Coronavirus craters creative community in Upper Valley

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    Margaret Dwyer, of Wilmot, N.H., puts finishing touches on a watercolor painting of jellyfish she started the day before in her studio at the AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, N.H., on March 19, 2020, which was closed to the public on Monday. Dwyer said she did the painting outside her norm as a stress-reliever. "I just wanted to go into my own head for a while," she said. Dwyer had to cancel five classes she teaches and an all-day workshop in March due to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Geoff Hansen

  • The work by artist Steve Chase remains to be hung at the AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon, N.H., on March 19, 2020. Gallery shows have been put on hold due to Monday's temporary closing of AVA to the public following the COVID-19 outbreak. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to valley news — Geoff Hansen

Valley News Staff Writers
Published: 3/19/2020 9:01:10 PM
Modified: 3/20/2020 9:00:11 PM

Of the nearly 200 people who bought tickets for comedian Rusty Dewees’ performance as “The Logger” at the Newport Opera House on Saturday night, only eight canceled.

Whether they stayed home because of the spread of the novel coronavirus or not, one thing is certain: It will be a while before anyone sits in an audience that size in the Upper Valley.

“From here, I’m postponed,” Dewees, who was supposed to perform in the Fairlee Town Hall Auditorium on April 11, wrote in an email Tuesday morning. “Like everyone it’s hard to say if May will start it back up ... or if I should put (rescheduled shows) all in the fall.”

Nearly all Upper Valley performing and visual arts venues are now closed, from art galleries to theaters to bars and restaurants. And while some proprietors hope to reopen next month, there’s no guarantee the coronavirus pandemic will have retreated by then.

The arts sector has grown significantly more robust in the past two decades, but it is still susceptible to economic downturns. A recession accompanied by a lockout of audiences is unprecedented, and the effects on artists and the organizations that support them could be severe.

“Frankly, I don’t know if the rest of my season is going to happen,” said Bill Coons, producing artistic director at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield. Coons postponed until May a production of the comic play Wittenberg, slated to open next Thursday. The cast of four is rehearsing locally this week, then will take a three-week break.

Ticket sales make up slightly more than 50% of Shaker Bridge’s revenue, with the rest coming from grants and donations. Coons has long funded the company out of his own pocket. “We may just have to take a huge financial hit,” he said.

Like Coons, operators of smaller nonprofits hope to be back up and running sooner, but are bracing for a longer hiatus. The Nugget Theaters, in Hanover, announced that it is closed through April 3, for example.

“No one really believes this is going to be resolved by April 6,” said Heidi Reynolds, executive director at AVA.

AVA announced Monday, the 30th anniversary of AVA’s first event at its Lebanon location, the closing of its complex of galleries, classrooms and studios, including the postponement of its annual Silent Auction, one of its biggest fundraisers. Staff are still working, and instructors are being paid for the rest of their classes, as the winter term is ending. Both AVA and its many teachers and artists will take a blow if the spring classes have to be called off, Reynolds said.

“The thing that would really hurt us the most is if this runs into summer,” when AVA operates numerous camps for children and teens, Reynolds said.

Major grant funders have said they don’t plan to pull back funding, Reynolds added. Grants usually require documentation to show how the money was used, but if the funding keeps the wolf from the door, foundations and the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts will relax their stipulations, Reynolds said.

Without classes to teach, artists will lose a significant source of income. Margaret Dwyer, of Wilmot, N.H., teaches at AVA and at ArtisTree Community Arts Center in South Pomfret.

“I get most of my bread and butter money from those two teaching centers,” Dwyer said in a phone interview.

The shutdown has been particularly painful for her; over the past few years, her teaching has really taken off as she’s built up a following of students. She began to rent a studio at AVA in September 2018, which expanded her teaching practice, through which she is paid based on head count.

“Honestly, I have zero income coming in right now,” she said. She also sells her work, but that’s less certain. “A lot of artists are week to week, just like everybody else,” she said.

While Pentangle Arts in Woodstock should weather the storm, some of the young people who work at the Town Hall Theatre will lose some valuable income.

“The hit we’re going to take in the short term is about $10,000 from not being able to screen movies or hold arts camps, or to rent out the space,” Pentangle Director Alita Wilson said in a telephone interview. “As long as we can get back by late spring/early summer, we’ll be OK.”

While Pentangle will save a similar amount from not paying the movie projectionist or the staff of teens and young adults who run the concession stand, Wilson said: “It’s huge for them. Like a lot of people in the area, they’ve cobbled together jobs that in some cases help them add revenue for their families.”

Those are just the sort of people whom Woodstock singer-songwriter Jim Yeager worries about, even as his own gigs have dried up.

“I’ve been completely cut off at the knees, as far as my livelihood, but there’s people way, way worse off than I am,” Yeager said. “The servers at these places, the people who run these small businesses ... these are all my friends. This is a tough one.”

Larger operations, such as Northern Stage, are facing the same issue. Last weekend saw the cancellation of the last two performances of the play Citrus, then the suspension of the spring productions of the musicals Frozen Jr. and Million Dollar Quartet at the company’s Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction.

“We have over 40 seasonal and full-time staff members,” producing artistic director Carol Dunne and managing director Irene Green said in a statement on Tuesday. “Everyone has taken a personal hit, from a pay cut to temporary furlough to contracts ending early. ... We have 12 guest artists and designers whose contracts are on hold with Million Dollar Quartet. Financial impact is impossible to pinpoint at this time until we know how long public programming will be suspended.”

Lebanon Opera House has suspended programming through April 30, with the next LOH Presents show scheduled for June 2, when Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, an act that always draws a big audience, is slated to perform. Executive Director Joseph Clifford hopes that show will take place, but isn’t making any predictions.

“Everything is just so uncertain,” Clifford said on Tuesday. “Some (musical and theatrical) tours have completely folded. Some will happen later, but it’s hard to know when. This is the time of year, for us, when we should be looking to our fall programs. Right now no one out there is looking at fall dates for new shows. As long as we’re in limbo, we can’t offer dates to new shows right now. The biggest question mark is the duration of this thing.”

In the meantime, Clifford said, he and the LOH board of directors are trying to figure out how to approach their fundraising campaigns — business donors as well as individuals — later this year.

“I’m concerned about their bottom line as well as ours,” he said of corporate sponsors. “And people’s personal wallets are getting pressured.”

Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center for the Arts announced on Tuesday that it is canceling all events through May 31. On its website, the Hop offers ticket holders a variety of options, from outright refunds and credit toward future performances to tax-deductible donations of the ticket fee to the Hop.

“It is too early to know what choices our ticket holders will make,” Hopkins Center Director Mary Lou Aleskie said in a statement Tuesday, “but since we are actively identifying future dates for as many events as possible we hope they will join us in looking to the future when the artists we have been looking forward to seeing can actually be with us at the Hop.”

In an effort to put work in front of audiences, some Upper Valley artists are turning to the internet. Wilson, at Pentangle, is encouraging people to make art and share it with her via email. She plans to post it to the Pentangle website and on social media.

AVA is showing work from a current show, “Solitude,” photographs by Carla Kimball, in its “Off the Wall” gallery on its website. And Reynolds has been talking with CATV about putting art classes on the web, with artists like Dwyer in mind.

“I’m going to try to think about doing some things online,” Dwyer said, but added that it isn’t a quick fix. “I’m not unwilling to change to try to keep things afloat.”

Now would be a good time for people of means to commission a piece of art, Dwyer said.

On social media, Royalton singer-songwriter Alison “AliT” Turner is encouraging her followers to “buy our music. Head to Spotify and stream our songs a few hundred times so we earn a penny or two.”

David Corriveau can be reached at Alex Hanson can be reached at

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