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A look at how local artists and arts organizations are faring in the midst of a global pandemic.
Luke Miller Buchanan does not live an idle lifestyle. He’s worked at Poole’s Diner since it opened in 2007, teaches art at William Peace University and is admired locally for his artwork, including several prominent murals covering walls around town. All three careers took a hit simultaneously with the emergence of COVID-19.
“I’ve worked since I was 16 and being out of work was a completely weird experience for me,” says Buchanan. “The first week felt like a snow day but then a realization set in that I need to switch things up and adapt to not go insane.”
Buchanan’s shared studio was shut down but his landlord suspended rent payments for all of the artists. While Buchanan admits being an artist isn’t something you only do in a studio, he says it’s nice to have all of his tools and supplies in one place when he wants to create.
“Home is where I come at the end of the day and shifting gears to be productive in the space I use for winding down was difficult,” Buchanan says.
Buchanan recently completed a mural for Ponysaurus Brewing Company in Durham and Poole’s owner Ashley Christensen commissioned him to create an oak tree mural outside of neighboring Poole’side Pies.
“The bottom half of the circle is a root structure and the roots turn into a list of downtown restaurants that I thought were important,” says Buchanan. “The idea [is] that this great city is fed by these small businesses.”
Poole’s is now running curbside service and Buchanan is back in the studio working on projects, along with doing odd jobs that don’t involve being around a lot of other people.
“Being an artist has been one of the jobs that can still be effective,” says Buchanan. “I try to stay positive.”
Buchanan is just one of many members of Raleigh’s arts community affected by the pandemic. The nonprofit arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts reports a national economic impact of $8.4 billion to date, a figure that’s rising by the day based on survey feedback from more than 120,000 arts and cultural organizations in the United States. North Carolina’s financial impact to date is over $50 million, with a median impact of $18,000 per organization.
“Artistic organizations facing this crisis are forced to face the existing crisis that they’ve been treading water for a long time,” says Elizabeth Doran, president and CEO of Raleigh-based North Carolina Theatre. “Yes, the pandemic is a crisis, but we were already managing an impossible future financially. We are a labor-heavy industry. Our costs go up and our revenues aren’t keeping up with that. That’s been happening for decades.”
NC Theatre only covers 75 percent of its expenses with ticket sales and depended on donations even before productions were halted. Because of the stress that creates for arts administrators, diversity and inclusion have not been prioritized, creating a crisis of homogeneity with audiences fading away or aging out.
“You don’t want to make diversity a challenge, you want to make it an obsession,” says Doran. “We’ve worked hard since 2017 to build on diversity and inclusion. The Black Lives Matter movement changes it to something you need to be obsessed with really fast.”
Doran says as bad as a pandemic is, it’s exciting to pause and take the time and headspace to address problems and how they are interrelated.
“We can’t get out of the pandemic if we don’t address our business problems and we can’t address our business problems if we don’t address diversity and inclusion,” says Doran. “Cash flow was the water we were treading in. The water has been drained away and we see things revealed.”
Sherri Holmes, founder and director of the Triangle Friends of African American Arts (Triangle FAAA), which was founded in 2014, has been working to broaden awareness of African American arts. Through her organization, Holmes has engaged people with events that feature Black arts and artists, including visual arts, dance, concerts, opera and more.
“The arts can be really powerful and can help us get closer to where we need to be, which is not a one and done thing,” says Holmes. “If we could figure out a way to be excited for everybody, celebrate everybody, that’s what makes this world. We’re all in this together and we can all rise together, have good lives and wonderful experiences together.”
Holmes says her organization was just getting into a groove and making a difference when the pandemic hit; now, her meet-up page is silent because events have been cancelled or postponed. It will take time for things to get up and running again, but Holmes says she is optimistic that once they do, she will continue making headway.
“Diversity is not lost through not only what [artists] put on stage, but also what they put into the audience,” Holmes says.
Structurally, big changes are likely as 2020 rounds out.
According to Brandon Cordrey, director of Raleigh’s Visual Art Exchange, a hub, gallery and supportive outlet for local artists, the “layer cake” of 2020 may result in some art organizations closing, but also a convergence of others.
“Between COVID shutting everyone down and engagement and activism this year bringing people out into the streets, there is an interesting push and pull in art right now,” says Cordrey. “It’s important that we have some sort of space for supporting them. Now, people are consuming and looking to Black artists and that’s important and I hope it continues.”
Cordrey says ultimately an artists’ job is to metabolize current events and explain them to future generations. This year offered much to digest.
“A lot of artists are thinking about their role in their community,” Cordrey continues. “Artists take all of this free time to think and create work out of it. There’s a reason we had such an explosion of arts after the Great Depression. People had a lot to say at the end.”
Zalman Raffael, CEO of Carolina Ballet, finds himself, the company and other arts organizations in a strange place.
“Of course, we’re the last thing on the list,” he says of reopening and funding. “Without these organizations, what is your city, what is your state? You would have almost a generation of artists that wouldn’t be able to practice. Dancers come in every year and retire every year.”
When Carolina Ballet closed in March, the hope was it would only have to cancel remaining performances of “A Celebration of Female Choreographers,” a production already underway. As the weeks went on, the ballet kept readjusting, managing to pay dancers through the ends of their contracts. Now, productions have been postponed and dancers, who have been taking classes in their bedrooms and bathrooms, will return with precautions in place.
“It’s nerve wracking to bring the dancers back,” says Raffael. “We’re doing it in a way we hope will keep everyone safe. I’m trying to avoid scheduling things with [dancers working in pairs] for as long as I can.”
Raffael plans to create a virtual ballet experience for patrons and sponsors to get a glimpse into the first nine weeks of rehearsals, allowing them to remain engaged safely.
“We feel it’s important to try to have offerings,” says Raffael of the formal virtual experiences. “Dancers are young and need to be in the studio and not taking classes in their bedroom. We would like to offer the public an intimate view into that and something to hold onto with the ballet.”
Raffael has 11 new dancers joining the company, many of whom have never been to Raleigh, including a young woman from Dresden, Germany. To keep patrons involved and engage new supporters, Raffael says it’s important to show the ballet as it really is. He wants to be able to transition back into the theater and honor tickets when it is safe, so the company is rehearsing in hopes the doors will open soon. Raffael is waiting until the last minute to make a decision on whether to cancel the company’s annual performance of “The Nutcracker.”
“We went from a $6 million organization to a $3 million organization,” says Raffael. “We’ve been re-forecasting everything and working to put something together that is artistic, as well as offering employment in a safe way.”
Like Carolina Ballet, the North Carolina Museum of Art is offering virtual experiences when possible, bringing visitors in the only way it can.
In May, the NCMA hosted a virtual screening of the documentary series “Afripedia,” drawing attendees from 11 countries on six continents. Coming up, the museum’s virtual event offerings include Slow Art Appreciation events, a virtual version of its first-ever Sculpture Race, a sunflower photography workshop and more.
“The reach of digital events is incredible and makes our programming accessible across our state and around the world,” says Director Valerie Hillings. “Our staff has been actively producing digital content to keep our community connected to the People’s Collection, even as the gallery doors are closed.”
Hillings notes that the museum’s ongoing newsletter series, NCMA Recommends, connects visitors both local and international to their favorite works of art such as Thomas Sayre’s “Gyre” and Stacy Lynn Waddell’s “The Gulf Stream.” The newsletters often include music, food and film recommendations as well as family activities and art lessons.
But, Hillings says, when she’s in the galleries without visitors, there’s a lifeblood that seems to be missing. In recent weeks, some staff have returned to the museum to ready it for welcoming visitors back.
“We talk about how our campus is an intersection of art, nature and people,” says Hillings. “Our visitors and members bring our collection to life as they reflect on and talk about these great works. Our art handlers are installing new works of art, our conservation team is preparing for special exhibitions ‘Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Jewelry’ and ‘Leonardo Drew: Making Chaos Legible.’ And our member and visitor experience team have worked out how we’ll safely allow visitors back into the galleries.”
Eric Woodall, NC Theatre’s artistic director, says the challenges wrought by the pandemic have forced artists and arts advocates to find new ways to continue to serve their communities, as socially distanced performances wouldn’t be financially viable.
“A lot of theaters in our area, as well as all over the country, are trying to branch out and do things virtually,” says Woodall. “We started a series called ‘Star Gazing’ where we take a look back at some of the amazing stars who have appeared in our shows. We highlight them through archival videos and photos to give people at home something to watch, get excited about and remain hopeful.”
“Hope” is the word that best captures the common feeling weaving through the Triangle’s arts organizations and keeping creativity alive, says Woodall and others.
“We are trying to see when we are able to open up again and are able to perform live theater, and what will that look like,” Woodall says. “I do have a strong belief that live theater will come back with a vengeance, but I think it’s going to be a while before it looks and feels like what it used to look and feel like. The fact that they are changing the rules of baseball shows that everyone has to be in a place of adaption and flexibility.”
Aid for the Arts
While groups like Americans for the Arts are working toward funding for arts organizations nationally, including lobbying Congress to include money for the arts in COVID relief bills, locally, the NC Artist Relief fund, launched on March 14 and managed by VAE Raleigh, has sent $200,496.50 to 681 artists living in 198 cities and towns across North Carolina.
“Art is very much a consumer style and without consumers, people can’t pay their light bill,” says VAE’s Cordrey. “This has brought home to a lot of people that art isn’t a hobby and highlights that there are problems in ways we support artists.”
So far, North Carolina artists have reported a total of $2,532,842 in losses to the NC Artist Relief Fund and the fund has had to pause in accepting new applications. There is a waitlist available for those in need.
Eligible artists who live in Chatham, Harnett, Johnston, Lee or Wake counties can also apply for Artists Support Grants for up to $1,500 by October 1. These grants support the visual arts, performing arts, literary arts and interdisciplinary arts.
The community can also help by making donations, absorbing the cost of pre-purchased tickets instead of asking for refunds, advocating for continued federal support, subscribing to programming and even wearing a mask that says ‘I Support the Arts’ for continued safety during the pandemic.
“We are relying on donors and sponsorship and patrons making contributions,” says NC Theatre’s Woodall. “All of the performing arts need that support, which is difficult, because this is a hard time for everyone. Other businesses will be able to open up long before the performing arts.”
To find out more or donate to the NC Artist Relief Fund, visit vaeraleigh.org/artist-relief-fund. For information on applying for a Artists Support Grant, visit unitedarts.org/grants/artist-support-grants or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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