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Upper Valley arts venues get creative as they struggle to survive the pandemic

  • Isabella Skuro, 6, of Woodstock, Vt., picks out feathers offered by camp counselor Madelyn Trimpi, of Pomfret, Vt., to decorate her own camouflaged creature during the Sneaky Critter day camp at ArtisTree in Pomfret on July 9, 2020. In reaction to the pandemic, the camps have fewer children in each and mask wearing is required while indoors. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Instructor Ginger Armstrong, of Plainfield, N.H., right, gives pointers to Lynne Sheppard, of Hanover, N.H., while taking Armstrong's Japanese calligraphy class at the CraftStudies program at the League of NH Craftsmen in Hanover, N.H., on July 10, 2020. The week-long class was the first for both to be physically in a teaching space since the pandemic hit in March. "It's a miracle," Armstrong said of classes resuming. "We have to teach, we have to play." (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nicole Conte, of Barnard, Vt., shows ArtisTree campers a camouflaged creature she made and hid in the potato plants during the Sneaky Critter day camp in Pomfret, Vt., on July 9, 2020. From left are Flynn Baggish, 5, of Woodstock, Vt., Seamus Coogan, 6, of Pomfret, Vt., Conte, Isabella Skuro, 6, of Woodstock, Vt., Zoe Webb, 6, of Bethel, Vt., Mia Dougherty, 5, of Woodstock, camp counselor Sofia Kantola, Eleanor Meyer, 7, of Barnard, Vt., and Malachi Coogan, 7, of Pomfret. In reaction to the pandemic, the camps have fewer children in each and mask wearing is required while indoors. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • As Blythe Adams, 12, of Hanover, N.H., shapes metal for a box she is making, Ariana Zamora, 13, of Hanover asks instructor Skip Cady, of Lyme, N.H., for pointers on the metal bowl she is making in Cady's weeklong metal-forming class at the CraftStudies program at the League of NH Craftsmen in Hanover, N.H., on July 10, 2020. In reaction to the pandemic, temperatures are taken upon entry and masks are required to be in the building. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/11/2020 9:31:25 PM
Modified: 7/11/2020 9:31:22 PM

When Opera North’s leadership realized it couldn’t go on with its planned Summerfest, board members got on the phone and called everyone who had already bought a ticket to see what they wanted to do.

Many ticket holders said they would be happy to donate the value of their tickets to the Lebanon-based nonprofit opera company. But they also said that they yearned to experience live classical or Broadway music, said Evans Haile, the company’s executive director.

“We take coronavirus very seriously,” Haile said in a phone interview. But Opera North also takes its mission seriously. “If ever there was a time when live performance was needed, that time is now.”

Unlike most other arts organizations, Opera North has use of a 38-acre outdoor venue, Blow-Me-Down Farm in Cornish, where it can host performances that keep audience members and musicians physically distant. Though Opera North’s original plans are no longer tenable, the company has scheduled a performance of “Bluegrass and Broadway,” featuring Haile and guest singers and instrumentalists, for Aug. 1, and two performances of a concert version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for Aug. 6 and 8.

The arts industry has been hit particularly hard by the economic effects of the novel coronavirus, which in mid-March shuttered theaters, music venues, bars, museums, galleries and pretty much anywhere else people might gather to experience the arts.

Over the past two decades, the arts sector has grown substantially in the Upper Valley. Arts groups are now trying to figure out how to weather the pandemic, and how to continue to fulfill their mission of entertaining and enlightening their patrons even while theaters and galleries remain dark.

“It’s immeasurable,” Lebanon Opera House Director Joe Clifford said of the pandemic’s impact. “Performance venues were among the first to close and will be among the last to reopen.”

The opera house has furloughed all of its staff, except Clifford. That includes three full-time people and a roster of part-time and gig workers. Add them all up and more than 50 people lost work at the opera house, said Clifford, who worked at Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts before moving to the opera house.

“I’ve been doing this for like 20 years, and I’ve always known what the next show is going to be,” he said. “I could not tell you when we’re going to be back.”

Getting creative

What Opera North is doing outdoors is “really great,” Clifford said. But the opera house, which typically hosts the opera company in August, would need to remake itself to do something similar, find a venue and arrange for safety and parking and everything else. Perhaps next year the opera house will be able to mount a slate of performances available online.

“The more events we can do, the more people are likely to support us,” Clifford said.

Many arts organizations are looking at the current situation that way. Unable to raise money by selling tickets, organizations are soliciting donations while creating original programming for the internet.

Northern Stage recently announced a new slate of “Play Dates,” online discussions of celebrated plays with actors and directors well-known to the White River Junction theater company’s audiences. The company also is planning a slate of performances for the fall, also online, unless restrictions ease and in-person theater becomes viable.

Before the coronavirus, Northern Stage drew 45% of its revenue from earned income from ticket sales, tuition to education programs and other ventures, Irene Green, the company’s managing director, said in an interview.

“That’s really the part of the company that has been decimated,” she said.

Northern Stage had to cancel the final production of last season, the musical Million Dollar Quartet, after incurring most of the production costs. But many patrons were willing to convert their tickets into donations or gift certificates, offsetting the cost of the show.

The online offerings are part of the company’s effort to continue to carry out its mission. “People want to be engaging with Northern Stage, when it’s safe to do so,” Green said. In addition, “if we just closed our doors, I wouldn’t feel good about soliciting any donations.”

The pandemic’s threat to Northern Stage is grave, but “not existential,” Green said. “We’re still here, and we’re still planning to be here.”

The enforced isolation of the coronavirus has created a hunger for local arts programming, and has shown that in-person arts weren’t reaching everyone who wanted to participate, said Mary Lou Aleskie, director of the Hopkins Center for the Arts. The Upper Valley’s largest performing arts center ran a series of Hop@Home performances online this spring.

“The thing that people were looking for, more than even the content, was a place where people felt connected to other people with whom they have an affinity,” Aleskie said. Hop officials noted a greater diversity of participation on online programs, which were offered for free. Viewers, some of them Dartmouth graduates, logged in from far-flung locations.

And, “we’ve seen a number of people who are always isolated,” she said. “They’re accessing now programming that they couldn’t access because they couldn’t get to the Hop,” whether due to cost or distance or time.

But that’s not much help to the arts economy, according to Aleskie.

“The entire arts ecosystem has collapsed,” she said.

That’s particularly true for individual artists of color and for small venues that are heavily reliant on ticket sales. The internet has maintained some engagement, but arts venues are finding out what other media have learned: An online presence is hard to monetize and is no substitute for reliable income from tickets.

Reopening for performing arts venues is going to be very difficult, however. New Hampshire allowed arts venues and movie theaters to reopen as of June 29, with a list of conditions to ensure public safety, Clifford noted. But the artistic machinery that Lebanon Opera House relies on has ground to a halt. Community and school productions have been canceled, the touring acts the opera house books haven’t resumed — and even if they come back, are audiences ready to sit in the dark with coughing strangers?

“I could map out a way to have social distancing inside the venue,” Clifford said, adding that the 800-seat hall might then be at 20% capacity. Even if he could do that, it wouldn’t make financial sense.

He cited an opera house favorite, banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck. “If that were with COVID restrictions in place, tickets would have to be $250,” Clifford said.

For smaller, less well-established companies, the pandemic has posed greater problems. We the People Theatre, which has produced two plays in White River Junction’s Briggs Opera House, has started a GoFundMe crowdsourcing campaign in an effort to raise enough money to resume programming when the time comes.

We the People faced unusual challenges. The pandemic canceled a spring production of Man of La Mancha just before it was scheduled to open. The company hasn’t been able to recoup any of its production costs because its ticket vendor, the Seattle-based company Brown Paper Tickets, hasn’t disbursed the $17,500 in ticket money it took in for the show, said Perry Allison, a co-founder of We the People.

The Attorney General’s Office in Washington is looking into complaints against Brown Paper Tickets, the Seattle Timesreported in May.

“It never occurred to me that we would run into this kind of problem,” Allison said.

Looking outdoors

While the Vermont Arts Council now has $5 million allocated by the Legislature for arts groups, We the People isn’t eligible, because it hasn’t yet become a nonprofit.

But the company is determined to continue, Allison said, and is studying options for future shows or outdoor performances.

For now, the outdoors is the only place for the arts, it seems. Feast and Field in Barnard is holding live music, with some alterations to its previous format, and outdoor shows and movies are running at the bandstand in White River Junction and at the drive-ins in Fairlee and Bethel. Outdoor art has returned with a new installment of Sculpturefest, the annual exhibition at the Woodstock home of Charlet and Peter Davenport.

Otherwise, most visual art remains indoors and off limits. The Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon and the Library Arts Center in Newport, among others, remain closed and are holding online programming. The annual League of New Hampshire Craftsmen fair, held annually at Mount Sunapee, will this year be online-only, said Miriam Carter, director of the venerable statewide organization.

“It’s all about creative tenacity at this point,” Carter said.

Only a handful of arts groups have reopened to any extent. Randolph’s Chandler Center for the Arts is holding camps for children and teens and held its first gallery opening Saturday for “At the Right Place, At the Right Time,” photographs by Hanover resident Jon Gilbert Fox.

ArtisTree Community Art Center in South Pomfret is holding art camps for children, with strict guidelines.

“That was the first thing to reopen was child care, and we qualify as child care,” Kathleen Dolan, ArtisTree’s founder and executive director, said Friday. Parents have been very grateful to have a safe place to send their children, Dolan said, noting that many of the families are summer residents.

Reopening wasn’t easy, she noted.

“It was a bit of an act of courage for the staff to gear up for summer programs,” she said.

ArtisTree also has reopened its art gallery, though patrons must wear masks and the number of people allowed in is limited.

“I think ours is easier to keep open because we don’t have a lot of traffic,” Dolan said. “We’re really off the beaten path.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the Hanover League of New Hampshire Craftsmen Gallery, established in 1952, has closed its doors on Lebanon Street. The independently owned gallery operated under the league’s umbrella, but the decision to close was made locally, Carter said.

CraftStudies, the gallery’s nonprofit education arm, has remained open and has resumed classes for children and adults with class sizes cut in half, said Suzanne Jones, director of CraftsStudies.

“We just had a very successful online auction,” Jones said. The organization should be able to get through the next few months.

CraftStudies has also held outdoor classes, including a spoon-carving workshop under a pavilion at Storrs Pond. A basket-making workshop was planned for this weekend.

The remaining question has to do with the trajectory of the pandemic. Will it worsen? Will there be a vaccine?

“From October to March next year, this building may well be dark,” Jones said. Without tuition from classes, CraftStudies would have little or no income and would still have to pay the fixed costs of its Hanover home, which it owns. “We’ll have to turn to the community to support us,” Jones said.

The arts are meant to be sustaining, a reflection of the human spirit and its struggles and therefore a support. Arts organizations plan to keep that light burning, in hopes of continuing to help the communities that support them.

“I think the most important thing for everyone is to remember that one of the things that has gotten people through this pandemic has been the arts,” said Haile, of Opera North. “The things they’ve read. The things they’ve watched online. I hope they will remember that as we move forward beyond this intermission ... and support us.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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