Written by Caitlin McDonough
COVID-19 has certainly had an impact on the visual arts at Carlow and the Carlow University Art Gallery just as it has for cultural organizations in the region and across the globe. – Amy Bowman-McElhone
As we all know, we are living in uncertain times full of cancellations and closings of schools, businesses, stay-at-home orders, unemployment, and above all, fear and worry about our future. Businesses in certain areas across the U.S. are beginning to open up again, but facemasks, social distancing, and capacity limits seem to have become the new normal. Over 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last few months, and many of those unemployed people still cannot go back to work. What does this mean for the arts?
According to Americans for the Arts in their research report from May 11th, nonprofit arts organizations like public theaters, concert venues, and museums have lost around 208 million admissions – in addition, audience members’ retail, parking, and lodging costs – because of cancelled or postponed events, adds up to $11.5 billion in total losses across the country. This leaves 328,000 people, including actors, set designers, and many other nonprofit workers, out of work. Studies also show that 67 percent of these organizations expect the crisis to have a “severe” impact on them, and 10% of organizations (about 12,000 across the U.S.) are “not confident” that they will be able to survive the pandemic. How can these organizations bounce back and ensure that people get back to work? At least stores that have shut down can still make sales online, but similar organizations do not have that luxury because they’re dependent on admissions and consumer spending in public places. However, 68% of these organizations are still producing artistic content to encourage their communities and help them through this chaotic time.
Due to the hardships these organizations are facing, many have turned to requesting donations in order to stay funded. The Pittsburgh Public Theater, which has had to cancel or postpone multiple shows already, asks for donations on their website, encouraging that “together…the show WILL go on.” They plan to announce their plans for their future shows on May 18, but until then they have been performing a reading series online called Playtime. Every Thursday and Friday at 7 p.m., actors and audience members meet in a Zoom call for readings of plays free of charge. Donations are encouraged and they are offering shout-outs along with other benefits for different giving tiers. This kind of performance can’t match the Public’s normal revenue, but it is helping financially and providing hope.
Like the Public, places like Touchstone Center for Crafts in Farmington, PA (a craft school that offers workshops in blacksmithing, ceramics, glass making, painting, and more) have had to cancel their workshops from June to September 2020. Marketing manager of Touchstone and adjunct professor at Carlow, Dean Simpson, says, “Our main concern is the safety of our staff, participants, instructors, and community. Our programming is very hands on and attracts artists from all over the country, who stay on campus while working together in the studios.” Touchstone is currently offering alternative ways to support their community of artists and instructors including virtual Studio Tours, Artist Talks, and demonstrations. Simpson says, “our virtual programming has introduced us to a whole new audience of people looking for creative inspiration, and many of these programs will continue.” There are plenty of schools and art studios that have suffered this same fate all over the country but finding new ways to fulfill their mission.
For Carlow students studying the arts, the COVID-19 pandemic means cancelled performances and art exhibitions. The Carlow University Theatre Group was planning a One Acts show in March and performing monologues at the end of April, both of which were cancelled. Steve Fatla, theater manager at Carlow, says, “Obviously the pandemic has shut down so many forms of artistic expression, but in many cases, it has simply taught us to look at new ways to deliver the message…It hasn’t ‘stopped’ anything really, just moved it into other arenas.” In addition to the theatre cancellations, the Critical Point and the art gallery on campus were planning to have an exhibition on campus to showcase art and literary pieces that were accepted into this year’s journal. Since visitors will not be on campus to see this, they hope to move the exhibition partially online through social media and possibly set up the exhibition in the 2020 fall semester. Assistant Professor of Art History and Gallery Director, Amy Bowman-McElhone, says, “The Carlow University Art Gallery is currently focused on developing a thoughtful and robust approach to digital curation to expand the experience and accessibility of our new exhibitions for the upcoming year in ways that will hopefully create meaningful engagement during this overwhelming moment for the Carlow community and beyond.”
It is also encouraging to think about how excited people will be to return to concerts, museums, and theaters once they open again. Steve Fatla says, “when the world is cleared for a return, I believe there’ll be an explosion of creativity – from large and small companies, on a local and national level. In fact, it may create more opportunities for local talent, if traveling restrictions or concerns are still prevalent.” As Steve points out, it is likely that some interesting plays will be written as a result of this time, as theatre movements, such as absurdism, are often born out of global crises or major events in history. Also, even if capacities must be lowered or face masks must be worn, the ability to go to these artistic spaces will be exciting after being stuck in our homes. Hopefully they will be able to make back much of their losses from these months as well.
No matter what happens in these next months, creativity and the arts will not be going anywhere. “COVID-19 has certainly had an impact on the visual arts at Carlow and the Carlow University Art Gallery just as it has for cultural organizations in the region and across the globe. While it is very challenging right now, and make no mistake, artists, museums, and galleries are feeling a lot of hurt, this formative moment has fostered a newfound sense of community and born some truly amazing innovative, creative, and thoughtful responses by artists and arts organizations to make their content more accessible and impactful for all of us staying at home,” Amy Bowman-McElhone says. Even though the world is harsh and painful because of the pandemic, we will bounce back from it with more creativity and passion than ever. As Steve Fatla says, “you can’t kill expression, you can’t kill the human spirit.”