Arts Organizations Adapt in the Time of COVID-19

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Guild Hall in East Hampton. Dana Shaw photo.

For more than a decade, Julienne Penza-Boone oversaw educational programming for the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.

Then, on April 18, she officially stepped into a new role — as the theater’s executive director.

Given the current state of affairs, she couldn’t have taken on the position at a more crucial — and uncertain — time for all of the nation’s nonprofit organizations. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, like nearly every artistic venue around the globe, for the last month, WHBPAC has been getting creative by figuring out how to operate in the virtual world.

“It’s like building the plane while you’re flying it,” Penza-Boone, a resident of Center Moriches, said of the challenge during a recent phone interview from her home, where she and the rest of her team are now working. “We’re all people who work in the arts and by our nature, are creative. As soon as this happened, we realized we needed to find ways to fulfill our mission, which is to uplift the community and provide high-quality art experiences.”

That mission has grounded Penza-Boone and her staff as they figure out what works in the virtual space — from a songwriting workshop on Zoom, to partnerships with film distributors who provide audiences with online access to exclusive new movies — and what doesn’t — namely, theatrical instruction for large groups.

“Now, on the educational front, one on one with teaching artists makes more sense,” said Penza-Boone.

Julienne Penza-Boone, executive director of the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.

What is less clear for WHBPAC and all other East End arts organizations is what the next few months will bring. With summer on the horizon, instead of planning a season filled with theater, music, film and art, the path ahead is still murky.

The big day for all the nonprofits is May 15. That’s when the decision will come down from the state as to whether stay-at-home orders will be continued or lifted.

For WHBPAC, which books many big-name musicians and performers from outside the area, Penza-Boone said that acts will be considered on a case-by-case basis with the artists and their agents.

“We’re aiming for not canceling without a rescheduled date and working very closely with the talent and figuring that out,” she explained. “We’re thinking if restrictions are eased a little, but we can’t have full audiences, the artists can stream from the theater.

“We’re watching, planning and optimistic,” said Penza-Boone, who happily reported that WHBPAC was successful in securing a federally backed Paycheck Protection Program loan through Bridgehampton National Bank, and that Suffolk County is allowing organizations to re-purpose grants to cover operating expenses.

In fact, the five biggest arts organizations on the East End have all managed to secure PPP funds through their banks.

Parrish Art Museum

Terrie Sultan, director of the Parrish Art Museum, has a philosophy about troubled times.

“Never let a crisis go to waste,” she said in a phone interview late last week.

Sultan explained how the financial meltdown of 2008 provided the Parrish an opportunity to rethink the design of its new museum, which was then in the planning stages. The building that ultimately opened in 2012 turned out to be a much more flexible and efficient facility than the original design.

While this pandemic is a very different sort of crisis, it has nevertheless given Sultan and her staff a new outlook on what the museum can be.

“We’ve reinvented ourselves as a digital museum, and it’s actually opened up a lot of doors in terms of new opportunity,” she said.

Among those opportunities is “Friday Nights Live!” a new series of online programs like “Anne Porter: A Poet Among Us,” a live-streamed, illustrated talk that will be presented by chief curator Alicia G. Longwell on Friday, May 1. Sultan points out that the series is supported by Bank of America, which also sponsored last year’s Friday night concerts at the museum.

Terrie Sultan, director of the Parrish Art Museum.

“With that kind of support, it’s so inspiring and motivating,” said Sultan. “Our whole world has changed since March 13. I’m almost stunned at how quickly the team came together to completely envision a new programmatic approach for the museum.”

Another revelation about virtual programming is the fact that viewers of the Parrish’s content are tuning in from all over the world.

“It’s a wonderful mix of strong local ties and a global outlook. We’re using this as an opportunity to learn about ourselves and our capabilities,” said Sultan.

She added that a grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation was crucial in upgrading the museum’s website a couple years ago, making those capabilities possible.

“It brought us into the 21st century,” said Sultan. “Without that grant, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing now.”

Also new are virtual exhibitions, including “Telling Stories,” which was set to open at the Parrish on May 3, but instead will now be an inaugural digital-only show launching May 15. Organized by adjunct curator David Pagel, the exhibition features eight artists whose works are driven by narrative.

The Parrish’s second big summer show featuring work by James Brooks was slated to open in August but now will be postponed until summer 2021. Other summer programming, like films and live music, are still an unknown.

But with 12,500 square feet of gallery space and a 6,000-square-foot outdoor terrace, plus extensive grounds, Sultan notes it’s possible that live offerings will be presented to fewer people in larger spaces going forward.

“In a way, it’s terrifying — but in another way, it’s exhilarating,” she said. “We have to be nimble and flexible in what we do. I think it’ll be a long time before we can have 250 people in the theater.”

Bay Street Theater

In recent weeks at the Bay Street Theater, the Friday “Sip & Sing,” a virtual sing-along with performer Valerie diLorenzo, has been quite a success.

“We’re getting 150 to 180 people joining every week,” said Bay Street’s executive director, Tracy Mitchell, by phone. “It just shows how many people want to gather and feel like community. It feels good to be a part of something healing … there are a lot of people sitting home by themselves.”

Unlike many arts organizations that can put previously created content online, it’s difficult for Bay Street, a regional Actors’ Equity theater, to offer online screenings of plays or musicals from previous seasons. Royalties are expensive, and Bay Street is only permitted to shoot an archival copy of productions, unless fees are paid and multiple cameras used to make it suitable for screening.

Tracy Mitchell, executive director of Bay Street Theater.

“Those involve a lot more than a single camera at the back of the theater,” explained Mitchell. “Even if we wanted to show the version we have, you wouldn’t be interested in watching it.”

What has worked since the lockdown are online classes for kids like those offered by Bay Street’s director of education, Allen O’Reilly.

“We asked, what is every parent going to need? Some supervised time that just gives kids an outlet,” said Mitchell. “Alan said, let’s go. He does an hour every day at 3 p.m., which is terrific. Kids ages 7 to 13 can drop in or do a week at a time at a much lower cost than an in-person workshop.”

Beginning this week is an eight-week playwriting course for adults, “Wednesdays With Wade,” led by Wade Dooley, creator and costar of “The Prompter,” which opened Bay Street’s 2019 summer season.

By its nature, theater is about gathering with a large group of people for a shared experience, which, in and of itself, seems like something that won’t happen in the near future. So Bay Street’s summer mainstage season is off for 2020. All three plays planned for this year are on hold and will possibly re-emerge for the 2021 season.

Still, Mitchell is hopeful the entire season isn’t lost.

“I’m a constant optimist, but I admit that the first thing I don’t want to do when this is over is run into a crowded theater,” she said. “But I thought I’d like to be outdoors and experiencing my theater outdoors.”

To that end, Mitchell is working with Sag Harbor Village officials on the concept of an outdoor venue in the village where people can sit an appropriate and safe distance apart.

“Right now, the idea is we would have a six-week period from mid-July through August that would allow us to do staged readings, either straight plays or musicals,” said Mitchell. “If it’s deemed safe, that’s our next plan.”

Southampton Arts Center

In these days of uncertainty, Amy Kirwin, artistic director of Southampton Arts Center, looks forward to the standing weekly call she has with members of the Hamptons Art Network, 19 East End cultural nonprofits that are sharing strategies and plans for weathering the shutdown.

While much of SAC’s summer season has been canceled, including the popular “silent disco on the lawn” (a Halloween version remains on the schedule), Kirwin is still hoping to offer some outdoor concerts and films in the coming months — with appropriate social distancing measures in place, of course.

She has not yet pulled the plug on a planned summer exhibition and expects to make the call after the state determination on stay-at-home measures comes in May.

“The partner we’re planning on working with needs to know by May 15,” said Kirwin, who is not yet at liberty to share the details of the exhibition. “We were hoping to open it July 10, and Plan B would to be opening in August.”

If SAC is able to operate in the coming months, the current “Takeover 2020!” exhibition, featuring 10 local artists who set up studios throughout the building before the lock-down began, would be extended through July 5.

Amy Kirwin, artistic director of the Southampton Arts Center.

Though the galleries have been silent since mid-March, Kirwin notes that SAC has stayed engaged with audiences by offering weekly creativity challenges, include one in which people of all ages and skill levels submitted artwork in response to being in quarantine.

“We have a lot of entries for that and have a show on our YouTube channel,” said Kirwin. “Next week is a culinary challenge using only what you have in your fridge, pantry and garden.”

Kirwin notes that, with programming like this, SAC is striving to go beyond simply re-purposing earlier content for an online audience. Instead, it’s coming up with new offerings that help the community, such as sharing information on ways to support Southampton Village businesses, or by offering 45-minute sound meditation sessions to calm the soul, which it does every Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., courtesy of Daniel Lauter, a master of crystal bowls, gongs, drums, Tibetan bells and other soothing instruments. Headphones are recommended.

“The market is oversaturated with Zoom projects. We want to do things that are helpful — a sound mediation is something people can use,” said Kirwin. “We’re about supporting the community, whether creatively or otherwise. The audience is having fun. I like that we’re engaging with them to do something, making them look at things differently in their life, and making them think.”

Guild Hall

In the real world, Guild Hall is an institution that functions as a museum, a theater and an educational entity. But its director, Andrea Grover, notes that, right now, those functions are converging in a singular digital entity.

“It’s a very interesting new reality, because, historically, we’ve had spaces dedicated to three disciplines. But now we’re programming for a single platform — the internet,” she said in a recent interview. “It’s just one stage, and, in a way, that’s made the staff more collaborative than ever before, because we’re all using the same virtual space for program content.

“That’s a new world order for us.”

In terms of live performances, it’s safe to say that this summer will be a far cry from 2019, which saw the highest-grossing season in the history of the John Drew Theater. “We’ve gone from that fervor to thinking, when will that happen again?” mused Grover.

For now, the Guild Hall staff is seizing the day by sharing banked content online from past performances, talks and gallery tours. One of most popular virtual programs has been a spinoff of “Stirring the Pot,” the summer food series hosted by The New York Times food and wine writer Florence Fabricant. Now called “Stirring the Pot at Home,” the weekly online version features easy-to-prepare recipes by celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio, Lidia Bastianich and Bobby Flay using pantry staples and simple ingredients.

“We found through our eBlasts analytical that people are going right to food-related things. Everybody’s now a master of the kitchen,” said Grover. “We’ve also found that live programs are more appealing than not live.”

Andrea Grover, director of Guild Hall. Daniel Gonzalez Photography.

The most well-received offering to date was a performance by singer Melissa Errico that had been previously recorded at the John Drew Theater, but it featured Errico live online talking about the show.

“She has a big fan base, and people from the Philippines and elsewhere joined in,” Grover said. “People want to see people in real time. They don’t want to see that what they’re watching could be from any place and any time.”

In terms of Guild Hall’s museum spaces, Grover says the galleries have been locked since March 13, with 435 works of art on display  in the members’ exhibition. But two days before the lockdown went into effect, Guild Hall’s curatorial assistant Casey Dalene spent hours photographing each piece so the work could be put online and listed for sale.

“That was something we always said we might do in the future — but it was done in seven days,” said Grover.

As the May 15 countdown approaches, Grover is working with her team on a number of possible scenarios depending on when they can reopen.

“We’re moving everything we can online, and everything that we can to the fall,” she said. “We’re also planning more outdoor programming, where people will feel more at ease with fresh air and ample space.”

Despite the challenges in the immediate future, she still sees this troubled time as a chance to consider what comes next for the fabled institution.

“Next year is our 90th anniversary,” Grover said. “This is an opportunity for us to rewrite the playbook and consider what Guild Hall is in the 21st century in the digital and real environment and ask, how do we serve not just this community but far beyond it?”

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