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Keeping the Arts Alive

By Dakota Parks for Pensacola Magazine

When the world first stood still, suspended and reeling in the wave of initial COVID-19 reports and shutdowns, the creative and cultural epicenters in cities around the globe went dormant. Red curtains never opened on stages, music halls went eerily quiet, museums and galleries shut down with paintings still on display for no one to see. A bustling industry that filled so much of our free time from performances to exhibits quickly became a lifeline for people struggling through isolation. As art spaces, organizations and working artists themselves tried to stay afloat through technological innovation, people at home tuned in to new adaptations like virtual tours and recorded performances.


Financially, however, the arts have been hit hard. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, America’s arts and culture sector, including nonprofit, commercial and education, is an $878 billion industry that supports 5.1 million jobs.


The arts and culture sector alone accounts for 4.5 percent of the nation’s economy, which is a larger GDP than agriculture, transportation or tourism. In the first four months of the pandemic, a Brookings Institution report on the art economy calculated a loss of $150 billion in sales and 2.7 million jobs through July 2020 alone.


Though nearly a year has passed since the beginning of the pandemic, communities across the country are still struggling to keep the arts alive. Here in the Panhandle, artists and organizations have adapted to keep creative outlets open to the public during a time when some have needed them the most. However, while many venues have closed their doors for the inevitable future and many artists have been furloughed, the lingering question remains as to when normalcy may return and what it will look like. Pensacola Magazine caught up with several art organizations and artists to catch a glimpse into the perseverance of the art community.


Art Centers & Institutions

At the Pensacola Museum of Art, staff quickly began reimagining ways to keep the community connected as soon as its doors shut to the public in March 2020. Faced with closing the museum the same week as the 66th Annual Members Show and Poppy Garcia’s Bless Your Heart exhibit were set to open, Exhibition Designer Richard Rodriguez began capturing panoramic photos to bring the exhibits to the virtual realm and even hosted Poppy in his own backyard for the artist talk and workshop.


“We had to figure out how to take our planned programming digital,” Rodriguez explained. “The ways we found to keep engaging the community in the past year are methods we will keep pursuing in the long term. The digital landscape might close an accessibility gap, but it still struggles to fulfill the need we have for creative and cultural endeavors. I’ll be happy if digital programming excites the public to visit the museum.”


The museum has opened six exhibits since its reopening in June, offered a virtual summer camp with guided art instruction and hosted a plethora of digital programing including the month-long Big Read with U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo.


“The museum we closed is not the same museum we reopened,” Director Nicholas Croghan explained. “We consider ourselves to be this kind of community hub at the museum—a place where everyone can go and feel welcome. Though most of the virtual programming was new to us, it has allowed us to keep people connected. After events ended, we received messages from people saying, ‘Thank you so much. I didn’t know how much I needed this,’ which has really kept us motivated. From the pandemic to racial injustice and Black Lives Matter to financial hardships, 2020 was a hard year for everyone.”


Over at the nonprofit First City Art Center (FCAC), creating a safe space to host workshops, classes, studio spaces, exhibits and youth art programs was the top priority when the center resumed classes and its youth art camp in June. Even though the classes are smaller, behind masks and the artist guilds and committees meet via Zoom, Executive Director Caitlin Rhea explained that keeping the creative space at First City open was crucial to maintaining safe social connections and overall health and wellness. Running a nonprofit art center through a pandemic, however, is no easy feat. FCAC was able to host its biggest annual fundraiser, the 14th Annual Pumpkin Patch at a new outdoor venue utilizing the Blue Wahoos Stadium.


“As a nonprofit, the fundraiser provided critical support to our programs and facilities and also benefited over 40 local artists,” Rhea explained. “In addition to donations, grants, memberships, ceramics supply sales and classes, we rely on fundraising events to continue serving the community. We wouldn’t be here without the support of Pensacola."


Supporting Pensacola with an affordable art space is also at the heart of a new face in the art community, The Gordon Community Art Center, rented and managed by PenArts, a nonprofit theatre and production group. Although The Gordon first opened its doors amidst the pandemic in August, the space has witnessed several virtual productions, a new open mic and several art installations. Christine Kellogg, the artistic director for PenArts explained that the pandemic brought a new use to the space, which consists of a black box studio, music room, library and lobby.


“We were finishing construction right as COVID started and had to suddenly shift gears,” Kellogg explained. “All of my professional work was cancelled, our PenArts productions were cancelled and we had to rethink how to use our space safely. We had blank space on our walls and thought we should host a local artist once a month and display their work. So, we have our small artist reception once a month, we teach PenArts classes here and slowly by word of mouth we have established ourselves and rent the space out for filming, dance, music and photoshoots.”


PenArts has also hosted three virtual cabarets, which have given artists and performers across the country a creative outlet and a place to connect.


Visual Artists

For Carter J. Gaston, a portrait and mural artist, the pandemic has caused him to switch artistic mediums and spend a lot of time in the studio networking and creating art alone. With the monthly Pensacola Gallery Nights cancelled, Gaston has lost around $400 a month in revenue. To make up for the financial hardship, he hosts small, private and social distanced paint lessons and parties for families, businesses and even the 100 Black Men of Pensacola group, which mentors and educates young men. When he’s not on a ladder painting a mural or commissioned on a project, he’s connecting with the community to build relationships and stay connected.


“I wouldn’t be here or have success as an artist here without our community,” Gaston said. “It’s a beautiful thing watching the community come together to support one another. Not being out there like I used to at events or parties has been hard, but I’ve gotten used to the silence and working in isolation. I have a message to fellow artists though: don’t stress. Get out of your head and don’t let the stress, worry and fear clog your creativity and keep you from doing what you love.”


When the pandemic shut down the schools and universities, students took their work home and completed the school year online. For art students, however, they lost their studio space and access to the materials and equipment they need to complete their work. Kim Brown, a 24-year-old BFA graduate from the University of West Florida finished her degree at home without access to a kiln to finish her ceramic sculptures for the annual exit show. Without safe or stable access to an art space, Brown has spent her time working on her portfolio for a master’s program and commissioning digital artwork.


“I like working with mixed media and ceramics. My focus right now has been aspects of feminism and sculptures of self-biography. I’m half Panamanian and half white, so my art allows me to express the intersection of both cultures,” Brown explained. “It’s been really frustrating not being able to work in a studio or create art around other people, because I love being in a shared creative environment. Working on my portfolio and making slow progress on projects has helped take the edge off. It’s been nice talking to women about their bodies and hearing experiences to add and represent in my project.”


Much like other artists navigating isolation and creativity, local artist Geza Burnow retreated into nature at Pensacola Beach, taught himself digital 3D art and began spending more time catching up with friends on the phone during quarantine. Burnow has recently been drawn to scratchboard and 3D art and describes his art as a Rorschach ink blot that discovers itself as he creates. With exhibits and galleries around the world closed, he explained that his normal revenue has gone down, but he witnessed a surge of support in online sales purchasing art in the early months of quarantine.


“I feel like I’ve become more dedicated to my craft because sometimes there is nothing else to do besides create,” he said. “I started playing with new mediums and new expressions, and oddly enough, I have become more whimsical and romantic. Before this whole COVID mess, I was kind of cynical and removed from my emotions. Now I’m more connected to them, and when I’m creating something, I actually ask myself, ‘Will this make someone’s day or help bring joy to someone that sees it?’ I’ve also gotten to trade art with at least seven people around the world since all of us are financially struggling but can exchange art for art, so that’s been a positive too.”


Performance Artists

The performing arts are among the group of artists and professionals that have been hit the hardest through the pandemic. Brookings Institute found that the performing arts would suffer job losses around 50 percent of all jobs in the industry and more than a quarter of all lost sales nationwide. As companies and theatres closed their doors, dancers, singers, musicians and actors lost their jobs or were furloughed for the season. Pensacola’s bustling performance art community consisting of the opera, ballet, symphony and theatre have struggled to keep their heads above water—both metaphorically and physically.


When Pensacola Little Theatre’s Executive Director Sid Williams-Heath opened the front page of the Wall Street Journal after hurricane Sally made landfall and flooded a large portion of downtown Pensacola, he didn’t expect to see the theatre on the front page. Between the pandemic cancelling the production of Winnie-the-Pooh, after the cast of children spent an additional 12 weeks practicing and hoping it would open, to hurricane Sally hitting the coast right as the theatre was expected to open its first mainstage production, it has been difficult to stay afloat. Williams-Heath explained that the theatre has since moved to a hybrid virtual/in-person performances at 20 percent capacity, while rehearsals remain masked and social distanced with daily temperature screenings.


“Community theatre has always relied on the kindness of the community, and that kindness has been extended in ways that have truly moved us all throughout these adversities,” he explained. “Some patrons are dying to come back. Some are reluctant—and justifiably so. Everything that happens on stage is far more exciting than on screens. Live theatre transports you to another place and time. There is something truly magical about the way live performances draw you in and make you feel part of the story as it unfolds in front of you. It’s all-consuming—the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the orchestra, the inability of perfection because it’s not recorded or in a studio. Actors in a film can’t respond to an audience’s laughter; they can’t feel the tension or anticipation by those in the front row. As a cultural center, we are yearning to have culture back throughout the building.”


“Devastation” is the word Jerome Shannon, the artistic director for Pensacola Opera, uses to describe the impact of the pandemic on the performing arts. Just days away from opening the Trovatore production at the Saenger Theatre, the pandemic forced the company to cancel the production and carefully disassemble the moving parts including $10,000 in costumes alone and another $10,000 in rented lighting. Stagehands, electricians and sound engineers all had to be released and singers received their last contracted paychecks, facing the upcoming months without work.


“It’s been absolutely devastating for all singers throughout the world. For the first six months of the pandemic, there was nothing going on anywhere. Not one theatre in the world was presenting live art of any nature,” Shannon explained. “Not to belittle the loss of income, but the greatest challenge has been the loss of camaraderie amidst isolation. Opera is the ultimate art form, combining music, drama, costumes, scenery, lighting, chorus, singing, orchestra, etc. into this amazing synthesis. That takes a lot of people working together—it’s common for us to have 100+ people involved in a production.”


The Opera has produced online programming through The Mezzanine and Al Fresco outdoor performances during the pandemic; however, the company is about to open its very first synchronous live stream performance with capacity reduced to 388 attendants from 1,500 for the upcoming productions of Carmen and H.M.S. Pinafore.


At the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra, the pandemic caused the cancellation of two final masterwork performances, an annual fundraising event and several concerts. Although the orchestra has not been able to play together, Executive Director Bret Barrow explained that the company shifted gears to find innovative ways to bring music to the community. Early in the summer, musicians began recording videos from their homes to share on the organization’s social media. By Fall, the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra shifted to recording a Mozart concert video and hosting outdoor park performances.


“We hosted three ‘PSO in the Park’ performances at Museum Plaza in partnership with the UWF Historic Trust and with help from our friends at WUWF 88.1 FM. These free, outdoor concerts featured small ensembles from the orchestra performing short programs for socially distanced and mask- wearing audiences,” Barrow explained. “They were special moments of connection as friends gathered to listen and enjoy true community—something we all miss dearly. Whether an organization has chosen strategic dormancy or has embraced this time as an opportunity for advancement, my hope is that the duration of this experience creates a thirst for performances and connection as we emerge.”


The Pensacola Symphony Orchestra has six socially distanced and virtually synchronous concerts scheduled starting in February. While dancers finally graced the stage again for the annual Nutcracker performance, the Executive Director at Ballet Pensacola, Deborah Hawkins, said it has been a heartbreaking year having to furlough dancers and cancel productions. The Ballet has adapted by offering classes in the ballet academy virtually and socially distanced in person, as well as hosting its first ballet of the season; The Nutcracker at reduced capacity with streaming online through the help of a production company. Prior to COVID, as Hawkins explained, the ballet academy had over 300 students from three-year-olds to high school students and now has a little over 200 students.


“The arts community here in our area has definitely taken a very big blow. As far as finances are concerned, if the arts organizations had reserves, or had endowments, of course, they’ve had to dip into those just to keep a skeleton crew there—to keep things moving forward,” Hawkins explained.


“We’ve had to all look at our budgets and cut them down, use the resources that we already have and go to our patrons and explain that we need their support right now more than ever. Luckily, the paycheck protection program has allowed us to retain some of our dancers that were also teachers on payroll, as well as our administrative and artistic staff to plan the new season. In a way, I think the pandemic has reinforced how important the arts are to our day-to-day lives by what keeps us motivated, tapped into our emotions and what makes us human—I just wish it didn’t take a pandemic to show that.”


Musicians

The silence in Pensacola from shut down music venues, like Vinyl Music Hall closing its doors and chizuko shutting down in the interim to relocate, has been deafening. For musicians, venues like these are vital to their very existence. Through the pandemic, musicians have stayed home, hit the recording studios and found new ways to keep in touch with fans or keep the creativity flowing.


Faced with a cancelled season, Abigail Walker, a bassoon player for the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra and a music teacher at the Creative Learning Academy took to her porch hosting porch concerts among various musicians in East Hill.


“The pandemic has completely changed my life as a musician,” she explained. “For the past 20 years, I have played upwards of 50 concerts a year, and I have not played on a stage since March 2020. I feel a great deal of pride knowing that I am a cog in the cultural machine of this town. A big reason I have established my life and my family in Pensacola has to do with our community of artists—and the artistic community has gone silent. I long for the day we can be together again.”


For Robert Goodspeed, the owner of Night Moves Pensacola and an avid musician who played guitar and drums in several local punk and rock bands, the pandemic ultimately led him to close down his music venue that he opened in May 2019. Goodspeed has plans to reopen the venue in the future and remains hopeful for the future of live performances.


“I think there is going to be a lot of people hungry for the live music they’ve been missing and dying to go back once it’s safe to do so. I have my eyes set on a new spot, but I’m just waiting for the right time,” he said.


Brandon Ballard, the former drummer for the punk bands Dicks From Mars and DEAdBUGGS, recently started hosting livestream performances from his home in the Bugghouse, which serves as an artistic community hub for punk shows and creatives. Every two weeks, he hosts a punk band that streams to YouTube and Twitch.


As he explained, the shows fill a void in the punk scene and provide a safe place to perform: “People needed a creative outlet that wasn’t completely foreign to the community and culture we have all built up. Being part of a scene that cares about you and the art you make, kicks the creative gears up a notch, and not having that community has been incredibly hard for a lot of us.”


The recording studio and meditation have been a refuge for Regina Baker, also known as musician Mvtha Cvla (pronounced Mother Color). The pandemic allowed Baker to slow down, work from home, take a step back from performing and focus on recording some EPs and collaborating with other artists. Baker’s musical style crosses genres from hip hop, soul, rap, R&B, blues, jazz, alternative and even meditative as she’s working on finishing a meditation EP.


“I’ve spent most of my time writing songs, producing records, working on websites, doing graphics, editing videos and being a mom to my two sons,” she said. “When my meditation videos started going viral on TikTok, I realized that people needed that positivity, healing and manifesting mindset. It’s new content for me, but it’s just another side of me.”


Pensacola born and raised, Simon Smiley, better known as Yung Smilez practically launched his musical career through the pandemic. When Smiley graduated from UWF and made the switch from football to music, he made his way to Atlanta to start building music connections. Like many artists, Smiley doesn’t describe his music using genres and prefers to keep his fans guessing. He kept busy building his fan base, recording music, shooting music videos and even doing a social distance show or two.


As Smiley explained, he believes there is power in music for self-expression and healing: “For me, the hardest part of 2020 was the social injustice and seeing everything happening in our country—that left me feeling helpless at some points. I just want to help make it better and music allows me to express myself. Music is one of the most powerful things in the world that we all have in common. It touches every facet of life.”


For local up-and-coming songwriter Hane Skot, the pandemic has altered the way they can book shows, earn a living and work toward establishing themselves in the music industry. Skot has balanced the emotional and creative blocks by meditation, buckets of tears, traveling into nature and the support of family and fans. They have also been in the studio working on an album with Bigtone Records in Bristol, VA.


“I couldn’t have recorded any music over the summer had it not been for my community of fans,” Skot explained. “I’d encourage people to reach out more to their friends in general and check on them, but especially those with connections in the arts. If you can commission a song, painting, drawing or a sculpture, do that. If you have the space to host a living room, front porch or backyard show with musicians, book it. We can celebrate life even in this version of new normal.”


Although the pandemic has devastated nearly every facet of the art community from museums, galleries and art centers to visual artists, performing artists and musicians, it has also given this community an opportunity to slow down and pause, reexamining their mediums of creativity and outlets of presentation. COVID has singlehandedly impacted the way in which art is shared with the world, by bridging an accessibility gap with technological innovation. Hybrid virtual events and online streaming options are here to stay for years to come. The last year of eerie quietness and idle time has also reinforced how important the arts are to our lives, our community and our humanity. If the community wants to keep the arts alive in Pensacola, they will have to be proactive in their love and appreciation by directly supporting the arts. Together we can patronize events in person or online, donate money, purchase and commission artwork, share posts and fundraisers on social media and rally around the people and organizations that provide the entertainment, art and culture to our bustling city. •

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