The pandemic separates artists from audiences and unites them

Kate Blaszak looked up from her printout at Hedge Gallery and broke into a smile that her mask couldn’t hide. “I see it on your wall!”

Kate and Rick Blaszak are about to buy this painting by Katy Richards at the 78th Street Studios' Hedge Gallery. Photo courtesy Grant Segall.

Kate and Rick Blaszak are about to buy this painting by Katy Richards at the 78th Street Studios’ Hedge Gallery. Photo courtesy Grant Segall.

These might be the strangest days we’ve ever seen,

Forced to live our social lives on our computer screen

–Carlos Jones, “Apart Together.”

Kate Blaszak looked up from her printout at Hedge Gallery and broke into a smile that her mask couldn’t hide. “I see it on your wall!”

She strode to a painting by Katy Richards of a mouth close up and unmasked. “It looks even better in person,” Blaszak said Sept. 18 at a restricted Third Friday reception in the vast 78th Street Studios. “The texture is incredible!” She proceeded to buy the piece.

COVID-19 has compounded the challenges typically faced by the imaginations and wallets of artists and performers. But Jacob C. Sinatra, manager of special projects and communications for Cuyahoga Arts and Culture Artists, said, “Many groups are innovating and responding creatively.”

Creators are reaching audiences on line and on lawns, in parks and parking lots. They’ve also begun to reopen traditional venues, regulating attendance and distance per the state’s requirements or more strictly. They’re sharing feelings and insights that perhaps we crave more than ever during a time of medical, racial and political upheaval.

But artists can’t eat insights. Individuals, businesses and nonprofits in the field are struggling, and not all are hanging on.

“There’s venues shutting down like one a day across the country,” says Cindy Barber, who owns the Beachland Ballroom. Barber. Locally, Stella’s Music Club closed last month. Barber worries that the Beachland might be next.

A study for the Brookings Institute estimates that the creative field lost more than 5 million jobs, or more than 30 percent of the total, from April through July.

Recovery looks far away. A study by McKinsey Global Institute and Oxford Economics predicts that the field of arts, entertainment and recreation will struggle longer than any of the economy’s 18 other sectors. It should need until at least the second quarter of 2024 to reach 2019 levels of production.

From March 12 through June 30, nonprofit groups surveyed by Cuyahoga Arts and Culture reported losing $42 million in ticket sales, donations and other revenues. They cancelled 6.248 events and activities, from lessons to festivals. They furloughed or revoked the contracts of 2,533 workers who would have earned $8.1 million.

Many organizations got help from National Endowment for the Arts grants, federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and Small Business Administration loans and other sources. More than 120 local artists got $1,000 apiece through the SPACES arts organization from the Warhol and Cleveland Foundations.

Led by Beachland’s Barber, the nonprofit “Cleveland Rocks: Past, Present and Future” has raised a few hundred dollars apiece for 82 musicians and related workers. Now the group’s trying to help venue operators.

Barber has also cosponsored musicians raising a little money online. “I’ve been getting checks for $8 and $22.” And she hopes to create a platform specifically for local musicians.

Many arts leaders say such efforts have bought a little time, but not much. They expect deeper cuts when grants run out and loans come due. They’re lobbying for Congress to pass a Save Our Stages bill and for Cuyahoga County to share with the arts some of the aid it has received.

Fortunately, Arts and Culture’s cigarette tax revenues have held steady lately after years of decline. The agency has continued to fund local groups and indirectly local artists as normal, except for delaying some grants for delayed projects.

Sinatra said many ticket holders for cancelled shows have declined refunds, converting the money to donations or credits Scott Spence, artistic director of the Beck Center for the Arts, said that was the case with 80 percent of his tickets.

But nobody’s buying tickets to shows not scheduled yet. Shows have resumed for small audiences at the Beachland and the Music Box, but not at any of the theaters contacted for this article. The state lets just 15 percent of the seats be filled. Beck’s Spence said such a show would bleed money and still pose some risks for the cast and crew. Vocal performers project lots of air.

So all of Beck’s shows will be virtual awhile, though some students have returned in masks for small, distanced classes. There’s better news at 78th Street Studios. “Art sales are doing pretty well,” said owner Dan Bush. “People are home staring at four walls and feathering their nests.”

His Third Fridays used to draw a couple thousand people per month for free. On Sept. 18, 310 people paid $5 apiece to attend.

The next day, 78th Street’s Hedge Gallery sold three more of Richards’ paintings.

Ben Altemus makes leather goods during a Third Friday reception at the 78th Street Studios. Photo courtesy Grant Segall.

Ben Altemus makes leather goods during a Third Friday reception at the 78th Street Studios. Photo courtesy Grant Segall.

New events

Despite all the cutbacks, Cuyahoga arts groups added 2,187 new events or services from March 12 through June 30, most virtual, a few in person, many inspired by the pandemic.

Popular reggae singer Carlos Jones has performed a couple times this year on line and in parking lots. He has also written two songs about the pandemic: “This Corona” and “Apart Together.”

Said Jones, “They really helped me come to grips with everything, and helped people who heard them put a finger on what they were feeling.”

Now Beck is preparing a virtual student show called “Zoop,” parodying Zoom in a show for that website. The students will rehearse and perform separately.

Beck will also work with its frequent partner, Baldwin Wallace University, in virtual productions of several short new musicals next spring for the National Alliance for Musical Theatre.

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival is moving its season from parks to YouTube. Its “Comedy of Errors” showed a reunion of long-lost relatives on split screens.

The Cleveland Museum of Art lost $5 million in revenue from April through June and temporarily reduced staff numbers and hours., But it added virtual services and has continued them after the building’s restricted reopening. For instance, “ArtLens A1: Share Your View” matches a user’s phone images with similar images in the museum’s collection.

Karamu House has kept getting and giving out grants as before. It is also staging virtual shows about racial issues, from emancipation to police brutality and voting rights.

“As the nation’s oldest producing black theater,” said Karamu’s leader, Tony Sias, “we have a responsibility to entertain and inform and activate and help make a more just and equitable society, especially for black Americans.”

Meanwhile, directors of live shows are learning the virtual kinds. “It limits movement, but it’s still effective communication,” said Sias. “We’re garnering a brand-new audience from around the world.”

In person again, distantly

Before the pandemic, David Shimotakahara, head of GroundWorks Dance Theater, had already started working on a piece for his troupe called “Jigsaw.” “The piece was really about connecting,” he said. “When things started closing down, it was a really potent idea.”

He staged the dance twice apiece this summer in parking lots by Cleveland’s Agora and the Akron Art Museum. He sold tickets ahead on line for 25 vehicles per show. He reduced the cast to two dancers They wore masks for rehearsals and performances. They touched only at the end.

An FM transponder broadcast the music into cars. But many spectators opened their windows anyway or sat on their roofs. “It was a really immersive experience,” said Shimotakahara. “People were eager to convene around a live performance.”

The Cleveland Orchestra scrapped its popular summer season at Blossom but started several remote offerings, including the podcast “On a Personal Note” and a series of recorded performances from the past six decades called “TCO Classics.“ And WCLV-FM has started “Lunchtime with The Cleveland Orchestra.”

The orchestra will resume performing live at Severance Hall on Oct. 15 with empty seats and digital audiences. Leaders hope to start admitting small audiences of subscribers in January.

“This is, without question, the most significant crisis in the Orchestra’s 100-plus year history,” Andre Gremillet, president and CEO, said in a recent press release.

Surviving and evolving

GroundWorks Shimotakahara said, “Artists and art will become even more important as the pandemic continues. It’s like the third wave of responsiveness is helping people deal with this fallout and really remain connected. It’s really important that people not just exist at this survival level but continue to have hope, to live in their imaginations, to feel that there’s something that brings people together.”

Artists say the arts will survive and mutate for good, relying more on the web than before, but still reaching some audiences in person.

“We were around for the Spanish flu, and the world came back,” said Kevin Moore, managing director of the 105-year-old Cleveland Play House. “We’ll come through this too. We’re doing an old art of putting artists before an audience and having a story to tell. There wlll be permanent changes. Which, we don’t know.”

Apart together

That’s the way they say it’s got to be

But not forever

–Carlos Jones, “Apart Together”

Baldwin Wallace University and Cuyahoga Arts and Culture will hold the sixth annual Arts Innovation Summit from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 13. This year’s theme is “Innovation in the Face of Crisis,” focusing on the pandemic and policing crises. Participation is free, but reservations are required at

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