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You know that old saying about how the show must go on? Turns out it’s true. Even during a pandemic.

Photo: David Michael Howarth

When the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to an abrupt halt in early 2020, there was perhaps no industry as hard-hit as local arts organizations. Theaters went dark. Orchestras cancelled performances. Museums and galleries closed. As people sequestered themselves at home, the future for many creative businesses seemed bleak.

“Art, of all kinds, is a thing we experience in groups, in person,” says Diane Felcyn, program officer of crafts, multidisciplinary and visual arts at the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. “It’s an excuse to gather, to have a shared experience with other people. And boom, March 2020 came and the arts were the first to close. When you’re seeing a concert, a show in a theater, an art show in a gallery, you’re in a big crowd. That’s the business model, and the rug got pulled out from all that.”

But while art is an industry, and the many South Jersey organizations that create, display and perform it are businesses, it – and they – are also something else. At its heart, art is about creativity and connection, and that’s something the pandemic couldn’t kill.

Through innovative ideas and technology, funding programs and local support, and plain old-fashioned perseverance, South Jersey’s arts community survived. Now, it’s aiming to come back stronger than ever.

Going Dark

When the pandemic hit, “we were 2 weeks into a three-weekend run of [the play] The Lion in Winter,” says Bruce Curless, the longtime producing artistic director of the Ritz Theatre in Oaklyn. “We played it on Sunday night and closed. And then closed. We left, and from then on we all sheltered in place.”

As the initial predicted 2-week shutdown stretched on and on, Curless and his team feared they might never open the Ritz’s curtains again. “There were sleepless nights,” he says, “nights when we’d just call each other and try to talk one another through to the other side.”

Early in the pandemic, Asiyah Kurtz, the then-newly-hired director of Camden FireWorks gallery and studio, knew art wasn’t at the top of most people’s to-do lists.

“Adults were dealing with the stresses of: Do I have a job? Am I safe? People were just doing their best, trying to figure out how to homeschool their kids and not get sick,” she says. “The priority and focus was not coming to FireWorks to make art. It was on surviving.”

Kurtz, too, was doing her best, but she wasn’t always sure the organization she’d signed on to helm would survive.

“I would be a complete liar if I told you I was confident we’d come out the other side,” she says. “I don’t know any executive director of any arts organization who was 100% confident they would. At certain points, we didn’t know if the government would provide funding. We didn’t know if vaccines would become available or if schools would reopen. There were so many things that could have drastically changed the picture.”

Going Virtual

After those first few weeks of crisis, many people found their survival mode was replaced by deep boredom. That’s when South Jersey’s arts organizations began coming back to life.

 

“Because most arts organizations are mission-focused, they realized, ok, we can’t let restrictions stop us from providing the arts,” says Felcyn. “We have to find ways of continuing to provide it. It was the need to continue creating an opportunity to engage through an arts experience, despite not being able to make money or be physically together.”

While it may not have been a priority at first, Kurtz says, art and creativity soon emerged as an outlet for people suffering through the drawn-out months of quarantine.

“I think the view is art is kind of ancillary – it’s not critical to who you are if you aren’t able to make art or see art and engage in it,” she says. “But that’s not our view. We think there’s something critical about being able to physically create.”

Of course, FireWorks still wasn’t able to host indoor classes or fill their studio space. So they did the only thing that made sense: they went virtual.

“We’d never done anything online, so it took a while to get the infrastructure together, upgrade the WiFi, that kind of thing,” Kurtz says. But eventually, they and countless other South Jersey arts organizations were hosting classes and performances using video conferencing software like Zoom.

“It was incredible how quickly people embraced technology in a way they weren’t using it before,” says Felcyn. “Suddenly, we’re watching shows on Zoom, seeing dancers perform on Facebook Live. We’re doing yoga and painting classes together from our living rooms. Teachers who’ve been in classrooms their entire career are suddenly figuring out how to use multiple cameras.”

For some, it was a revelation.

“So many organizations reported how their audience became almost global during that time,” says Felcyn. “They got discovered. A South Jersey organization all of a sudden had a regular participant from Ireland or California. Neighbors discovered the arts organizations in their community. For people who maybe have physical limitations, they could engage in the arts more than ever before. For those feeling isolated because of Covid restrictions, they found ways to engage from their living room.”

For others, though, virtual art classes lacked that personal connection many thought was needed for creativity to thrive. Quite simply, it was a poor substitute for the real thing. FireWorks found that some of their online offerings were less than popular.

“The young people who had been coming to our open studio workshops were now learning virtually, and once school was over, they were done. The last thing they wanted to do was more virtual programming,” says Kurtz. “We lost that connection because it was almost a year we were closed, and people were not engaged with us because they were just Zoom fatigued.”

The production team at The Ritz sold tickets to a handful of virtual shows, which were rehearsed and performed via Zoom, “but they didn’t do much of anything other than maybe keep us in front of our patrons,” Curless says. “They weren’t income-producing. We were also able to show – because we had them on DVD – some of our past productions. All in all, nobody cared. It wasn’t live theater, and Netflix had better programming than we did.”

Still, making art online was better than not making art at all, and as the pandemic dragged on, Felcyn says the rise of virtual programming paved the way for other types of innovation.

“When that first summer came and people realized ok, we can get together outside, we started to see drive-in experiences and collaborations between arts groups and municipalities,” she says. “They created new ways to engage. Everything was innovative and new, and we were all starting from scratch. That part was definitely exciting.”

Going to Camp

A number of performing arts organizations in South Jersey, including Symphony in C, also host summer camps and school programs.

“We have our concerts, and that’s the core of our existence,” says Pamela Brant, president of Symphony in C. “But our daily work is mostly in the Camden schools.”

The orchestra provides the instruments and instruction for all of Camden’s public school students in grades kindergarten through 5th, as well as several schools in the Catholic Partnership. When the Camden schools closed their doors, there wasn’t time to send instruments home with the students.

“It all happened so quickly, the instruments got locked into the schools,” Brant says. “There were a lot of issues with instrument distribution.”

Eventually, they were able to get instruments back into students’ hands and resume those young musicians’ lessons online. In the summer of 2020, camp was virtual, too.

“We ran a really cool summer camp,” Brant says. “A lot of our teaching symphony members are students at Curtis Institute of Music, Julliard, Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University, and others, and they all got sent home. So during remote summer camp, the teachers were in Canada, Italy, California, Chicago. They made it work.”

Camp worked this year, too. “By this spring it was a hybrid model held at Haddonfield United Methodist church, Brant says. “Half the students would come in person, half on Zoom. Social distancing was enforced. Brass and wind instruments got bell covers, and masks were required. “The wind players,” Brant notes, “can wear masks with a flap.”

After a year away, The Ritz resumed their youth theater camp this summer as well. It was required that students be vaccinated, assuming they were old enough to receive the immunization, masked, or both.

“There was disinfectant all over the place,” says Curless. “Kids washed their hands all the time, and we went through more paper products than you would believe.”

Going On

To really make it through the pandemic, the most important thing arts organizations in South Jersey needed was funding. Camden FireWorks, Symphony in C, The Ritz, and a huge number of other businesses received forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans that kept them afloat. Other funding followed.

“We’re really lucky in NJ because the governor passed a state budget that gave the arts council a significant increase for fiscal year 2022,” Felcyn says. “It’s $31.9 million – a historic increase. But the loss, last time we checked, was $3.9 billion.”

To make up the enormous difference, Felcyn says, arts organizations “need donors and new funding opportunities. These organizations are looking for help and they still need it. Over 70,000 people in creative industries were displaced and there’s still a need to help these people get their jobs back. It’s disheartening, but we’re working on it.”

Camden FireWorks received grant funding that helped move the needle. “It wasn’t a huge windfall,” Kurtz says. “It was more like, step-by-step, incrementally, we were getting support that allowed us to keep paying people and paying our bills. It was scary at times, because you really can’t bank on any one source coming in at exactly the right time. We were very fortunate to get what we needed when we needed it.”

Federal, state and private funding was enough to survive on, and Felcyn says the next step is rebuilding. “We made it through what was hopefully the worst, and now we have to move forward,” she says. “It’s not flipping a switch and going back to having audiences of 1,000 people in your theater. You can’t just go back to that. Audiences aren’t ready and there’s still a lot of uncertainty.”

Symphony in C just took the stage again this summer. “We did a small outdoor concert at the Scottish Rite in Collingswood,” says Brant. “There were 300 or 400 people there. We played at some Camden County Parks, and in Haddonfield, on the grounds of the library.”

The symphony’s first foray back indoors was held last month at Rowan University. “Then it’s back to Rutgers in early 2022, when they’ll welcome back outside groups like ours,” Brant says. “We’re still working out what those protocols will be, but just to see people back, they’re so happy – so happy to be hearing live music.”

The Ritz, too, was back in operation in September, and opening the 2021/2022 season with the musical “Once On This Island.”

“We’re requiring proof of vaccination because it’s the right thing for us to do, and requiring our audience to all wear masks,” Curless says. “They’ll be here. I have faith. When all else fails, faith has seen us through.”

Faith – that is – and a community that recognizes the value of local arts organizations, and has done what they can to ensure South Jersey remains a creative place.

“We had great individual support from our patrons, our neighbors, our theater family,” Curless says. “It was remarkable. There were times we were almost reduced to tears. I hope they remember that. We want to say, ‘Remember how you missed us? Well, come on back.’”

November 2021
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