts organizations are coping with COVID-19
“It feels like we’ve been in COVID forever.”
Robb Hankins, president and CEO of ArtsinStark, has been operating in pandemic mode for so long that the back end of the proverbial tunnel seems to have disappeared. But he remains optimistic, even when the light at the front end of that passageway remains a bit dim.
“We still have the artists and their creativity,” said Hankins. “The people are still here, and they’re ready to go.”
Indeed, resiliency seems itself to have become an art form during a period of following restrictions due to the coronavirus. And when developing ways to get their art to the public without putting either artists or art appreciators at risk, those in the Stark County arts community appear to posses instincts for survival.
So despite all of the area arts organizations enduring a period of performance and exhibition postponements because of the pandemic, and even though they all have suffered budget deficits from loss of visitors and fundraising opportunities, the arts remain alive and poised for recovery.
“It was the arts that brought a rebirth to downtown Canton through the Arts District,” said Hankins, “and it’s the arts that will bring it back.”
All of the visual and performing arts organizations, as well as area galleries and museums, have faced financial hardships due to the pandemic restrictions in place in 2020.
“We postponed fundraising events and classes,” said Max Barton, executive director and CEO of Canton Museum of Art. “We had almost four months of no admissions. It all adds up.”
Barton said that as of summer’s end, the museum’s financial hit was well into six figures.
Similarly, Massillon Museum readjusted its budget by about $80,000 near the end of the summer “to reflect the drastic change in expectations for the year,” said Alexandra Nicholis Coon, executive director.
Even with government financial assistance, other arts organizations have had to make similar adjustments to keep from having to lay off employees.
“We were able to keep our entire staff, with some reduction in hours,” Coon said.
Massillon Museum, working in a collaboration of local museums that included Canton Museum of Art, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, was able to develop online content before museums were allowed to reopen in June.
“We developed a lot of online content, with the intent of making it fun,” said Coon, noting, for example, that art from the museum’s collection was turned into virtual jigsaw puzzles, and films highlighted additional artifacts.
Barton, who was part of a pandemic planning consortium of museum representatives from several cities in Ohio, said Canton Museum of Art also offered online content that allowed more than 5,000 virtual visitors to view their spring shows. Through other online programming, such as exhibition tours and art therapy, the museum reached more than 70,000 individuals, he said.
“We took a lot of our programming and made it accessible to people on their computers,” Barton said, citing specifically such programming as “Museum to Go,” which allowed online visitors to tour exhibitions, and “Curator’s Couch,” which collected stories behind the art and artists. “It was the best way we could do it.”
While art and historical museums have been allowed to re-open and develop protocols for safely admitting limited numbers of in-person visitors, performing arts for the most part have needed to continue their moratorium on stage shows.
Such performance groups as Canton Symphony, Canton Ballet and Players Guild have postponed productions in their seasons, and band performances, at both indoor and outdoor venues, largely were missing this past summer.
“We weren’t able to have First Fridays for months,” said Hankins. “We couldn’t put up any stages or have any bands.”
Early in the fall, Canton Ballet was able to schedule its “Peter and the Wolf” performance but not in the manner it usually is done at the Palace Theatre, where seating would have been limited to 15%. Instead, the ballet was scheduled for outside at the Cultural Center for the Arts.
“We’ve tried to do rehearsals with social distancing,” said Cassandra Crowley, artistic and executive director at Canton Ballet, before the event was held. “And we’ve had to change a lot of the choreography because they’re not allowed to touch each other. And we’re not using all the costumes.
“But they’re dancing beautifully, and they’re very happy.”
Similarly, although Canton Museum of Art canceled its spring classes and turned its fall classes into virtual events, it did hold its summer art camp, amid pandemic restrictions.
“It was pushed to July, and we had limited capacity,” said Barton. “We practiced mask wearing and social distancing.”
Looking To the Future
All of the arts organizations continue to practice pandemic protocols on some level and rely on digital programming.
And each organization helps the others, when possible.
“We’ve always been collaborative, but we’ve been even more so (during the pandemic),” said Coon. “I hope that we’ll collaborate in even more elaborate ways in the future.
“We may learn from it. This has forced upon us a need to learn about instituting different ways to disseminate information. We’ve been learning more about the ways we connect to our community so we can continue to be relevant in a world that’s not the same.”
Indeed, the arts still are relevant, the heads of arts organizations agree.
“We, the arts, were hit hard,” admitted Crowley. “We need the public support. Certainly if anyone can buy art from an artist or make a donation (to an organization), it would be appreciated.
“We want everyone to think about how important the arts are to the community.”