This article was updated Sept. 2 to add the postponement of two symphony performances.
You can feel it in the air. People of all ages, sizes and hues are dancing in the streets. Venues are abuzz with people hungry for live theater and music, after more than a year of darkened stages and shuttered performance spaces.
The arts are back, they say, but cautiously.
The arts —dependent on audiences or students — struggled in COVID-19 and are still struggling. Leaders of arts and cultural organizations in Winston-Salem made painful layoffs and took pay cuts.
But they didn’t go away. They dug in, and they did what artists do: They collaborated, innovated, and made more art.
If you want a tangible value for the arts, a pre-COVID study by Americans for the Arts showed that the arts industry has a $156.8 million economic impact on Forsyth County and supports 5,560 fulltime jobs.
Chase Law, executive director of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County, calls artists “second responders.”
“We are so grateful for our first responders. … First responders save lives; second responders put lives back together.”
Law started her job in the middle of the pandemic —Dec. 1, 2020. She was an actor in New York City in 2001 when the 9/11 attacks made her reexamine her values and career. She became an arts administrator and never looked back.
Like 9/11, she says, the pandemic created time for a reset.
The Arts Council is reimagining its role in the community and reinvesting its resources.
“Reinvesting means asking questions about representation, equity, access, diversity, and inclusion. It is about every story, every voice, every person.”
The Arts Council held its first public event since the pandemic in October with an Arboreal Gallery opening for artist Mona King’s “ri-ˈnü (renew).” Then a flurry of events opened the Arts Council theaters, starting in June.
This month, the Arts Council will host plays, Bookmarks Festival of Books and Authors and the Artists Thrive Summit.
“Arts people are resilient,” Law says. “They worked hard and they fought for this day to come back.”
The show went on
COVID-19 hit Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance in the middle of a $500,000 fundraising campaign for a new theater space. To keep up interest and ticket revenue, WSTA took shows outside — first to the backyard of their old space on Northwest Boulevard, and then to the parking lot of their shiny new space on Sixth Street.
Jamie Lawson, artistic director, says the goal of WSTA has never been to make money but to make theater, and they’ve done that through COVID times by applying their customary hustle.
“It’s just been a gift from our community, from our donors, from grants — from the Arts Council to national grants like Shuttered Venue Operators,” Lawson says. “We asked and we received, and we are very appreciative for that. Ticket sales are robust.”
Dealing with COVID was “innovation on the fly, constant innovation,” Lawson says. “We don’t have a curtain yet. A curtain is $30,000. We’ll get to it as we get to it.”
The first show they did outside was “Tintypes.” “We had sandbags on everything, but the wind still blew one of the backdrops over onto an actor’s head.
“After all that, we are still planning to do some stuff outdoors. People come with their umbrellas and their bottles of water. Our folks have just been troupers — the volunteers and the audiences. My hat’s off to all of them.”
The first show inside Theatre Alliance’s new space, “Something Rotten,” opened Aug. 20, and “Evita” is set to open Sept. 3.
N.C. Black Repertory Co. also kept up performances during COVID.
“We’ve been fortunate,” says Jackie Alexander, artistic director. “The world shut down in March 2020, and by April, we were producing shows either outside or online, and we were able to stay in touch with our audiences and find new ways to produce theater.”
They partnered with Southeastern Center for Contemporary art for an outdoor readers theater series, and 12 colleges across the U.S. watched “Freedom Summer” online.
The worst part was having to lay off staff and postponing the biennial National Black Theatre Festival for the first time in its history, Alexander says.
In place of the festival this year, N.C. Black Rep presented a weeklong Holy Ground Revival of nightly shows in collaboration with RiverRun International Film Festival in August.
N.C. Black Rep’s first indoor show since COVID will be "Nativity According to the Gospels" Dec. 4-19 in Hanesbrands Theatre. Alexander says that in 2022, Black Rep will begin normal production and start work on the next festival.
Here's the trailer for the documentary "Holy Ground: The Legacy of the National Black Theatre Festival":
Little Theatre of Winston-Salem reopened in July with “Moana Jr.,” a production with their Summer Camp kids that sold out several shows.
“We are going to start slow and build,” says Philip Powell, executive director. “It’s a new, different world. We are looking a lot at how to perform. We’re looking at what Broadway and larger theaters are doing. They are selling to capacity but taking precautions.”
What Little Theatre missed most during the shutdown was ticket revenue.
“It’s a precarious position to be in,” he says. “But the first week that season tickets went on sale in June, we got halfway to our goal. Now we are 90 percent to our goal.”
Their next show, “Sylvia,” runs Sept. 10-19, and “Murder on the Orient Express will be Oct. 15-24.
“We are going to be here providing content in safe and entertaining ways, short of a government shutdown,” Powell says. “We’re coming back strong, but we are coming back carefully.”
The music didn’t die
A symphony orchestra is the lifeblood of the musical community. Symphony players perform with smaller ensembles, with other area orchestras and often teach.
Winston-Salem Symphony shut down live performances in March 2020 and planned to reopen to the public on Sept. 11 with “The Chevalier.”
However, the Symphony switched gears on Sept. 2, announcing it would postpone that performance and its Ignite Family Series "Green Eggs & Ham" concert because of the rapidly rising number of Delta Variant cases.
"Given the impact of the Delta Variant on younger people and the fact that many of the children we looked forward to welcoming to 'Green Eggs & Ham' are presently not eligible for the protection from vaccines, our commitment to health and safety had to prevail," said Merritt Vale, executive director, in a news rlease. "As with 'The Chevalier,' we look forward to announcing a rescheduled 2022 date for this concert as soon as possible.”
During the shutdown, the Symphony presented seven live-streamed or digitally recorded Classics and Pops concerts in addition to live Symphony Serenades, small ensembles engaged by private groups.
“We launched four new Etherbound art films that received more 500,000 views over 23 countries,” says Merritt Vale, executive director. “Each was a commentary on what was happening in the world.”
Donors helped established a musicians’ relief fund. “That $80,000 was a drop in the bucket, but it was something we could do,” Vale says.
Art and nature
At Reynolda House Museum of American Art, they have learned to prepare for the unexpected, says Allison Perkins, executive director and Wake Forest University provost of Reynolda House and Gardens.
Though the museum was closed for seven months, “Reynolda Gardens opened to the public, and we became Winston-Salem’s front yard. We had two to three times the usual audience walking through our 138 acres.”
The current exhibition, “The Voyage of Life: Art, Allegory, and Community Response,” replaced a more expensive show Perkins had to cancel.
“We combined great works of art from Wake Forest and Reynolda House – it’s the result of a massive pivot – and the inclusion of community voices. A community story spearheads each section,” Perkins says. It will hang through Dec. 12.
This month, “The O’Keeffe Circle: Artist as Gallerist and Collector” opens.
The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art re-opened a few days a week in September 2020 with a dynamic show, “Drawn,” that filled both of its main galleries.
During the shutdown, William Carpenter, executive director, and his staff were busy forming alliances and maximizing their usable spaces.
“We have a new outdoor stage by the lake. We converted the boxwood garden into a patio. We are going to re-do the walking trails and redevelop the main entrance — which now leads straight into the gallery area. The old house will become more of an event and education facility,” he says.
Of the current exhibitions, “Freeman Vines: Hanging Tree Guitars” is the centerpiece and will hang through Sept. 12.
Sawtooth School for Visual Art quickly adapted to the demands of online lessons and was also among the first organizations that started opening back up — with masking and social distancing — last July.
They put in special technology, rearranged studios for social distancing, resurfaced tables to be sure they could be properly cleaned and brought in special cleaning supplies.
“When everything stopped, we had time to make adjustments, and now we are still using those technologies and we are realizing how effective they are,” Amy Jordan, executive director, says.
Despite the success of their online teaching, Jordan emphasizes the value of in-person classes, including Sawtooth’s well-equipped studios in 11 disciplines.
“When everyone in a room gets into an artist-flow moment, there is a magic that happens,” Jordan says.
Find out about classes here.
Bookmarks, Winston-Salem’s independent bookstore, shuttered for three months, before opening on a limited-capacity, appointment-based schedule in June. It opened fully in April.
“We are following government and CDC guidelines, and our comfort level,” says Jamie Southern, executive director.
Bookmarks hosted 120 virtual events from April to December of 2020. They reached people from 38 states and 11 countries.
Most of the online events were free are pay-what-you-can. “Because people were struggling,” Southern says.
Bookmarks’ annual Festival of Books and Authors is Sept. 23-26.
UNC School of the Arts is the only state conservatory school in the country. It prepares people for professional jobs in art and entertainment industries.
Last spring, UNCSA shifted all classes to remote learning. They are predominately in-person now.
“This season will be presented to capacity. We have an indoor mask mandate for all campus facilities — including the Stevens Center,” says Brian Cole, chancellor. “At the end of September and beginning of October, we will present music with guest artists, our first dance events and plays. We are confident in our ability to do that safely.”
Find the performances schedule, announce last month, here.
Piedmont Opera was a mere week from opening a production of “The King and I” in March 2020 when the pandemic shut everything down.
James Allbritten, general and artistic director, canceled the production but immediately hitched his audience to the Metropolitan Opera, which was broadcasting recordings of their past productions weekly.
Allbritten and Steven LaCosse, artistic director of the A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute at UNC School of the Arts, did Facebook Live shows for the following 24 weeks, explaining all of the Met broadcasts for Piedmont Opera fans — and more.
“There was a guy from Italy who kept tuning in,” Allbritten says.
Piedmont Opera also produced two operas online, for which people bought tickets and tuned in from 43 states and 11 countries.
The Piedmont Opera’s season will open Oct. 15, 17, and 19 with a Giacomo Puccini double bill.
No revenue from school groups
Old Salem’s president and chief executive Frank Vagnone has set a goal to make sure that Old Salem Museums and Gardens lasts far past his tenure.
To that end, he must keep more than 100 acres of historic district with several hundred buildings and ancillary structures staffed and maintained.
Right now, the footprint of the living-history attraction, which includes not only the museums and gardens but also private residents, Salem College and Academy, Moravian Home Church, the Moravian Music Foundation, the Moravian Archives, and Salem Congregation Administration, is in Phase 2 of what will be a four-phase reopening.
“The public doesn’t understand the magnitude of difficulty that cultural organizations and museums are in. If we fully reopen, we would end up with a $3 million deficit by the end of the year,” Vagnone says. “70% of Old Salem revenue comes from school groups.”
Vagnone says that he has kept in touch with school administrators, and they may not be coming back until the Fall of 2024.
“That means Old Salem will have to manage without earned revenues for three years,” he says. “It’s more about the economic effects of 2020 than the present Delta Variant. … we will feel the long-term effects from this for three more years.”
About 50 percent of the museum’s venues are now open. Current operating hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday with a suggested donation of $10 to enter all of the venues. This is a discount from the regular adult price of $27.
Muddy Creek Café is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“We are sticking to the plan of a gradual, deliberate reopening,” Vagnone says. “The Delta Variant issue is a great example of why we should not overstep the reopening process. There are real people’s lives at stake for me to re-open. That’s not something that any of us take lightly.”
Bring us together
Delta Arts Center, operated by Delta Fine Arts, closed down when everyone else did and reopened in June with an exhibition of vivid paintings of the South Carolina Lowcountry and its unique Gullah culture.
The show, “Culture Keeper: The Gullah Art of Diane Britton Dunham, depicts scenes from daily life along with flights of fancy. It will hang through Sept. 26.
They also emerged with a new executive director.
Kashif Powell says he left his tenured position as a professor at East Los Angeles College in communication studies department in California, because Delta offers him the chance to do creative programming he couldn’t do in the classroom.
“What the pandemic taught me is that isolation is deadly,” Powell says. “At the core of humanity is communication and socialization. When that got taken away, we got scared to touch each other, scared to be with each other. People got sick, people died, people got depressed.”
Powell gestured at the gallery space at Delta, full of Dunham’s paintings, musicians setting up for a blues concert, and people eating and drinking.
“This is what is going to bring us back,” he says. “Music and art. We need to be together, and the arts will bring us together.”