Annual Report: The Future is Bright
A stormy year brought silver linings to Cape and Islands Arts Organizations.
In March 2020, when non-essential businesses began closing their doors due to the health crisis caused by COVID-19, Cape and Islands cultural organizations were faced with taking the initiative in reimagining their work in the community around new health and safety protocols. Five leading arts and culture organizations in the Cape and Islands community share how, when in-person engagement became limited, they seized the opportunity to reimagine their programming, grow engagement beyond their physical location, and increase accessibility to what they had to offer. It took a lot of creativity, patience, innovation and lots of internet bandwidth.
Museums and cultural organizations faced an uncertain landscape, but saw in the restrictions posed by the pandemic an opportunity to open their resources up to the virtual world. Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM) CEO Christine McCarthy credits the agility and tech savviness of her staff for shifting immediately to virtual formats for their exhibitions. They started with creating websites for the artwork, but this quickly advanced to an impressive virtual experience titled “PAAM: The 3D, Virtual Experience.” With a 3D camera purchased through grant funding, PAAM used the Matterport virtual tour program and app to stitch together these images and create an immersive and fully virtual experience that allows visitors to explore the galleries and the work on display.
Similar to PAAM, the Creative Arts Center (CAC)—an integral part of the Chatham community for over 50 years—explored the capabilities of a more realistic virtual exhibition experience with the Matterport app. While artwork from exhibitions can be viewed in a slideshow format on the website, virtual visitors can opt to move through the gallery space on Crowell Road and contemplate the curated groupings of artwork on each wall, from the comfort of their computer, wherever in the world that may be.
Ashley Santos, Associate Director of Marketing at the Nantucket Historical Association, felt that their organization was well-prepared in terms of delivering digital exhibits that celebrated the island’s history, like exploring the historic Edward Carey whaleship.
“The silver lining was that we were somewhat prepared because we have so much great content to share digitally, from scholarly articles, historic photos, digital exhibitions, historic videos, as well as our online volunteer transcription program for our collection of ship logs that we have been digitizing,” said Santos. “We didn’t need to scramble to figure out how to create new content, it was more about taking the time to really start sharing all these online offerings we always had available to our community, but perhaps, weren’t as explored due to a lot of our interactions and story-telling being held in-person.”
While translating images of objects to online galleries was one challenge, orchestrating an entire live-streamed concert was a horse of a different color for the Cape Symphony. Led by Artistic Director & Conductor Jung-Ho Pak, the live performance of Aaron Copland’s “Suite from Appalachian Spring,” was streamed live for free on Facebook. Executive Director Dr. Michael Albaugh said this undertaking was one of the most stressful performances put on by the Symphony due to pandemic restrictions and the live-streaming technology, but the impressive turnout and resulting generous donations made the effort more than worth it.
Classes and events in the culinary arts had found a successful foothold in the Cultural Center of Cape Cod’s roster of offerings. When the pandemic first made in-person classes prohibitive, the Cultural Center’s staff and resident chef, Joe Cizynski, transitioned to online classes and gourmet takeout as a way to keep the kitchen facilities at the Cultural Center in use, and provided the community with a local dining option that brought financial support to the organization. Dinners, like Remember New York or Coq au Vin Night, made the program a runaway success, and Lauren Wolk, Communications Director at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod, related the popularity of this to the communal power of food, saying “Breaking bread with other people is always literally and figuratively a way to nourish each other.” Gourmet take-out has now resumed, as have cooking classes and many other on-site educational opportunities in painting, drawing, ceramics, textiles, humanities, wood turning, and other media; though distanced learning will continue, serving people both close to home and far beyond the bridges.
For many of these organizations, maintaining the ability for the community to have access to instructional workshops and arts education was incredibly important. The CAC has offered adult arts instruction in a range of mediums, from printmaking to pastels to watercolors to oils. To keep this going while in person instruction was not possible, they purchased new technology and set up space at the center for art instructors to come in and safely teach Zoom-based classes. Andrea Zoni Mault, Executive Director and arts instructor at CAC, noted that it was important that they took on the responsibility of capturing the classes virtually, ensuring that the instructors could focus on leading the classes and connecting with the students through the Zoom-based classroom.
The Cultural Center leaned into their organization’s motto of “All the Arts for All of Us,” in ensuring that access throughout the pandemic to their modified resources was made more widely available, especially to at-risk populations. The organization received two impactful grants to enhance this mission; one from the Kelley Foundation, Inc., the other from the Eastern Bank Charitable Foundation. These grants funded the launch of their all-digital “Enhanced Access to Education Program.”
Education Director Amy Neill wrote that this program “will not only continue to offer online classes and workshops but will soon feature lectures, gallery tours, demonstrations, and more, both through Zoom and a new subscription service that will allow users to enjoy an archive of classes and other educational opportunities at their own pace…What makes this program extra special is that we can provide free access to at-risk populations so they can participate from home, school, or partner organizations in the health and human services.”
When PAAM was able to reopen in a limited capacity to the public, they tempered open access with days reserved for visits from at-risk groups supported by Cape-based health and social service groups. Many of these community members were deeply affected by the isolation the pandemic caused, and by creating a safe space for them to engage with art and each other was a simple, yet impactful way to meet their needs.
“We’ve always opened our doors to everybody, but this is specifically targeting groups that may be prone to depression, have been by themselves, or are under-served,” McCarthy said. “It’s not hard for us to do this. I just speak, turn the lights on, and [they] come in and look. That’s been powerful.”
It is this superpower—to see gaps and meet those needs in the community—that have made these cultural organizations so relevant these past months. When the first responders of the Cape needed childcare during the most dire months of the pandemic, the Symphony pivoted, obtaining authorization to turn their acclaimed preschool into an emergency childcare location. Albaugh felt that this laid the groundwork for ensuring that they could re-open the Cape Symphony Preschool in the fall, as well as many classes and private lessons at the Barnstable and Falmouth campuses, with full knowledge of how to meet the state health and capacity guidelines. Many of their other youth programs continued to run, and Albaugh emphasized that their Youth Orchestra never ceased practicing, crediting new technology and music production software in facilitating this all to happen online.
The ability of the internet to serve as a stand-in for classroom learning has salvaged much educational programming, but when staff at PAAM heard from parents that their kids were falling prey to Zoom fatigue, they wanted to find a way to log off computers and get outside. Instead of going fully remote, their award-winning Art Reach program tested out a hybrid model that took advantage of their access to area artists, galleries, parks and trails when possible. The program culminated in an exhibition, titled Actualization: Art Reach 2020-2021, which was on display from April 2 to May 2 and featured artwork from the 48 participants. In a statement on the PAAM website, Art Reach Studio Teaching Artist Vicky Tomayko said of this unique year that “It was an unusual, productive, and rewarding two semesters for Art Reach Studio…from the very beginning I felt privileged to be welcomed into the home studios of young talented artists…Every meeting felt like a new adventure and a hopeful way to spend time.”
The pandemic proved to be the catalyst for these organizations in moving toward more virtual programming. While it may have first served as a stopgap for engaging during the pandemic, it proved to be a step towards greater accessibility and impact. The NHA saw an uptick in engagement from a wider audience for their webinars and an increase in virtual engagement in the off-season. The CAC saw registrations for art classes double, lectures jumped in attendance from 20 people in person to 60 attending virtually. A free lecture on Beethoven hosted by the Symphony saw 100 registrations in less than a day.
A common consensus is that continuing to offer virtual options was integral to better meeting the needs of a wider range of the population. Being more digitally and virtually present undergirds the missions of these organizations of increasing accessibility to the arts.
“There are a lot of people, regardless of the pandemic, that don’t have transportation,” said Wolk. “They don’t have the means to get here, or they’re unwell, or they’re the kind of constituents who are in residential facilities, or are working within the social services in other towns and just can’t get here. And we’re going to continue to serve those populations as best we can.”
These cultural organizations, led and staffed by compassionate and creative individuals, met the challenges of operating during a pandemic with an adaptive capacity beyond admiration. They creatively repositioned themselves to provide access to the arts in a drastically different operational landscape, and the community responded altruistically. While each experienced difficult financial losses due to canceled programming and events, many saw increased membership numbers and a surprising generosity in donations. People saw the importance, relevance and need for the arts on the Cape to continue and survive the pandemic, and this influx of support from their communities underscored this.
The silver lining of this past year filled with difficulty and uncertainty has been that these arts organizations have creatively repositioned themselves to be even more accessible, even more available, and even more meaningful to the community—and in doing so rode out the stormy year on waves of optimism and hope for what the future holds.
“I’m just so proud of how we were able to stay connected and stay relevant,” said McCarthy. “I think we came out of this stronger. We came out of this thinking about new things and what’s really important… I’m very reinvigorated about PAAM and about us continuing our good work in our communities. I don’t think the organization has ever felt stronger to me.”
Sarah Tietje-Mietz is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications