We used to pride ourselves on packing houses. How do we stay alive when we can’t do that anymore?
You’ve seen your favorite local arts organization close its doors, cancel its gatherings, and postpone its programs. You’ve probably also seen them offer programs online: virtual museum or gallery tours, artists talks, livestream concerts, and other ways of delivering content virtually. But the question that is worrying many of these organizations now is, how long can the arts survive in the virtual world?
We invited arts and culture leaders from across the country to talk about what’s keeping them afloat, and what will do so in the days to come. See an excerpt of our conversation below!
Maria Belcher, Executive Director, FestivALL (Charleston, WV)
Rhonda Bellamy, Executive Director, Arts Council of Wilmington (Wilmington, NC)
Krista Bradley, Director of Programs and Resources, Association of Performing Arts Professionals (Washington, DC)
Kristen Chiacchia, Executive Director & Chief Curator, Second Street Gallery (Charlottesville, VA)
Amy Grossman, President & Chief Executive Officer, The North Carolina Folk Festival (Greensboro, NC)
Bill Martin, Director, The Valentine (Richmond, VA)
Janet Starke, Executive Director, Virginia Commission for the Arts (Richmond, VA)
Marlon Torres, NC Arts in Action (Durham, NC)
Tom Tom Foundation
Rachel Baker, Summit Director
Ben Wilkes, Program Manager
Tom Tom: Our conversations with arts and culture leaders over the past several weeks have surfaced challenges associated with the idea of “essential” services—and how their organizations don’t always fit into that framework. What creative ways are you seeing arts organizations in your community advocating for their value? How has your relationship with donors and funders changed? What kinds of stakeholders and engagement strategies have been working?
Kristen Chiacchia (Second Street Gallery): It was really important to me to move forward and focus on what Second Street Gallery would be doing, instead of what we had to stop doing. Like a lot of other people, we've also had to stop fundraising and direct-asking. All of us know art is important, but it’s not a life-or-death situation. My board was very adamant about not coming off as insensitive and tone-deaf and making these direct asks when a lot of people are struggling. What I found, which I've been very fortunate, is I've been putting out all this material and just keeping our stakeholders in the loop about everything that's going on, and I’ve received a lot of contributions from past donors who are seeing what we’re doing and have really been pleased with how we've been taking everything virtually. I make it very easy on all of our platforms to give the opportunity to make a donation, but I'm not making a specific ask, and that was sort of what I was hoping would happen: that people would be participating in these virtual experiences, and then they would want to make some sort of contribution so that we can continue to do this.
Amy Grossman (North Carolina Folk Festival): The response from the sponsors who have supported our event has been very positive. The existing ones, the ones who have pledged, some of them have said “don't worry, we're going to support you” and others have said “we understand you're going to do something modified, let's talk about what our modified support is gonna look like.” So it's been very positive on that front and my team is a bunch of optimists, a lot of creative people, and we're coming up with some great ideas. In September, whatever form the event takes, we're going to have a unified Carolina Blues Festival and North Carolina Folk Festival. So again, just trying to make lemonade out of lemons. That’s what our plan is and we’re looking forward to it. It's not going to be easy and we want to make sure that no one's identity is lost in all of that, but we're pretty excited about it.
Bill Martin (The Valentine): We quickly realized that we had 40,000 SOL-based activity books, and we were able to provide activities for what will end up being 50,000-60,000 kids over the course of ten weeks, and we have committed to doing the same thing for the summer with activity books that we are currently developing. Sometimes old school paper is not a bad thing! For us, it meant a really wonderful opportunity to talk to our donors about something that we could do that was immediate. I think that we saw that with our donors and that one one of our regular donors donated $25,000 just because of this project. We’ve been very lucky with our funders, who have continued to support and also allowed us some freedom. I think most people, most foundations, are just saying “take the money we've given and go” and that gives us a lot of freedom. With our fundraising—just like we did with the kids, we've gone really old school. Our board and staff called, last week, all 500 of our major donors and left a personal message or had personal conversations.
Janet Starke (Virginia Commission for the Arts): Admittedly, we're on a different side of this—as a primary funder right now for a lot of the organizations that are having impacts. A lot of what we’re doing is assessing the field on a statewide basis. Assessing how those impacts are happening according to the sector. Obviously, we’ve taken a lead role. We were, as a state arts agency, given a pool of funds to redistribute through the CARES Act. Even as we are typically distributing 400-600 grants this time of year, we are now also adding about 150-200 grants that have just come in, in the past week, for admittedly nominal means of support. Those are intended to be unrestricted operating support for organizations.
Marlon Torres (NC Arts in Action): We have not stopped fundraising, but we did change our messaging to make sure that we first acknowledged what was happening, explaining to our donors what we were doing in response to Covid, and then making an ask. Before we made the ask, we started with a gratitude campaign where we used our entire board and entire staff to write—not just type—notes. We sent out about 550 of these handwritten notes and the response was really overwhelming. Our donors really thought it was a very thoughtful thing to do, and it gave them something to hold onto and to remember. The next step that we took in our development efforts there was to send out a newsletter basically recapping what we had done throughout the year and acknowledging that we were going through this together. So again, just communicating what we were doing. We have not stopped fundraising, but we have been really careful to make sure that the messaging is in accordance with what's going on.
Tom Tom: Rhonda, you had posed a question earlier: What is people's appetite for virtual events and how can we stoke the fire for that?
Bill Martin (The Valentine): I think over time, there will be different content that will add different appeal, just based on what is popular at the moment. Being able to respond quickly to that virtual environment with “what’s the hot thing today” is going to be really challenging, but I think it’s going to be really important.
Rhonda Bellamy (Arts Council of Wilmington): I'm hopeful that the public will be hungry for live experiences, but I do worry that with so much free content, and primarily from the arts sector, that there might be a further devaluing of what we bring to the table. Will you go to the concert and sit six feet away from the next person? How does that impact not just the audience, but also the performances? If we have to have these social distancing standards for the foreseeable future, I think it changes the whole paradigm of what the arts is based on. We prided ourselves for many years on being able to pack houses and get as many people into a gallery as possible. Now that we're faced with this social distancing, coupled with the fact that we've got so much free content available online, what does that mean for the sector?
Janet Starke (Virginia Commission for the Arts): Well I'll piggyback on that, because we are seeing a range of successes in organizations across the state who have jumped to virtual programming, some of whom are seeing greater success in tying revenue to it, and some who are not. The American Shakespeare Center, out of Staunton, before everybody was put in quarantine, quickly acted out several pieces that they were then able to throw up online and they've actually secured about $50,000 in revenue just from the streaming fees, using a tiered scale. Cinetic Theatre in Arlington has done something similar, and there are some other groups that are trying to introduce scaled kinds of recommended donations for watching, or tiers, to try to basically simulate something like a Netflix subscription. In all these years of feeling the threats of streaming services, you would think people were more trained for this, but again, they're seeking the free stuff. So I think that's a real challenge that people are still faced with. We are advocating for the value of that service and what it means for paying for those services to the organization who is giving those.
Krista Bradley (Association of Performing Arts Professionals): We've been talking a lot in the field about how this is a really, really important time for us to remind people how the arts can actually help people get through this time of isolation and to recreate the kind of human connection that we often feel, in the sense of shared humanity, that we feel when we are together. A lot of people are suffering being by themselves, and not connected with their employees, and not connected with their family, and so I think it's a great opportunity to remind people how essential the arts can be in a time like this. When we go back, it's not like we're turning the on and off switch, but that we've kind of been with you all along and it's so important that these artists and the programming is staying alive.