As COVID-19 cases on the southern Kenai Peninsula start to drop and more than 700 local seniors got their first dose of the Moderna vaccine last week, local arts and cultural organizations look ahead to a post-COVID-19 future. Their vision could be described as cautiously optimistic tempered with an understanding that the pandemic is not yet over.
While performances and large First Friday openings won’t happen until at least the fall, organizations have made some changes and announced programs that signal slow progress toward a new, safer normal. Some of the efforts include:
• At Bunnell Street Arts Center, Artist in Residence Emily Schubert will visit from Maryland in April and hold in-person workshops, the first physically present artist since the pandemic started. It also will bring back its popular Plate Project, where volunteer artists paint plates to be offered as membership premiums.
• Storyknife, the writers residency for women founded by local author Dana Stabenow, opens in June with its first group of six writers and poets after postponing its opening in 2020.
• The Homer Council on the Arts has finished a basement remodel and addition of a new ventilation system and will hold Art a la Carte classes with Carly Garay for pods of four students.
• The Pratt Museum will present an exhibit this summer that was canceled in 2020: “Microbial Worlds.” The museum will also offer more consistent hours for small groups while offering visits by appointment. It also will expand use of its outdoor spaces as weather improves in the spring.
• While Pier One Theatre won’t hold indoor live performances of plays, it will continue to offer programs like its radio theater on KBBI and possibly outdoor performances like this past October’s “Haunted Shakespeare” on the Pratt Museum trail.
Throughout the pandemic, arts organizations adapted and developed innovations in response to the ever fluctuating and uncertain impact of the novel coronavirus.
“I think all of us did a really good job of getting through 2020. It was two steps forward, one step back,” said Pratt Museum Director Jennifer Gibbins. “… I think all of us have a little more pandemic experience under our belts.”
Some of the ideas were simple, like buying and setting up Adirondack chairs on the Pratt lawn so people could gather while spread out in small groups outdoors. Organizations put programs online, like Bunnell’s First Friday artist talks. When the arts council canceled its popular Nutcracker Arts and Crafts Faire, it created a sales portal for vendors on its website. Pier One did public radio programs on KBBI and shifted its Second Sundays Shakespeare readings to a virtual platform. Venues with gallery spaces first closed them, but as Alaska reopened last summer, brought back exhibits with restrictions on things like numbers of visitors and required face masks.
In some ways, the pandemic pushed organizations to reimagine programs or push forward strategic plans.
“In the strangest way, the virus pushed our thinking a year ahead in some respects,” Gibbins said. “It really pushed our thinking to look at what are our assets and how are we using them, and how can we use them better.”
For example, after the museum’s building remodel, the board and staff pushed up renovations of its 10-acre campus that includes the botanical gardens and trail system. Work on the botanical gardens under a grant from the Patrons of the Pratt will continue this summer. With Alaskans discovering nature and the outdoors as being a safe, comfortable place to be when indoor spaces became more dangerous, the Pratt will be using its exterior assets more, Gibbins said.
Storyknife also will adapting and using outdoor space for safer gathering venues. While residents will have their own private cabins to live and write, with food delivered to them at breakfast and lunch, it also envisions the writers gathering at the main cabin for dinner and the fellowship that results.
“We’ve talked about having meals under a tent on the back deck instead of inside,” said Storyknife Director Erin Hollowell. “We’ve got a whole bunch of scenarios.”
Creating professional and personal bonds through such meetings is important to Storyknife’s mission of enhancing opportunities for women.
“I think part of what we’re trying to do is reconcile the part of the publishing industry and all these other industries where people open the doors for each other, where those doors are being opened by men, and give woman a chance to open doors for each other,” Hollowell said.
For the upcoming season, Pier One Theatre will likely continue as it did for 2020, with no indoor performances and more radio theater and possibly some small outdoor plays.
“I don’t mind telling you it’s a little hard to approach this coming year,” said Pier One Director Jennifer Norton.
Last year the pandemic forced them into closing and “just trying to make do and get by,” Norton said.
“And now it’s like taking a deep breath and saying, ‘We have to do that again,’ but maybe with a little bit more knowledge of how that looks like, continue to grow in the direction we had last year, keep building on what we learned last year,” she said.
Norton mentioned a talk Dr. Anthony Fauci gave at the Association of Performing Arts Professionals on Jan. 9. According to the New York Times, Fauci said that depending on the vaccination rollout, and if enough people got vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, venues could reopen next fall. That would be too late for Pier One’s usual summer season. Pier One’s theater on the Spit also is small and with old ventilation. Pier One also has to consider the safety of its audiences, many of whom are elderly.
“It’s clear to us people are eager for live performances, but they want to do it where it’s safe,” Norton said. “… That leaves a lot of questions to us. What is our mission? Is it creating an outdoor theater space we can use at any time, or maybe a mobile theater space?”
Norton recalled a line from Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrans and Guildenstern are Dead,” in which theater performers realize they are acting to a vanished audience: “We ransomed our dignity to the clouds, and the uncomprehending birds listened.”
“That line has been in my head all year,” she said.
At the Homer Council on the Arts, “We’re cautiously planning,” said Scott Bartlett, executive director.
The building improvements will allow young artists to take small classes taught by Carly Garay, like February’s class in wearable arts and March’s class in print making. Those are media that can be hard to teach online.
“They’re both really tactile things,” Bartlett said.
The arts council was founded as a performing arts organization, but that part of its mission is on hold. Bartlett said a state group called the Alaska Presenters Consortium is putting together guidelines for reopening performance venues, with in-state programming first. Bartlett said the arts council is watching to see what that might look at.
“Wait and see,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of that. Let’s not get too deep into it until we’re close enough. We don’t want to overcommit.”
Gibbins said that key to arts and cultural organizations recovering from the pandemic will be more stability.
“I feel that heading into 2021 we have a ways to go until this pandemic — we’ve got a handle on it, so to speak — we’ve got a long to go before the economy is stabilized,” she said.
Still, there’s room for optimism and hope as the arts community looks to a path forward.
“We’re all aware of the hard stuff. The hard stuff is not going away next week,” Gibbins said. “It’s going to be gradual. It’s probably going to get harder before it gets better. But we can see all the possibility ahead of us. That’s a great thing. We have to remember that.”