Keeping the Arts alive during the pandemic

Saving the Local Arts Scene

SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - The Suncoast is known for its very vibrant art scene. So many of us are asking when will we see a live performance again? We know COVID-19 has hit businesses hard, even more so the Arts, and the numbers are staggering.

One study finds here in the U.S., nearly 2 million jobs and more than $42 million, in the performing arts industry, has been lost. The question now: how will the Arts survive and will it change even more?

Shantel Norman is the lead singer of the group Jah Movement and every week greets her fans online.

“We basically going with the flow,” she told ABC7.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the singer took her talents from the stage to the palm of your hands.

“It really took a toll on us,” she said.

Back in March, performance halls, clubs and restaurants shut down as cases of coronavirus surged throughout the state, leaving performers like Norman without work. However, as other industries sent their employees to work remotely, she decided to do the same.

“During the pandemic I learned a lot, and what I mean by a lot is figuring out a lot of different creative ways to still entertain and as you have probably seen a lot of musicians and artists that have done a lot of live streams,” said Norman.

She also decided to bring back live music to the Suncoast virtually.

“We were able to partner with the Van Wezel and Mattison’s and put on this little happy hour live stream,” she said “I think by not everyone not seeing anything live, that’s what really helped break it for other organizations, venues, restaurants to say ‘okay maybe we need to hire some musicians to come and do a happy hour or do something like that, basically like a live social media music take over.’”

Fast forward to now, the state of Florida has since reopened but performance venues can only proceed with limited capacity.

“The Arts are number two or three employers as a whole here in Sarasota County and we also represent millions and millions of dollars worth of economic diversity for this community,” said Mary Bensel, Executive Director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. “I never thought that janitorial would be taking a huge focus of my job but that’s what we had to think about and all of us from the technical to our front of house people.”

To start indoor performances safely once again, staff at the Van Wezel added more hand sanitizers and constantly disinfect the hall with a fogging machine. And they’re not the only ones. Other theaters and halls are implementing CDC guidelines even on stage.

Last month, the Manatee Performing Arts Center produced an indoor performance of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” The actors wore face shields throughout the whole performance.

“It’s a little intrusive and a little odd when you first watch the show, but somehow your mind just erases that and accept it a little bit,” said Rick Kerby, Producing Artistic Director.

The Sarasota Opera had to cut the number of performers on stage.

“We have six singers and two pianists and they have been in a bubble,” said Richard Russell, Executive Director at the Sarasota Opera. “We had frequent testing and making sure they’re safe we will be welcoming an audience of about 200 people into the opera house. The opera house holds 1,200 people.”

But with all these adjustments, the question now is: how are the arts affected financially?

“Forty five percent of our revenue comes from ticket sales, the rest comes from donations. These small operas don’t come near what our losses are. We have generous donors who have been very supportive at this time. There has been some federal money, we were able to qualify for payroll protection program loan as well as CARES Act loan through Sarasota County,” he said.

ABC7 asked Russell, who does he see the future of the opera and the rest of the performing arts industry.

“Once we’re in control of this pandemic, I’m not saying that’s happening tomorrow, it’s going to take a while, I don’t anticipate us doing a full production with our normal forces until the very least of the fall of 2021,” he said.

But for artists and musicians like Norman, they say this pandemic did change the industry for the better as she was able to gain fans from other parts of the world.

“We have a lot of fans in Africa and in California, believe it or not, and I think a lot of it also was from streaming our original music, is now picking up because everyone is home and streaming music,” said Norman.

Meanwhile, the stage lights continue to burn bright here on the Suncoast, illuminating the souls of those in areas well beyond.

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