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Take 5 with Chase Law, CEO of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County

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Chase Law (copy)

Chase Law, president and chief executive of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County, Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.

Chase Law took the helm of Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County in December amid the COVID-19 shutdowns of many arts venues.

She became the new president and chief executive in December of 2020.

The Asheboro native and High Point University graduate came to Winston-Salem from Charlotte, where she was the vice president of development at Blumenthal Performing Arts.

1. Does Winston-Salem live up to its City of Arts and Innovation nickname, and if so, how?

That’s a great question and one we talk about so much.

First of all, if I can just share a little intro story of my coming into Winston-Salem my very first day, and I saw that sign as welcome to Winston-Salem, city of arts and innovation. And that just made me smile.

Then I thought, "What does that mean? I can't wait to find out," and boy, did I.

I would say the short answer is yes, the city does live up to the name of arts and innovation. I think it's continuing to do so as we grow. It's chock full of arts and cultural offerings and then innovation into that. It does creep over into the cultural sector, which is great.

We're seeing a lot of that with our technical folks; technical theater innovation has been a part of that tagline forever, even though it didn't used to be City of Arts and Innovation, it just was City of the Arts.

Now, adding that innovation piece because you've got the biomedical region here down at the Bailey Park area. Again, with arts and innovation, they have always gone hand in hand, and this city really does support that.

I'll tell you another way it's really lived up to the name is being innovative during a pandemic, having organizations continue their mission and their work in a virtual space and coming together to make sure the arts stay alive.

They were doing some innovative things during that and some new pieces got introduced and new works of art got introduced. And also, one of our board members, and also a leader in the community, developed a virtual streaming platform for arts and cultural organizations to do shows, to do classes, and so much more. That was pure innovation right there, and our organizations that we support to the advantage of that to help continue their mission in programs.

The name of the streaming service is called Artarie.

2. Moving here from Charlotte, what’s one thing about Winston-Salem that surprised you?

I touched on it just a second ago. I didn't know what to expect, moving in the middle of a pandemic was very interesting, and taking a new job in the middle of the pandemic is very interesting.

I know what we were doing in Charlotte and how we were responding and saying ‘We can't lose any momentum. We have to keep going.’ I didn't know what to expect here. I thought, ‘Am I going to come into a community and see that organizations are just waiting for the pandemic to end?’ and boy, was I wrong in thinking that.

I could not have been more impressed with how the organizations that are under the art council umbrella were doing to really keep people in front of them and not forgetting what they're doing and the value they have in the community.

But not just in their own silos, but together. They forged partnerships that never would've happened. That just made me feel so good. That gave me a sense of pride, even though I had just walked into the community, and this community has a huge sense of pride of the history and heritage here, and I do think they're using that history and heritage.

I know the Arts Council's doing that to propel us forward, and I'm seeing new conversations taking place. I really think that these last two and a half to three years have been a huge opportunity, and that's what I've noticed – that's taking advantage. They didn't use it (before). They didn't take advantage of the – it's negative, but – the opportunities that lie in front of us and in Salem wanting to set the standards.

We are first in so many things. First Arts Council in the country, and that's amazing. There are so many firsts here. I just love that about this theory, and it made me jump to be a part of it.

3. What's a positive change that came from operating during the pandemic?

Positive is not staying in the land of status quo.

I think it's so easy when you're working and things are just going great right. This has always worked for us. I'm saying that – not the ‘royal we,’ not just Arts Council – but it's like ‘This is the way we've always operated, this has worked fine for so many years, let's keep doing it.’

Then, boom, a pandemic hit, and everything gets shut down. Well, the opportunity is: Was this the right thing? Should we continue?

It helped us to look inward and say, "What are we doing that no one else does?"

Great, OK, let's keep that. What are we doing OK but we could improve upon? What is it that we're not doing well and we need to chuck? What needs to be introduced, right?

I think that's the opportunity, allowing organizations and especially Arts Council, to look inward and really examine, and then understand what the community needs are, in a real intentional way, and how we're responding to that.

That is our council base: How are we using arts, culture, innovation to respond to real needs in our community and bring community together. I think that was the huge opportunity here.

4. What kind of art have you created, personally, and how has that influenced your career choices?

My background is in theater, I used to be an actor, singer, dancer in my first career and lived in New York City and pursued the dream.

It's like milestones and big events in life make a change, of course, and so I was up there during 9/11. That was a jolt to the system, and it's a hard life. I don't regret doing it, living in New York, but I was a newlywed as well. I said, ‘I'm not sure I want to pursue this, but I don't want to leave the arts,’ so I started to dig and figure out what can I … I've only trained to be an actor; what can I do with that?

Actually, being trained as an actor and understanding– because there's a lot of research that goes along with being a performer when you're playing a role and understanding that role, understanding the time period, etc., etc., etc., to be able to build your character and keep it authentic – that's helped me in my career as an arts administrator.

I shifted gears, and when I learned about fundraising and arts administration and organizations and programming, I was like, ‘Wow, I can make a true impact in a very different way and really help keep the arts alive.’

And because of that performance background, I consider myself a storyteller.

When I go out and talk about programs – and because it's the arts, it's in my blood and heart and soul; it's all about me; it's all encompassing of what I love and passionate about – it's very easy for me to get excited and be able to tell a story and talk about impact, and I know it's a real conversation. It's prepared me for this role, for sure. I was born and raised in arts.

5. Despite inflation, economists say consumers have shifted much of their spending from goods, which were in big demand early in the pandemic, to experiences. How does the economy impact the Arts Council?

That's a great question; it's a hard question.

Just overall, the arts struggles during this last 2.5, 3 years, I think it's going to take us a while to rebuild. I am really proud to say that last year, when I first arrived in December 2020, we were in the middle of our fiscal year and focusing on the campaign. We exceeded our campaign goal, which was fabulous.

I really felt great about that, and we're on track to exceed our campaign goal again this year here in my second year. That's really good.

I think that, across the board, we can't just sit back and feel like, ‘We got this.’

We have to work for it. We have to talk about why the arts are important, why folks need to invest in the arts and help keep the arts alive. It's not nice to have; it's a necessity.

Why is it a necessity? The challenge is, as I mentioned a minute ago, I'm a storyteller, and as we tell the story. You can't just say, "Oh, the arts are a necessity." OK, great, we have to have the arts. Well, there's never been the ‘why’ following it. We have left the why out for many years. We've got to bring that back in.

Why it's important? Well, it helps respond to real needs in the community and for the long haul. Here's how it does it. It's the why and the how. How are we working with other industries in the community to drive the overall goals of our community forward?

We're not just silos. I think if we stay in a bubble of the arts, then that's going to start affecting us even further because it sounds like, ‘OK, it's a nice to have.’

In order for us to continue building on fundraising and having folks continuing to invest in us, we definitely have to show that intersection throughout the community and how the arts can be the leader in driving the community forward well into the future.

The second part of that would be, I talked a little bit about the contributed side, but the earned revenue side, that's ticket sales and rentals and whatnot.

With the pandemic and ... we have three theaters, no rentals coming in.

And then we were easing back in.

Now, we're seeing gangbusters. People are coming out of the woodwork to be able to put up a show, all of our resident companies. They've booked their seasons throughout the next year. They're ready to move forward.

We’ve got to keep that momentum going, and shows are being sold out, which is fabulous. People are ready to come back. They want that experience because they've missed it for so long. We're seeing that.

We had done a survey of the community.

The arts constituencies and patrons and a lot of our participants talked about willingness and readiness to come back to experiences live and person experiences. This was, gosh, I want to say maybe three or four months after I got here. We were still in the midst of it, that things were shut down, and, of course, it was all about vaccinations and making sure things are socially distanced, etc.

We did that. We eased in. We had vaccination checks, we had masks, we socially distanced.

We don't check vaccination and tests anymore. We have full capacity in our theaters.

I think what's going to hit hard is the ebbs and flows of COVID. What I just saw happen – I don't know, maybe about a month ago – when we had a spike in Forsyth County, there were three shows that had shut down because multiple cast members came down with COVID. That is detrimental.

What I'm fearful of is for so long, folks have said, ‘Oh, I'll convert my ticket into a donation so you can keep it.’ If that keeps happening, is there going to be a level of, well, patrons say, ‘Gosh, I'm going to make my decision at the last minute. I'm not going to invest in season tickets. I'll wait until to be sure that the show is canceled.’

I think that the bottom line is: It's still a pandemic. Until we have it listed as an endemic, we're still going to have ups and downs. We have to address those things as they come to us.

I think instead of being reactive, we're taking a more proactive approach to it. I've brought the theater companies together for conversation about how we would handle that, what are policies we want to establish, and really supporting them. Not leading the charge but just bringing them together.

They had a collective conversation about how do we work with local actors, how do we ensure that we're going to continue on and support our mission as well and support the patrons that invest in us.

The conversation's going, and I think if we learned anything from the last 2.5, 3 years, we’ve got to pivot. You have to be ready and willing to pivot at a moment notice.

I think the arts, in general, is they're resilient that the folks that work in this industry are resilient because they care so much about this industry and keeping it alive.

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