The Art of Reopening: A Guide to Current Practices Among Arts Organizations During COVID-19, January 2021
National Endowment for the Arts research staff surveyed national service organizations in the arts and interviewed arts organizations and consultants about reopening practices of organizations that have resumed in-person programming in 2020, during the pandemic. This guide presents promising tactics and insights through nine case studies. 42 pp. January 2021
Based on in-depth interviews with nine arts organizations representing various artistic disciplines, budget sizes, and geographic regions, the National Endowment for the Arts’ Office of Research & Analysis has identified common practices among arts groups that successfully have reopened their doors to audiences or visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to drawing from those interviews, the following recommendations benefited from surveys of national service organizations (NSOs) in the arts, document scans, and interviews with arts management consultants. (Other COVID-19-related guidance from the Arts Endowment appears on the agency’s website: https://www.arts.gov/about/nea-on-covid-19. See in particular The Road Forward, a tip sheet for arts organizations re-engaging with audiences or visitors: https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/COVID-The-Road-Forward-6.25.20.pdf)
In Brief—Key Lessons Learned
- Strengthen ties with your immediate community. Aligning arts programming with local community needs are paramount, whether through indoor or outdoor programming, virtual arts engagement, or a mix of opportunities.
Bill Stephan, executive director of the Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska, led an effort to bring a mobile music stage to neighborhoods in the city of Lincoln. He remarks that it was “just really wonderful to see so much happiness that the arts were able to bring.” Nathalie Thill, executive director of the Adirondack Center for Writing (Saranac Lake, New York) describes an outdoor “reveal” party for poems that had been painted on the sidewalk. “We used this paint that you can only see when it’s wet,” Thill explains. “It’s also something that parents can do with their kids on rainy days. They were going stir-crazy and so it’s like, ‘Let’s go find the poems in town.’” After a video recording of the event was picked up on social media, Thill characterized the reaction of locals as, “’I can’t believe I live in the coolest town ever!’” For museums, “There will be some form of permanent ‘reset’ around broadly making sure that your exhibition strategy is of a wide local appeal, particularly if cultural tourists aren’t jumping on airplanes and coming to your city,” Adrian Ellis, the founding director of AEA Consulting, based in New York and London, predicts. “That is probably going to be the case for some time…. You’ve got to really think local.”
- The doctor is “in”—or should be. Identifying a public health professional or team to advise on reopening strategies can make all the difference. Mary’s Center, a community health clinic in Washington, DC, serves as GALA Hispanic Theatre’s health advisor. True Concord Voices & Orchestra, a professional chamber choir and orchestra in Tucson, Arizona, benefits from guidance provided by a medical doctor who serves on its board. Music Director Eric Holtan says: “She is presently working at University of Arizona on the frontlines dealing with COVID patients there and so really is familiar with all of the most current guidelines and recommendations from the national level down to the local county level.” The arts organization also developed a relationship with a company that does COVID testing; the service is overseen by a resident doctor. For its part, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston has been consulting with Baylor College of Medicine about the museum’s latest protocol for onsite testing.
- Isolation? More like “quality time.” Creating pods or “bubbles” of artist teams can advance safety goals—and also can boost morale. Quarantining artists together who are part of a live production or establishing artist pods may seem severe, but the practice can give greater confidence to all involved. For artists, it can foster a sense of community and solidarity. This bubble approach takes extensive effort to maintain, but, as Cincinnati Ballet President and CEO Scott Altman reports, dancers now have been able to return to the stage. American Shakespeare Center (ASC) created an “isolation bubble” for its actors, wardrobe manager, stage managers, and backstage production assistants. They “signed an ‘isolation covenant’ that they worked out within their groups to limit interaction,” ASC Managing Director Amy Wratchford explains. “They only socialized with each other during the entire rehearsal and run of show.” At the same time, routine meetings permitted group members to “talk about things that had come up during the week, or concerns they had that weren’t immediate concerns.” Consequently, she says, “cast and crew members could feel protected and less anxious.”
- The unexpected will continue to happen. Be transparent when it does. Adapting quickly to new circumstances and information, and communicating those lessons promptly and effectively to artists/staff, board members, donors, and the public will attract greater confidence in your endeavor. Even before the pandemic struck, many arts organizations prized nimbleness and the ability to communicate frequently with staff and patrons. Today these assets take on heightened value. In reopening, arts organizations consulted with their staff, board, and other key stakeholders, and kept their audiences and patrons informed every step of the way. Cincinnati Ballet’s Scott Altman notes: “[We] never make any unilateral decisions about—well, anything, but certainly, in this case, I made sure that all facets of our organization were comfortable moving forward with progress…. Things were always done under advisement and certainly with everybody in agreement.” Berkshire Theatre Group’s executive director, Nick Paleologos, advises that other theaters considering how to reopen should “work transparently and cooperatively” with unions and public health officials. “They’ll be sticklers, but, in the end, it’s better to comply than not have a good solid relationship with your local officials, so that when you need a break on parking or tent permits, or whatever, they’re there and supportive.”
- First principles matter. They can restore a sense of shared purpose for artists, staff, partners—and donors. Hearkening back to the mission and artistic vision of your organization can lend momentum and vitality to your reopening strategy. “People need music and the arts in these dark and challenging, fraught times,” True Concord’s Eric Holtan asserts. Arts organizations that stay focused on their mission and artistic vision play a critical role in meeting their community’s need for the arts 3 National Endowment for the Arts | arts.gov and, as a result, are more likely to secure the community support they need not only to survive but to thrive. The Adirondack Center for Writing (ACW) experienced an outpouring of gratitude when poems from its Poem Village series—all written by regional poets—were emailed directly to subscribers during the pandemic. Similar results were observed when the center sent out writing prompts on a weekly schedule. “That kind of rhythm was really calming to a lot of people,” she adds. This spirit of reassurance led to generous donations.
- Bring that videographer along for the ride! Partnering with a media/tech organization—or a media/tech-savvy artist—can help you to document your journey and find ways to reach broader audiences than you ever might have reached previously. The transition to virtual programming during the early months of the pandemic was challenging. Chloe Cook, executive director of Sidewalk Film Center and Cinema, points to “a learning curve of new technology and platforms” just as financial constraints have made it difficult to invest in new technology. Recognizing this dilemma, some arts organizations reached out to artists experienced with digital presentation formats or they partnered with teams that could bring the equipment or expertise. “We were blessed with the fact that we have local filmmakers that jumped to our aid when we closed down in March” 2020, American Shakespeare Center’s Amy Wratchford says. “Both Deep Structure Productions—which is here in Staunton, [Virginia], and Paladin Media Group, which is based in Charlottesville, leapt up to help us [pro bono].” Once ASC launched its SafeStart reopening program, “we reached back out to both companies and actually paid them for their services this time. We also partnered with Marquee TV,” she explains, noting “we were the first theater in North America to do a live stream with them.” Regarding the future of digital engagement strategies in the performing arts, Susan Nelson—executive vice president of TDC, a Boston, Massachusetts-based consulting firm—reports that based on early findings from an ongoing study of arts organizations’ practices during the pandemic, “there isn’t a soul we have spoken to who hasn’t said, ‘It’s not just the streaming of the performance, but it’s the stuff around it—like one of the stars or performers speaking and being interviewed, or one of the authors or one of the composers being interviewed’…. There’s some wraparound content that is enhancing” the performance. Nelson adds, “However [organizations are] thinking about digital, they all agree that it’s not a short-term holdover solution…. It will be included as part of their product when we come back to whatever ‘normal’ is.”