COVID & The Arts: One Year Later

Trauma and transformation: Lansing’s arts scene endures a year like no other

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Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Lansing a year ago, hundreds of passersby along the River Trail have stopped to look a 30-foot-long woman in a surgical mask, lying flat on the ground on an embankment under the I-496 overpass.

The prone woman is St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Artist Isiah Lattimore painted her when the arts world, and just about everything else, shut down a year ago.

Her mute figure speaks of empty concert halls, bare stages, deserted galleries and isolated creators yearning to connect with an audience.

“It’s kind of melancholy,” Lattimore said. “She’s not dead, but she’s tired and going through a lot.”

She is also adapting. The mural is part of Lansing Art Gallery’s ArtPath, an open-air exhibit of 30 artworks dispersed along the River Trail — the perfect way for a shuttered gallery to place fine art before a socially distancing public.

It has been a surreal year for the arts in Lansing, but there is reason for hope. Bigger players like the Wharton Center and the Lansing Symphony are hanging in there, shepherding cash reserves, transmitting beeps of life via online concerts and other events. The Broad Art Museum is open and the Lansing Art Gallery is gearing up for another ArtPath.

Smaller venues like the Robin Theatre, local galleries and theater companies are in hibernation, but hearts are beating under the ice. Musicians are staying connected with their fans via live streams and virtual concerts.

Lattimore painted St. Cecilia as a toppled statue, based on a sculpture by early 17th-century sculptor Stefano Maderno. But the fall triggers a transformation. She is changing from black and white to color, bathed in luminous spheres and graffiti-like curlicues. Her left eye, as big as a football, glows with life force. When she rises again, it will be grand.

 

Striking the set

In mid-April 2020, about a month into the coronavirus lockdown, Chad Badgero took an armful of tools into a dark church and started tearing things apart.

Down went a wall, a sink, a bathtub, another wall. Piece by piece, he dismantled the Jersey City apartment he and the crew of Peppermint Creek Theatre Co. built a few weeks earlier in the basement of its home, Central United Methodist Church.

Usually, striking a set is a bittersweet party. This time, Peppermint Creek’s artistic director was alone. He thought about the absent cast and crew — how they walked away from the set after a rehearsal one night in March, thinking they’d be back the next day.

The troupe was a week away from opening Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer-winning “Cost of Living,” a drama about the disabled and their caretakers, when the pandemic hit.

“I was alone with all these emotions,” Badgero said. “Of not having been able to present that to a formal audience, and the hard decisions of having to tell our volunteer actors and designers, ‘No, we can’t do it.’”

Just before the pandemic shut everything down, bassist Rodney Whitaker barely made it to the West Coast on a redeye flight from a set of gigs in Australia.

Last week, the director of MSU Jazz Studies was shocked when he looked at a photo of himself from about a year ago. “I didn’t realize it then, but it looked like I was in despair,” he said. “For about 30 days, you kept hearing news about some jazz icon dying. I know a lot of people who lost their apartments and had to leave New York City or sell insurance or real estate. Most of the people I know in Detroit and Chicago are okay, but in New York the landlords had no mercy.”

Meghan Martin, director of the Greater Lansing Arts Council, has been in touch with members daily during the pandemic. She said she hasn’t seen any arts organizations go under yet, but the trauma of the past year will be hard to fully assess.

“Our sense of community has been shaken,” Meghan Martin said. “Anything that you’d normally do in person, whether it’s performing artists or going into a cultural institution, the impact on those areas is incredibly negative.”

Americans for the Arts estimates a $1.8 trillion total financial loss to the arts and cultural sector of the United States from the COVID-19 pandemic — nearly 490 million fewer attendees to arts and cultural events. The total financial loss to Michigan arts and culture institutions is estimated at nearly $20 billion. (Compare to $338 billion in New York.) Out of 229 Michigan arts organizations surveyed, about 7 percent reported they were “not confident of survival.”

Wharton Center director Michael Brand has never seen anything like it

“It’s redefined our whole industry, which has never been redefined like this,” Brand said. “Even an act of God got redefined with all this. I have no idea who’s coming back, how strong, and even how ticket sales are going to be.”

Wharton’s two stages have been dark for a year, except for a few socially distanced MSU drama classes. Annual ticket revenues of $10-12 million evaporated. Brand closed down the Wharton’s presenting division and some support staff, furloughing “six or seven” of Wharton’s 40 employees.

Last spring, Wharton’s 2019-2020 season was set for a grand finale, with Broadway blockbusters “Wicked” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” jazz great Branford Marsalis and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet — all canceled. Instead Wharton posted a $560,000 loss for the season.

“It would have been a beautiful, joyful quarter, but it didn’t happen,” Brand said. Losses in 2020-2021, when Wharton’s two theaters sat completely dark, amounted to  $1.5 million. Reserve funds, which Brand described as “flush,” and the Wharton’s annual fund are keeping the operation afloat.

 

Keep it, see you next year

There is nothing less socially distanced, this side of a mosh pit, than a blast of full-tilt Tchaikovsky. Crowding 80 musicians onto a stage was not an option for the Lansing Symphony Orchestra in 2020. One and a half seasons have all but vanished with the pandemic.

The symphony kept core staff employed with PPP money last spring. Musicians made ends meet by teaching, day jobs or unemployment. Director Courtney Millbrook said the next round of federal aid, which includes a $15 billion package for performing arts organizations, will probably tide the organization over until fall. (Brand said the Wharton Center, too, will likely qualify for a “shuttered venue” grant.)

What floored Millbrook was the loyal support of small donors. Despite the offer of a refund, ticket holders have donated more than $80,000 worth of ticket sales from canceled concerts.

“I’m amazed at how many people said, ‘Keep it, see you next year,’” Millbook said. “It feeds your soul. People are sending what they can and valuing local arts.”

Michael Siracuse, director of Riverwalk Theatre, said “incredible” donor generosity has kept the theater ready for its “second act,” despite ongoing utility bills, roof repairs and taxes and a $60,000 sewer repair.

The theater has been dark since March 13, when “A Hotel on Marvin Gardens” closed after one day.

“It’s been a dark and lonely year, but we’re doing OK,” Siracuse said. He’s known for greeting patrons with a hug. “I haven’t had a hug in a long time.”

On March 12, 2020, the Robin Theatre in REO Town hosted a bimonthly hip-hop showcase with local rapper KamWood Hitz. The virus was on its way, and co-owner Dylan Rogers was nervous about letting performers share a microphone. He set up separate mics for each performer and noticed that one rapper wore rubber gloves.

He decided it would be the last show for a while. The Robin was heading for a busy spring, including two Ten Pound Fiddle folk concerts, comedy shows, a spoken word event with storyteller Metro Melik and a two-week run of a new Ixion Theatre play. All were scrapped.

“That was back when there were still shows to cancel and it felt bad to do it,” Rogers said. “Now we’re safely in the realm where you don’t have to cancel anything because nothing is on the calendar.”

After almost five years in operation, the Robin Theatre was just hitting its stride as a community hub and multi-genre showcase.

The theater’s co-owner, Jeana-Dee Allen, is married to Rogers. The couple lives upstairs from the Robin, so expenses are minimal. Allen is busy teaching at MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Rogers got a $10,000 grant from the Lansing Area Economic Partnership to meet taxes and mortgage payments on the theater space.

“We are not going to lose the building. The theater did not fold,” Rogers said.

 

Bowing in silence

It’s strange to see a musician take a bow in total silence.

MSU College of Music Dean James Forger is proud of the school’s inventive livestream concerts, but he ruefully wondered whether he should put cardboard cutouts in the audience, as some sports venues have done.

“There’s nothing like a live audience, because the audience is part of the performance,” Forger said. “That is why the performance exists, to communicate with the audience and get the feedback.”

But MSU’s jazz and classical musicians have been lucky. The Billman Music Pavilion, a state-of-the-art facility the college has dreamed of for decades, was completed in fall 2020, just in time to set up socially distanced rehearsals.

“It could have been custom made for a pandemic, especially the HVAC refreshing the air four times an hour,” Forger said.

A year ago, the college bought $65,000 of microphones to conduct virtual lessons with better fidelity. One doctoral student was taking lessons in his car in March because he couldn’t sing in his apartment.

“That’s just not sustainable,” Forger said.

With the gradual return of in-person rehearsals in February, the invoices on Forger’s desk tell a happier story.

“I never thought I would order 1800 puppy pads to collect all the saliva from my brass students on the floor,” he said.

Most music lessons are still done on line, but major ensembles, including the wind symphony, jazz septets and octets and concert band, are rehearsing live again.

“We’ve learned a lot about aerosols, how much space you need, what instruments can be doing a lesson in studios and what instruments need a very large space,” Forger said. “I don’t know what we would have done with our small ensembles if we didn’t have such large spaces.”

“It’s so great to get back in person, playing with people,” bassist and composer Jordyn Davis said. Davis and other senior students are mentoring freshmen, some of whom are still living at home in other states, to help them navigate a bizarrely remote first year at MSU.

“When everything first happened, the first couple of months were very, very disheartening, scary and sad,” Davis said. After year of wrangling with the technical demands of virtual recitals, the prospect of in-person rehearsals and, in time, performances, keeps Davis and her fellow students hopeful in 2021. “We’re ready to play,” she declared.

 

‘A little bit slow’

Small arts organizations don’t have the cash reserves of a Wharton Center, but they have the advantage of flexibility and low overhead. Casa de Rosado, the warm, grass-roots community gallery and gathering space run by Theresa Rosado at her spacious home on Mt. Hope Avenue, has hosted dozens of wide-ranging exhibits, from velvet art to nude photography in its first three years. Closed to the public in 2020, the gallery served as a hospice space for Rosado’s father-in-law.

“Grandpa Joe appreciated having a rather fancy place to watch his last Tiger games and spend time with his family,” Rosado said.

But Rosado made sure the gallery stayed plugged into the community. At the height of lockdown, she teamed with the Latinx advocacy group Voces de la Comunidad and turned the gallery into a distribution site for food and sanitary supplies for community members in need. Dia de Los Muertos, a yearly highlight at Casa de Rosado, went online, with videos of ofrendas from community members posted on the gallery’s Facebook page. She looks forward to hosting outdoor events this summer.

Moving art into the open air in projects like ArtPath along the River Trail was a big part of 2020’s big pivot for Lansing Art Gallery director Bab Whitney and her staff.

“For the first time in my lifetime, it’s beneficial to us that we don’t have a significant amount of earned revenue related to ticket sales,” Whitney said. The gallery is gradually reopening, with visits by appointment and plans for indoor-outdoor exhibits in the spring.

At MSU’s Broad Art Museum, the pandemic hit just when a new director, Monica Ramirez-Montagut, was ready to move to East Lansing. Caught between two coronavirus hotspots, she was stuck in her former home in New Orleans for months.

The shutdown was doubly frustrating for Ramirez-Montagut because it thwarted her primary goal of bringing a broader audience to the museum. The museum reopened in late fall, with social distancing and mask guidelines, but drew only about half as many visitors as it could safely handle.

New exhibits, including a massive exhibit on car culture that blends local history and art in a way that is new to the Broad, have been extended through August, in the hope that more people will feel comfortable visiting.

“In the creative world, we’re constantly trying out new ideas,” Ramirez-Montagut said. “But everything is a little bit slow right now and you have to adjust to that pace, shape your mentality with reality.”

 

Virtual virtues

Singer-songwriter Jen Sygit is among dozens of musicians who have stayed in touch with their fans on line through the pandemic year.

“The more important thing is reminding people you’re there and giving them a little bit of love for a minute,” Sygit said. “I always feel better after. I hope they do.”

The livetstreams range from high-tech to down-home. On Monday live streams, singer-songwriter May Erlewine lights a candle, flashes a beatific smile and personally greets everyone who logs on: “Hi Dad, Hi Terry, Hi Lisa, Hi Kelly, Hi Jenny, Hi Todd, Hi Mom. Good to see you, Alexis. We made it another week.”

Jazz organist Jim Alfredson pushed his tech knowledge, keyboard skills and basement full of equipment to the limit and beyond.

“It’s been the only thing keeping me playing,” Alfredson said.

For 11 bleak weeks, “Live From Jimmy’s Basement” beamed livestreamed solo jazz to a pandemic-numbed populace until Alfredson’s band mates, guitarist Larry Barris and drummer Randy Marsh, could rejoin him in the basement in June. Tuesday night jazz at Moriarty’s managed to stay alive on line through most of the year, also from Alfredson’s basement studio.

“I’m just thankful that when all the gigs went away, I had the knowledge and the gear,” Alfredson said.

Alfredson is no longer taking unemployment this year, relying on his wife’s income as a Realtor and his own piano tuning, instrument repair and engineering gigs.

“I haven’t heard from too many musicians that are really hurting right now,” he said. “It seems like the federal response has been helpful.”

With the coming of warmer weather, a dot or two has popped up on his schedule, including a March festival in Florida, and he’s ready to get out of the basement.

“So many people are doing streaming that the revenue has fallen off rather precipitously,” he said.

After several months of concerts from artist’s homes, with varying levels of quality, the novelty is beginning to wear off. Some venues are restoring a bit of professionalism to virtual concerts by hosting artists in empty theaters and streaming the music. Sygit is doing a concert at St. Cecilia’s in Grand Rapids in April.

“It’s a step up from playing in your living room to getting back on a live stage with an audience,” Sygit said.

As president of a tech-savvy P.R. firm, Terry Terry is in a sweet spot to exploit the advantages of virtual shows. Terry, the Old Town impresario behind JazzFest and BluesFest, expects both festivals to go on, in person and online, in 2021, the former in August and the latter in September.

In 2020, Terry combined JazzFest and BluesFest into a one-week “hybrid” event combining limited, socially distanced live concerts and livestreamed music from around the world.

On Feb. 14, more than 150 people attended the virtual “Burning Desires” poetry event livestreamed from Terry’s intimate UrbanBeat performance venue in Old Town — more people than have ever been to an event there in person. Virtual “tables” of two, four, six or eight were set up, where visitors could chat and even share videos or images with each other.

“People who hadn’t seen each other in 20 years got to have face to face conversations,” Terry said.  “Things have changed. When we bring JazzFest and BluesFest back live, safely, that’s going to be part of the deal from now on.”

Roaring Twenties

On New Year’s Day 2021, Dylan Rogers’ pandemic grieving period was suddenly over. “Something clicked, and I’m not the only person who feels that way,” he said. “I just felt it was going to get better.”

Between writing grant proposals to keep the Robin Theatre ready for reopening, Rogers has been keeping busy building shelves. He plans to park a used bookstall in the theater when the weather warms, to keep the theater connected with the community.

Rodney Whitaker has been getting back into the studio, making new albums and teaching from home, with recent forays into the Billman Pavilion to lead the jazz ensembles in person. (He stands behind a Plexiglas shield, like the pope.)

Touring can be a grind. Alfredson and Badgero cherished an unstructured 2020 with their spouses and kids.

“Some of us got healthier, eating at home,” Whitaker said. “Everybody I know is practicing and ready to go. A lot of writing has taken place. Musicians are ready to go out and play.”

“The biggest thing I learned in 2020 is to take care of myself,” Jordyn Davis said. “Typically, we have 12-hour days, going and going and going, and it can be hard to carve out time to take care of your body, your mind and your spirit. Once the gigs come back, I think I’ll have a more balanced life.”

After months in hibernation, a yearning for the old life is surging. Badgero felt it as early as late October, when Peppermint Creek hosted a drive-in film, “Hear Our Cry.”

“I thought I was fine, loving the slower pace,” he said. “When we opened that show — even though it was a drive-in — I was overwhelmed. I realized there was a gaping hole in my life. Even though we were all in our own cars, it felt so good to be gathered with other people in the same place.”

Mood swings are the dominant recreation in a pandemic year. A year ago, Badgero and other panicky theater directors huddled for a Zoom call to compare survival strategies. The call evolved into a monthly check-in, with as few as three or as many as eight leaders participating.

“I’m an eternal optimist, almost disgustingly,” Badgero said. “Other people are saying that this is going to be the death of theater, people are going to watch Netflix the rest of their lives and we’re going to close.”

The unknowns are daunting for an organization that plans months ahead, but for now, the Wharton Center plans to open in the fall. However, Michael Brand has no interest in repeating the bumpy startups of pro- and college-sports seasons.

“It’s not a socially distanced industry,” he said. “If it’s that dangerous, performers aren’t going to go in there and breathe all that air and sing for 90 minutes. Safety nets are not established yet.”

He said rules will have to be worked out requiring distancing and masks and called for mandatory vaccinations for casts and crews.

“All I’m thinking about is, what else do I have to cancel, before the doors open and people come back?” Brand said. “There’s nothing we can do about it. If we’re not open in September, the thing moves. That’s all there is to it.”

Whitaker, a keen student of music history, is taking a longer view. When the pandemic breaks, he expects pent-up creativity to unleash a second version of the Roaring 20s. “The Harlem Renaissance came out of that time, and it was just after a pandemic,” he said. “There will be a lot of new clubs opening, new organizations. I think it will be a good time for us.”

Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt agrees.

“The pent-up demand has the potential to be off the charts,” Muffitt said. “The response we got to our first digital concert, the emotional response from some of our patrons, was overwhelming — the way they felt after hearing their musicians playing for them, even if it was recorded on another day.”

The past year suggests that human emotions are subject to inexorable, almost Newtonian physics of pressure and release, and that’s good news for the arts.

“Speaking for myself, I can’t wait to go to an art museum,” Muffitt said. “I can’t wait to go to a restaurant.  I can’t wait to do anything.”

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