Weathering the Storm: COVID-19 & the Arts

There’s a hustle going on behind the scenes as artists and arts groups work to stay financially viable while keeping their audiences engaged.

Peoria Players Theatre presents Take Care of Each Other
Peoria Players Theatre presents "Take Care of Each Other" amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed every aspect of life, and the Peoria-area arts community is no exception. From cancelled programs and events, to the frenzied scramble for funding, to the many challenges of this sudden adjustment to online-only experiences, arts leaders are feeling their way through this new world—just like everyone else. Many are nonprofit organizations with modest budgets and staff, so it’s not easy to shift on a dime. But, enabled by technology, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

There’s a hustle going on behind the scenes as artists and arts groups work to stay financially viable while keeping their audiences engaged. In line with the current social distancing paradigm, Peoria Magazine hosted a virtual roundtable of local arts and cultural institutions, checking in to see how they are doing in the age of COVID-19. As we all “shelter in place,” we turn to the arts for content and experiences to keep us entertained and feel connected to others. Their resiliency and willingness to adapt is helping all of us cope with this new reality, while bringing innovations to light that will last long after the pandemic is over.

Roundtable participantsHow is your organization working to make the arts accessible during these times?

Jenn Gordon, ArtsPartners: In line with our mission to strengthen the arts community, we have partnered with Enjoy Peoria on The At Home Sessions concert series. These concerts are recorded by the artists in their homes and live-streamed via Facebook. We are also accepting donations through this series which then go back to the performers and to first-responders. 

Our weekly arts update, “What’s Playing,” is now focused on connecting people with virtual local arts experiences. It has been nothing short of inspiring to see how many groups, artists and organizations have assembled virtual classes, tutorials, museum tours, demonstrations and concerts to keep the public engaged while still promoting the message of “sheltering in place.”

We are also working with WCBU to restart production of our weekly arts show, Out and About, using video conferencing and remote audio editing software. It’s all about bringing the arts community to you—because artists are still creating, teachers are still teaching, musicians are still playing, dancers are still dancing, and actors are still acting. There are so many opportunities to virtually engage with our arts community during this time—and we want to help facilitate those connections. 

Cathie Neumiller, Peoria Riverfront Museum: Our staff created “Virtual Peoria Riverfront Museum” as a vehicle for delivering daily arts, history and science content through our website, email blasts and social media. We’ve created content-rich “shows,” scheduled each weekday on Facebook, as well as videos organized into playlists on our YouTube channel. A big feature on Facebook is the regular scheduling of live videos, such as “Museum Mondays” with live guitar performances that include an educational preview. 

Our curators, including lead curator Bill Conger, have contributed self-made videos on aspects of the museum’s exhibitions and collection, and even the art of collecting itself. Art curator Zac Zetterberg has recorded performances on a variety of instruments related to the guitar as we get ready for our upcoming Guitar: The Instrument That Rocked the World exhibition. History curator and collection registrar Lottie Fiddes is organizing our collection into viewable online galleries which we’re sharing on our website and social media. We’re also featuring videos made by guest curators, including Bill Heidrich, a Peoria native, University of Michigan professor and former museum director, and Marc Eliot, the New York Times bestselling author and renowned film auteur who leads our Art of Film festivals.

Virtual Peoria Riverfront Museum

Mae Gilliland Wright, Peoria Symphony Orchestra: The Peoria Symphony Orchestra recently launched #PSOAtHome, a new digital series that brings music from our talented musicians and guest artists into your home. From live performances to recorded educational content, #PSOAtHome is a part of the PSO’s mission to entertain, educate and inspire through music. 

#PSOAtHome with pianist Harmony Zhu, who visited Peoria in 2016, on April 13, 2020. Zhu sent an encouraging message along with her short performance, including shoutouts to the Caterpillar Visitors Center and Peoria Zoo.
#PSOAtHome with pianist Harmony Zhu, who visited Peoria in 2016. Zhu sent an encouraging message along with her short performance, including shout-outs to the Caterpillar Visitors Center and Peoria Zoo.

A new webpage, peoriasymphony.org/psoathome, contains links to upcoming and past Facebook live events, #PSOAtHome YouTube videos, and links to other educational and live music content. Recent content includes a performance of the Mission Impossible theme by Chicago Symphony Orchestra cellist and PSO guest artist Richard Hirschl and his family, story time with PSO violinist Rosemary Ardner, a live “driveway” performance by PSO Concertmaster Marcia Henry Liebenow, and more! #PSOAtHome is even listed on the League of American Orchestra’s online resources website, symphonyspot.org.

Rebecca Shulman, Peoria PlayHouse: Like many other organizations, we are working to move activities and content online. We have a PlayHouse At Home page that shares curated activity ideas with parents, including many arts activities. We have StoryTime at the PlayHouse every Friday morning on Facebook, and we recently launched a new kid-written publication, The PlayHouse Times—please let kids know that we would love to hear from them! Look for more arts-related content over the next few weeks, including a Summer Maker Challenge. 

Rebekah von Rathonyi, Central Illinois Ballet/Cornerstone Academy: Because dancers need to stay physically active, our faculty launched an online program of adapted weekly classes, in all dance styles, for each level of student. We use the online format of Google Meet, which works incredibly well for us. Many would argue online classes are not the same, but I personally enjoy the interaction—I can see all my students and dancers on the screen and can give them individual instruction and corrections. Our instructors have compiled many other resources for our students to access online to fill in the gaps when they are not taking classes. We are also looking into creating a Vimeo account to share with our audience members so they can enjoy some of our recent performances. 

Nikki Romain, ART Inc.: ART Inc. has started #ARTincLIVE, a virtual extension of our Family and Me program (ages 0-5), offering bilingual, themed storytimes on Facebook Live. We have Music Mondays, Theatrical Thursdays, and Time For A Cuento on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This is also appropriate for grades K-2. Music Mondays, led by Rosemary Ardner, is now in partnership with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra as part of their #PSOatHome program. We are continuing our partnership with Peoria Public Schools through our In The Schools program, offering online arts education to students at Roosevelt, Harrison, Glen Oak and Trewyn schools. We will also be mailing various art-related kits to them. 

Many organizations have found ways to digitally connect with their patrons
At left, Isabella and Gianna Huser, ages 5 and 3, tune into #ARTincLIVE. Middle, a dancer from Cornerstone Academy for Performing Arts stays active through online classes. Bottom, science educator Nick Rae demonstrates what happens when a marshmallow is dipped into liquid nitrogen at the Virtual Peoria Riverfront Museum.

Nyk Sutter-Downs, Corn Stock Theatre: While we had to cancel the opening production of our summer season, we are hopeful that we can present the remainder of the season as scheduled. Auditions for Annie were scheduled during the extended shelter-in-place order, so we shifted to digital audition submissions. There has certainly been a learning curve to the transition, but it’s been great to get creative and think outside the box to keep things moving along. 

Corn Stock Unmasked
Corn Stock Unmasked follows a similar format to The Masked Singer, but featuring performers from Corn Stock Theatre. 

We recently released Corn Stock Unmasked, which follows a similar format to The Masked Singer. In each episode, three masked singers compete with a favorite Broadway (or off-Broadway) showtune as the panelists guess who’s behind the mask. We then ask people to vote for their favorite performance and donate. The singer with the lowest amount of votes is unmasked in the next episode. 

We’re also exploring digital readers theatre options for those who are more fond of plays than musicals, and we’ve been searching for new playwrights and works that we can potentially produce using video conferencing and streaming applications. We’re doing our best to explore every available option to keep audiences entertained—even from the safety and security of their own home. 

Shannon Cox, Peoria Art Guild: We have been working hard to get as much creative content as we can onto our social media channels. If we can give families some ideas of things to do during their time at home, then we are still fulfilling our mission to “bring art to the community.” We have also developed a variety of online classes that we are featuring on Facebook and our  website. They will be offered for free at this time, and will be taught with supplies you have at home. The videos will remain on our social channels for future reference. We are also exploring a few platforms to teach from to see what works best for our students. We will continue to adjust our sails to bring art to our community during these difficult times.

Jeremie Draper, JDraper Glass: We are redirecting our retail sales towards our website and social media platforms. Unfortunately, a big percentage of our income is through teaching to the public, and another small percentage is from offering continued educational field trips. We are now at the mercy of building our online gallery in hopes of making retail sales. 

Jessica Bingham, Project 1612: Prior to the pandemic, Project 1612 was taking a hiatus from on-site exhibitions, given a recent move from our original location. However, in response to the pandemic, Zach Ott, Alexander Martin and I, the co-founders of Project 1612, along with Haley Funk and Dylan Pashke, our most recent interns, decided to make a call to artists in central Illinois for digital studio visits. We re-examined our Central Illinois Studio Visits—which launched in 2018 and was initially an on-site visit complete with photo documentation and a published interview—and transitioned it to a condensed version. 

The new call has been simplified to follow social distancing guidelines and encourage others to do the same. Adapting the online format has also streamlined this project for us, making it manageable to share the work of multiple artists throughout the week. We released the call on March 15 and requested that artists email two to three images of their work, image info, a short bio and their websites/social media. Within a couple days, we began receiving requests from artists outside of central Illinois as well. 

With a broader audience interested in participating, and the need for connection more than ever, it felt right to eliminate the location restriction and invite all artists. Participating artists are then featured on our website and social media through Facebook and Instagram. It has been a fulfilling and appropriate way to stay connected and shine light on artists both in and outside of the Peoria area, while drawing attention to our art community.

Zoom meeting with the Project 1612 team.
Zoom meeting with the Project 1612 team. Clockwise from upper left: Haley Funk, Jessica Bingham and Zach Ott with their daughter, Alexander Martin, and Dylan Pashke

What changes to processes or operations have you made to accommodate social distancing and shelter-in-place policies? 

Jenn Gordon, ArtsPartners: Operationally, we are all working remotely, of course. All of our meetings are now virtual. We can maintain about 95 percent of our normal workflow through cloud-based remote working solutions. ArtsPartners is very fortunate in that respect. We are daily looking for new ways of leveraging technology to better support and promote all the arts groups and artists who are working so hard to produce virtual content, activities, classes, products and home-based performances. 

Cathie Neumiller, Peoria Riverfront Museum: We’ve taken our programming, exhibitions and collection content online through Virtual Peoria Riverfront Museum, which encompasses our website, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and email platforms. Our website is organized into Virtual Exhibitions, Virtual Collections, Virtual Theater (featuring free, museum-quality educational films), Virtual Planetarium, Virtual Science Fun and Virtual Classes & Programs. We’re also making “Museum Takeout” bags available for K-4 and 5-8 grade students as part of our Virtual Every Student Initiative. They are filled with age-appropriate art and educational fun. 

On April 14 we hosted our first Virtual Art Club with Heather Brammeier, a professor at Bradley University, who presented her work via Zoom. It was a test of the Virtual Art Club and our ability to provide an accessible experience for audiences. The next Virtual Art Club will be Tuesday, May 12 at 1pm. We’ll also be posting more about this summer’s art exhibitions and we’ll soon feature a virtual, live cocktails-with-the-curator type session with Ken Hoffman and friends, led by Bill Conger.

As an added note: we’re also 3D-printing mask “ear protectors” for local hospitals and medical staff. These are 3D-printed straps that accommodate the elastic ear pieces on surgical masks so they can fit tightly around the back of your head without having to go over your ears.

ARTincLIVE
Four-year-old Kennedy Romain tunes into #ARTincLIVE.

Mae Gilliland Wright, Peoria Symphony Orchestra: PSO staff members have been working from home since March 17. We are still able to carry out all of our individual tasks, and keep in constant touch using chats and Zoom. Because we have a large subscriber and patron base, we have found ways to ensure that we can respond to all phone calls and emails. Additionally, we are holding all board and committee meetings on Zoom. As we engage musicians to participate in #PSOAtHome events, we are ensuring proper safety protocols as recommended by the CDC—which includes, of course, social distancing. 

Nicki Haschke, Peoria Players Theatre: We have had to cancel a couple of events thus far, including our annual Normie Awards banquet. We are in the process of rescheduling Mamma Mia (which was slated for April 24-May 10) and have had to cut performances from its schedule. We are waiting to make an official announcement on the new dates until we find out what is happening with the stay-at-home order. If we have to cancel Mamma Mia altogether, we would lose $30,000 in net income from that alone. Our fiscal year ends on June 30, so we don’t have a lot of wiggle room. We are having our next board of directors meeting via Zoom, but other than myself and our bookkeeper, no one else has been in our building. 

Nikki Romain, ART Inc.: Our center is completely closed to the public, and all of our spring programs and rentals have been cancelled or postponed. We had to lay off all of our teaching artists, but we will bring several of them back for our online classes. 

Central Illinois Ballet online class
Central Illinois Ballet launched an online program of adapted weekly classes, in all dance styles, for each level of student.

Nyk Sutter-Downs, Corn Stock Theatre: Our administrative staff is working from home until the shelter-in-place order is lifted. We’ve been able to forward calls to the office and our direct extensions to our cellphones so we can assist our patrons as usual. Thankfully our staff has laptops, so we’re able to remain connected and the day-to-day operations haven’t changed too drastically. Technology has definitely been our friend throughout this process. We use Microsoft Teams to message each other and hold daily video conference calls. I continue to pop by the office on a daily basis to check mail and to ensure everything is secure. 

Shannon Cox, Peoria Art Guild: Although our gallery and classrooms are shut down, we are still making things happen. We created a wonderful gallery walk video with artist Steph Van Doren right before the shelter-in-place order went into effect, and we now plan on doing this for all our future exhibits. We have also been working on rearranging and organizing our classrooms. We have some dedicated volunteers who help us, and we go into the facility one at a time and work on different days. We make sure there are several days in between, and we wipe down our surfaces to ensure everyone’s safety. We look forward to having our classrooms in tiptop shape when this is over!

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Rebekah von Rathonyi, Central Illinois Ballet/Cornerstone Academy: Obviously none of our faculty, staff, dancers or students can meet inside our studio, but our online system takes much of the pressure off. We can hold weekly faculty meetings and board meetings online, and our operations and communication can be mostly done through email, phone, text, Zoom, Google Meet, etc. Our instructors have all made accommodations to their homes in some way, either for an at-home office or by transforming a small room into a studio in order to teach. 

Jessica Bingham, Project 1612: Since Project 1612 was already on a hiatus, we didn’t need to change much. We have a private Facebook group for our team to communicate, which has been helpful, and have also been making more phone calls to brainstorm ideas. We’ve always been pretty flexible as a DIY organization, so the shelter-in-place order has, in some ways, opened up an opportunity to share more artists in an easily accessible way.

Jeremie Draper, JDraper Glass: Our building is closed to the public with curbside pickup of orders only. We clean the studio and sanitize everything that gets touched often. We work from home part-time covering the office side of the business, and we’re expanding a new part of the business that has not been launched yet. Since we do not know when we will be able to open the studio back up, I am currently working on developing a more nationwide presence for my memorials. 

With her studio closed to the public, glass artist Jeremie Draper is working to launch a new part of her business.
With her studio closed to the public, glass artist Jeremie Draper is working to launch a new part of her business.

Are you pursuing grants or other opportunities to stay afloat during lean times? 

Jenn Gordon, ArtsPartners: ArtsPartners is currently focused on helping other arts organizations and artists successfully navigate arts-specific COVID-19 relief funding opportunities provided within the CARES Act and the private sector. We’ve put together a resource page on artspartners.net that helps outline sources of funding, deadlines and eligibility requirements—and we are working to promote this information throughout the arts community. We want to see everyone’s doors re-open once it is safe to do so. 

William Butler, Contemporary Art Center: We are pursuing grants via Verizon, Illinois Arts Council, Chicago Community Trust and the SBA. We’re trying to get even leaner by lowering payments to those to whom we owe money and laying off employees. And even though I am working every day, I have suspended my pay since March 1. 

We are encouraging people to donate, get memberships, increase their membership levels, and pay memberships early while retaining their renewal dates. The response from our individual supporters has been steady and so encouraging. We are grateful to Caterpillar for the opportunities via their matching gift program. Big thanks to Morton Community Bank and V.P. Matt Moehle for allowing us to pay interest only on one of our mortgages for six months without penalty! 

pull quoteCathie Neumiller, Peoria Riverfront Museum: Yes, in particular the federal Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses to cover payroll while our building is closed. We’re also investigating ways to take our virtual museum further, in a way that can bring income.

Nicki Haschke, Peoria Players Theatre: I have been working on several grants and the Payment Protection Program loan through our bank. In our 101 years of operation, we have been through some tough times. I’m confident we can get through COVID-19, too!

Jeremie Draper, JDraper Glass: Yes, both the Illinois Relief Art Fund and the Verizon grant for women-owned businesses. 

Rebecca Shulman, Peoria PlayHouse: There are not many grants available to us during this time. We are looking at what revenue sources might be available, as we have lost nearly all of our revenue due to closure, and are looking at a major budget gap right now. Over the past few weeks we have been focused on transforming our operations to continue to serve our community, and we are now turning to these larger, looming questions.

Shannon Cox, Peoria Art Guild: We have been sorting through all of the opportunities and working to take advantage of the ones that work for us. We are especially thankful for roundtable discussions with Jenn Gordon from ArtsPartners to connect with other local leaders and brainstorm about available resources.

Rebekah von Rathonyi, Central Illinois Ballet/Cornerstone Academy: Like other arts organizations, we have had to postpone many of our fundraisers and performances. This hurts tremendously, as these events generate half of our revenue for the season. Our leadership team has applied for the Arts Work Fund/Arts for Illinois Relief Fund, Paycheck Protection Program, EIDL Loan Advance and any help under the CARES Act and Arts for Illinois. Our professional dancers are eligible for a couple of individual artist grants, which is incredibly helpful to them as most of their salary comes from performances. 

Peoria PlayHouse At Home

What other messages would you like to share with the community at this time? 

Jenn Gordon, ArtsPartners: We are still planning to install the next Sculpture Walk exhibit on Washington Street as soon as it is safe to do so! This is going to be a great way for people to ease back into experiencing the arts in person. We are all itching to leave our homes right now, and when it is safe to do so, there will be this awesome, new public art exhibit that people can experience while enjoying the fresh air, sunshine and warmer weather. I’m hoping it even provides the public with a sense of rebirth or reemergence from the arts community as a whole. 

pull quoteMae Gilliland Wright, Peoria Symphony Orchestra: Because most opportunities for musicians to perform and generate revenue are no longer available, we have reached out to PSO musicians to pay them to create online content. Now that we have introduced this format, we plan to keep it going forward. Although nothing can replace an in-person concert experience, we have found immense enjoyment in the unique way that social media has allowed us to reach out to even larger and more diverse audiences. We love seeing the love reacts, comments and shares. It has become a fun, interactive experience. While we miss seeing everyone in the concert hall and at our events throughout the community, #PSOAtHome allows us to close that distance. 

During this difficult time, the arts are more important than ever. They bring us together, lifting our spirits and brightening our mood. We hope that community members will consider donating to the PSO and other arts organizations. In doing so, they help to ensure that we can continue to provide this content. The PSO has been a presence in the Peoria community for nearly 123 seasons—we are the 14th oldest orchestra in the United States. Our continued presence is a testament not only to our talented orchestra, but to the value that our community places on the performing arts.

Todd Kelly performing at home
The Peoria Symphony Orchestra's 2019-2020 Artist-in-Residence, Dr. Todd Kelly, performs from home for the #PSOAtHome series.

Rebecca Shulman, Peoria PlayHouse: While this time is difficult for everyone, we know it is particularly hard for families with young children stuck at home. We have resources on our website for talking to kids about COVID-19, and we recently launched a parenting guide which we hope will be useful at this moment. We look forward to sharing more parent resources as we find them, and we love hearing from families about the great activities they are coming up with. We have a wonderful, resourceful, creative community and we love learning from all of you! 

Enjoy the Arts... At Home!
Bored at home during the pandemic? Here are a few helpful links to find virtual arts and cultural experiences from local organizations:

Nyk Sutter-Downs, Corn Stock Theatre: The show must go on, but the show is not more important than the health and safety of our patrons and volunteers. We are doing our best to make decisions on a day-to-day basis as new information comes to light. All updates are being communicated regularly via our website, social media, emails and even snail mail. Please bear with us as we navigate this new and unprecedented situation. We cannot wait to bring you quality entertainment again soon! 

Rebekah von Rathonyi, Central Illinois Ballet/Cornerstone Academy: These are very testing and trying times for so many. However, as all artists and dancers know, difficult moments in life make us stronger and more resilient. I have to believe some good and positivity will come from this: more appreciation for each other, for our community, for our families, for the arts, for everything we are given on a daily basis. I am eternally grateful for our dance family, for their continued support, for the smiles, the laughter, even the tears, and for the fact that we can still see each other every day!

William Butler, Contemporary Art Center: To all nonprofit supporters: On a regular basis, most organizations are already operating lean, without much of a cushion. Like all small businesses, if this continues for months, nonprofits will have serious financial concerns. Any grant awards may take one to three months to arrive—so I encourage everyone to make special donations and renew memberships today, as this is the only revenue source most of us have. 

Jeremie Draper, JDraper Glass: Please show your support to local businesses! The time has never been more significant than the present. Once we are able to teach lessons we will be open, sharing our passion for hot glass blowing. 

Jessica Bingham, Project 1612: We’re humbled to continue building upon the Peoria’s art community regardless of this pandemic and hope to see you all soon. We also want to encourage all artists to submit to the online studio visit—we’d love to share your work! 

Shannon Cox, Peoria Art Guild: We are optimistic about the strength of the arts in our community and we look forward to serving you very soon. We are working on a new schedule of classes for you to enjoy when this is all over. Please stay strong and healthy so we can see you soon. Oh, and create! Don’t forget to create! PM

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