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Oral History: Cancel, Postpone, Adapt

Theater 2020
Illustration by Brent Holmes
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The city’s arts and culture community responds to the pandemic

No doubt more than a few subscribers to Majestic Repertory Theatre’s email list were startled — but immediately resigned to the inevitable — to get a note on April 7 titled “Our Final Email.” By then, the pandemic’s carnage was everywhere in the valley: dozens dead, hundreds sick, thousands out of work, an economy run scarily aground. There was no reason to assume artists and cultural organizations would be exempt.

That it wasn’t a death notice — artistic director Troy Heard had just canceled the company’s e-newsletter service to save a few dollars — offered a rare sigh of relief amid the gale of dreadful cultural news. An entire, robust spring season has come undone: exhibitions (five at UNLV’s Barrick Museum alone), performance seasons, readings, concerts, major festivals, all postponed or canceled. The havoc scaled up and down, too. Tiny Majestic Repertory is sustained largely by ticket sales — as is the huge Smith Center, as CEO Myron Martin told KNPR’s “State of Nevada.” As of this writing, neither has an income stream.

Along with artists and nonprofit staffers, plenty of others are feeling the pain, from back-of-the-house technicians to valet parkers, the often-unnoticed workers who make culture possible. The arts can be a fragile line of work in the best of times. Now, the side hustles and gig work that typically keep many artists sheltered and fed are drying up, the financial markets are volatile, everyone’s anxious, and no one knows what’s next. “Nothing’s happening until September,” Bunkhouse Saloon music director Ryan Pardey predicted on “State of Nevada.”

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The damage doesn’t stop there: According to the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, the state was forecasted to earn more than $128 million this year from the live-entertainment tax; with all the shuttered showrooms, the unproduced festivals, that figure is clearly unattainable.

Even as arts folk fret about the post-COVID future — will people still gather for events? what will be left of philanthropy? — their immediate challenge is also daunting: How to bookmark their place in the culturescape while cut off from audiences and hurting for funds, their core programing in abeyance?

They turned to the internet.

 

Sara Ortiz, program director/festival director, Black Mountain Institute: Everyone’s moving their conversation to some virtual Zoom call or Facebook Live, Twitter Periscope, Instagram stories.

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(Around the world, museums have posted virtual tours, musicians have performed from home, opera companies have streamed recorded shows, Patrick Stewart has been reading Shakespeare on the ’gram. Locally, the same: The Neon Museum offers an online tour; the Clark County poet laureate hosts weekly open-mic poetry nights on Zoom; the Priscilla Fowler Fine art gallery has a pop-up exhibit; and so on.)

Nancy Good, owner, Core Contemporary gallery: How do we engage in a way that lets people know that we’re still living life, we’re still finding value, and this too shall pass?

Alisha Kerlin, executive director, Barrick Museum: We were all sitting there in a G-chat, coming up ways to reach out to our community. (Their solution: daily art prompts on Instagram; they repost the results.) And it’s really keeping us alive; the team is really invested in it. And the response is really beautiful. With almost 700 submissions and contributors from around the world, the drawing project has become a record of how some are feeling during this pandemic. So it’s not about the museum being productive while we are closed. It’s about the people and the stories and the art.

Troy Heard: We did something live on Instagram — taking a character from The Garden Party (the show truncated by the shutdown), a reverend, and he did a Sunday dial-in sermon. To keep ourselves present. But it’s not monetized.

Sara Ortiz: We’re trying to be very thoughtful and intentional about how we adapt. I’m hesitant to make any rushed decisions. We’re thinking as a team about the how, but also about the why. ... If everyone’s doing that, it can be like a menagerie of sounds coming at you. (BMI’s eventual response included a weekly broadcast on Instagram featuring BMI Shearing Fellow Kristen Arnett, and a collective dance.) I’m also thinking about accessibility. Not everyone has access to the internet.

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Nancy Good: I’m looking at all sorts of strategies I’ve intended to pursue, such as an online store for the gallery. And also set up some of our workshops on video. (As well as pop-up shows online.) We want to make sure we’ve got eyes on the artist and do justice for their work.

Sara Ortiz: It’s really challenging all of us to look at what we are doing — as individuals, as organizations, as artists, it’s really challenging our self-worth in many ways. It might make some feel they must prove their value in these times.

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THE CREATIVE CHALLENGE

(Arts supporters have long touted arts and literature as socially beneficial: They promote empathy, connection, perhaps even healing. Does this pandemic moment present a challenge to art and literature to deliver on those ideas?)

Joshua Wolf Shenk, executive director, Black Mountain Institute: Well, I think it underscores an ongoing challenge — but it also emphasizes the original need. Our actual survival now depends on our ability to relate to others, to understand and bring home a variety of new, and unruly, realities. For that task, writers and artists are essential. And — this is a sort of grim paradox that artists know well — along with  the urgency for what we do, the constraints on doing it will be heightened, too. So it’s going to be a weird, fertile time. Artists are going to respond to the new constraints, which they always do, constraint being the starting point for any creative act. And audiences are going to find new ways to be co-creators, to connect with and support the work they care about. 

Alisha Kerlin: We know that experiencing art and making art brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and others. We know this from our daily operations at the museum. We believe everyone deserves access to the arts. That hasn’t changed. And, we’re not surprised to see it continuing during this time when we need art more than ever. The medium is just a little different. 

Dylan Fisher, UNLV MFA student and novelist: I don’t personally feel a pressure to make art of the Moment. Even in the scariest and worst of times, I believe we need a space in which art exists for art’s sake, nothing more, art that isn’t in direct conversation with the Moment. 

Krystal Ramirez, artist: I still feel pressure to create artwork. To make sense of all this, to help others get through it. I haven’t been working on anything, though.

Denise Duarte, artist: My artwork is a result of significant research and thought into the concept prior to creation. ... I do not make quick one-offs in response to current events.

Troy Heard: (Who has curated theater seasons in response to political events.) I don’t think I’m going to craft an entire season around COVID-19.

Heather Lang-Cassera, Clark County poet laureate: As a poet, yes, I feel immense pressure to make something lasting from this pandemic moment. (But it’s not always easy.) I definitely find myself staring blankly at the wall or talking more earnestly than usual to my favorite houseplant, Silvia. ... It is harder to focus. The world is grieving. 

 

IN THE LONG TERM

Troy Heard: (On optimism vs. pessimism about the future) I’m at 50-50. We’re gonna pull through this. But what does that mean on the other side? So, I’m cautiously optimistic.

(So is the Utah Shakespeare Festival, which announced that it plans to reopen July 9, with new hygienic measures in place. The Pirates of Penzance will not be denied.)

Myron Martin, CEO, The Smith Center: (Speaking on KNPR’s “State of Nevada”) There’s going to be a pent-up demand, and people wanting to get out of their living rooms. ...  We know The Smith Center is going to open. ... I think there’s going to be a big demand for what we do the very minute we’re given the go-ahead.

Troy Heard: I’m sure there are just as many people who are going to be terrified about going out, who’ve made the major life adjustment to stay in.

Joshua Wolf Shenk: I think the appetite for connection will swell in perfect proportion to the present hunger. But I don’t think we’re going to go back to the same old world. A lot of stuff will definitely go away. And we’ll see a surge of new and beautiful things, some of it from familiar institutions, and some from deeply unexpected places. I want BMI to be a place of convergence for new stuff. We’re making a pop-up venue people can light up in their homes, and we’re making a new talk show live from The Lucy, and we’re doing workshops in “Quaranzines.” It’s a time to take risks, and we’re in the right city for it.

Nancy Good: (After the 2008 recession) it’s taken a long time to build up where people are coming out and buying art again. People are fearful about what’s happening to their money.

Troy Heard: We’re going to do some hardcore fundraising to get a bigger reserve in place. We need to do more long-term planning.

Heather Lang-Cassera: I’d love for the Nevada Poets Online Open Mic to continue. Even beyond COVID-19, it is more accessible for some folks. It is also open to the entire Nevada community, not just Clark County, and ... bringing Nevadans together creates something very special. 

Sara Ortiz: What this has done for us as a team, it’s kind of alerted us to the fact that many things can be on the table, but nothing is certain.

Nancy Good: Being willing to adapt — I think that’s going to be our biggest skill set in these times.

Denise Duarte: I will be flexible, find a path, or create a detour.

 

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

(Editor's note: Scott Dickensheets no longer works for Nevada Public Radio)