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Wyoming arts community impacted by COVID-19 pandemic
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Wyoming arts community impacted by COVID-19 pandemic

From the Our coronavirus coverage is free to read. Find it all here. series

Wyoming artists, art groups and audiences are among those feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic amid canceled shows and closed museums, galleries and arts centers. Many Wyoming venues had already already announced cancellations before the state required most non-essential businesses to close last week.

“I think on a very high level look at it, is it’s going to be a significant impact to the arts and cultural community across the state,” Wyoming Arts Council executive director Michael Lange said last week. “You know, there’s going to be a bunch of programs that, rightfully so, need to be canceled for health and safety reasons.”

The many effects of the pandemic include arts organizations and groups losing revenue through various means, including ticket sales and donations, while many artists won’t receive paychecks, Lange said. Businesses, groups and organizations that support arts and culture will be suffering as well, he said.

Those in Wyoming’s arts community are seeking ways to stay afloat and some have even begun thinking of alternate ways to offer arts and community connection.

“So it’s going to hurt. It’s going to hurt the arts and cultural organizations across the state,” Lange said. “They’re definitely going to feel a pinch and will be something we need to be cognizant about as a community.”

ImpactVenues, organizations and artists across Wyoming this month began dealing with closings and cancellations amid COVID-19. The Wyoming Symphony Orchestra among them this week postponed its April 18 Suffragette Symphony and earlier this month canceled its March concert plus postponed performances and student programs with Colorado group Guerrilla Fanfare. The symphony plans to reschedule the postponed events.

“It impacts us financially, it impacts the agreement that we have with our donors and our funders of having these events, bringing music to the community,” executive director Rachel Bailey said last week. “But I think the biggest impact of all is to our musicians.”

Many make their living through multiple ensembles including the symphony, she said. The cancellations are also a loss to the local economy in Casper from thousands of dollars the symphony would have spent on things like musicians’ meals and hotels, the post-concert reception plus what audience members would have spent for things like dinners out, she said.

“We’re only one event in the community,” Bailey said. “So think about that and then multiply that over several events that have been postponed or canceled and that’s the community losing out on a lot of economic support.”

The Casper Events Center has postponed concerts including Cher, Nelly and Foreigner and took a $25,000 loss from the 3A and 4A state basketball tournament cancellation, general manager Brad Murphy said early last week. He predicted a significant financial impact, although how much was unclear and depends on what events are canceled or postponed.

“We’ll get through this,” Murphy said. “I mean, the Casper Events Center’s going to be here for a long time, and we’re real excited about when we get to open back up and start serving our constituents again.”

The AVA Commuity Art Center, a small nonprofit in Gillette closed its doors last week. The pandemic adds to the uncertainty in a community that’s already been facing struggles in its main industries, and many of AVA’s donors are directly tied with the oil and gas industry, executive director Quinn Goldhammer said.

“So I guess really without knowing a firm expectation, I do have some anxiety around how this will maybe ripple through all of 2020 and maybe even into next year,” she said.

The WYO Theater in Sheridan early last week closed doors and canceled or postponed several performances.

“I mean, it’s pretty devastating,” executive director Erin Butler said. “For ourselves and I assume most performing arts centers. We are, of course, a nonprofit and we operate on a pretty thin margin. And when there’s no incoming cash flow, then it changes your ability to pay for things.”

There may be a significant loss of donations, she said.

“So we are looking at ways to fund our operations through the end of June if we are able to do so, and which will most likely require some long-term loans and things of that nature,” she said.

At Art 321 in Casper, the gallery and gift shop can’t earn generated income during its closure, which also impacts shows and groups like a weekly watercolor session that had recently grown, executive director Tyler Cessor said.

Unlike businesses, the nonprofit at least has some funding from grants, Cessor said.

“But the problem with grants is that the majority of grants do not support operating funds and paying of staff,” he said.

The Wyoming Arts Alliance has postponed its April workshops around Wyoming and plans to begin introductory work for those workshops remotely, chair of the board Wendy Bredehoft said. The organization provides training to community organizations on topics including leadership development and how to develop a creative economy, and it advocates for arts and culture from the local to the national level, Bredehoft said.

She’s also part of an artist group called the Laramie Artist Project, which puts on a biennial weekend-long exhibit usually in November featuring 30-35 artists. The group talked about possibly postponing the Touchstone Laramie exhibit this time but has decided to host the event online.

There are many ways the pandemic can impact the arts. For instance, the loss of income for many artists with gallery representation amid even temporary closures, she said. If the situation lasts into summer, it would affect art fairs and festivals where many artists travel to make their livings.

“Like I say, everybody is just still, I think, trying to sort all of this out and trying to figure out how long is this going to last,” Bredehoft said. “What’s the impact going to be?”

Coping and creativity

Efforts to cope with the impact of COVID-19 among Wyoming’s arts community include work to support artists and organizations as well as ideas for ways they can stay afloat and even continue to reach audiences and help their communities connect.

About 150-200 groups across the state that receive funding from the Wyoming Arts Council through the state legislative allocation and National Endowment for the Arts Partnership Grant are feeling significant effects in their programs, executive director Lange said. The council is looking into ways to help extend some grant periods and to work one on one with organizations on things like making changes to submitted grants and finding ways they can use and keep grant funds, Lange said. The Wyoming Arts Council’s website also provides a list of resources for organizations and venues as well as individual artists.

The WYO Theater team hasn’t formed plans yet but has talked about ideas like radio-type plays, community assistance work and a virtual downtown arts tour and inviting community members to record themselves sharing writing or inspiring quotes.

“The thing I’ve been telling a lot of people is that it’s so strange for us specifically, in that in times of crisis, we turn to art and helping people gather and inspiring them through performances and dance,” WYO Theater executive director Erin Butler said. “And it’s very saddening to not be able to provide that to people. Because even in, you know, World War II, World War I, that’s how people, our people got through crisis. So we are looking for other ways, and we are hopeful that we will find something.”

The team at Art 321 plans to seek resources and ways the nonprofit can support its artists, Cessor said. Ideas could include live artists chats and online workshops, although those would depend on available technology and ability to execute them on little notice, he said.

The AVA in Gillette remains available during its regular hours to answer questions about materials and techniques and plans to focus on figuring ways to continue to offer programming to the community, Goldhammer said.

“Even if we are not physically open to the public to come down and work in this space, you know, we are working hard to figure out ways to continue to reach those crowds,” she said.

Early ideas have included sharing art processes and programs through social media, Zoom conferences, video uploading and virtual tours, Goldhammer said.

“But our main goal has always been to just advocate as hard as we can for the artists and the art access in this community,” she said. “And so I think I’m pretty confident that we can continue to do that. It just may look different.”

There are many ways communities can continue to support the arts, Lange said.

“It just may look different,” he said. “Like a lot of a lot of arts and culture is about bringing people together, bringing community together, helping people gather, and there’s still a lot of ways to do that kind of in a digital space.”

People could donate the money they would have spent on a canceled event to the organization, become a member, pledge to buy season tickets for the next year, give support on social media and donate to any artists or groups who bring their offerings online, Lange said. He also suggested buying art, CDs and books from artists, musicians and writers by phone or online, Lange said.

The Wyoming Arts Alliance plans to help artists and groups stay informed about resources and ways to cope, board president Bredehoft said.

She’s begun to see more arts in Wyoming taking place on digital platforms.

“The arts always play a really important role in times of sort of tribulation and stress,” she said. “And I’m just noticing that people are stepping up and that’s starting to happen. That’s always exciting to see that people are sharing.”

Follow arts & culture reporter Elysia Conner on twitter @erconner

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