Our region's visual arts organizations postpone, pivot and persevere

The Art Spirit Gallery's Blair Williams. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
The Art Spirit Gallery's Blair Williams.

The Art Spirit Gallery's Blair Williams was alone in the gallery a week into Idaho's stay-home orders, doing what many were doing: figuring out what had just happened to the business. The state. The whole world.

The gallery appeared normal, its walls covered with glorious landscapes by Kathy Gale and Gordon Wilson from the latest exhibition. Normal, except there were no people around on what would otherwise be a bustling spring day in downtown Coeur d'Alene.

"I couldn't help but look around and see all this beautiful art and think, 'There are people missing out on this, missing out on enjoying this,'" Williams says.

Instead of focusing on what the gallery couldn't do, she looked at what they could, piloting a loan program with select clients, allowing them to "live" with borrowed artwork for a few weeks.

Around 40 percent of the work sold, Williams says. However, April revenue was down around 70 percent, she says. In May, it was down around 60 percent, and they didn't get the federal loan they applied for.

"As any small business, I have to ask myself, 'How deep am I willing to go into this business?'" Williams says.

Like many industries impacted by COVID-19, arts organizations got walloped. Not considered essential, mostly event-based, already operating on a shoestring, or all three. Some have not yet reopened, nor will they.

Others, however, were able to pivot, and although their future isn't guaranteed, they're moving forward. Some even experienced an upside to being down, but not out.

Coeur d'Alene's Arts and Culture Alliance Executive Director Ali Shute is used to working from home. And they'd recently concluded a major fundraiser, but event planning was a challenge.

"As creative leaders in the community, I felt that the A&C had the responsibility to show by example, adapting with innovative ideas to keep our programs going and the arts in the forefront," Shute says.

So they Zoomed their monthly community arts meeting and filmed ArtWalk for remote delivery.

"It was fun to learn that there is more than the old way of doing things," Shute says.

In Sandpoint, the Pend Oreille Arts Council pushed back their lone ArtWalk to July 10 to comply with Idaho guidelines, says Arts Coordinator Claire Christy. Their popular 48th annual Arts & Crafts Fair will go on as planned, Aug. 8-9.

Their pivot involved Kaleidoscope in-class art lessons for area students in grades three through six. With schools closed, POAC assembled 800 kits for home distribution and are expanding the program to an online format so students anywhere can access it, Christy says.

Although the city of Moscow Arts Department's Third Street Gallery remains closed until August, public art projects moved forward, including vinyl-wrapped traffic signal boxes, says Arts Program Manager Megan Cherry. ArtWalk and the Plein Air Paint Out are still on the calendar for September.

In Washington, La Resistance Gallery and New Moon Gallery — two of many who might qualify to reopen under Phase 3 — utilized social media and Zoom to stay connected and will participate in Spokane's second Art on the Go Art Show June 6. (Find details at Facebook: Art on the Go Art Show.) Meanwhile, they're debating when and how to reopen safely.

One of the region's largest arts organizations, the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture, shuttered the museum, funneling efforts into free, online resources to stay engaged with the public. These include webinars, virtual tours, behind-the-scenes videos, read-aloud stories for kid, and the just-completed online version of ArtFest, according to Carol Summers, who is in charge of the MAC's marketing and advertising.

They also used the time to update their archives database used by educators, journalists and others.

Spokane Arts sprang into action quickly, canceling some things — all their in-person events — postponing others to 2021, transitioning things like the Chase Gallery exhibitions online, and developing new programs to support the arts.

They launched a crowdfunding campaign to provide no-strings-attached $500 grants to artists impacted by the pandemic, seeding it with $25,000 from the estate of an arts supporters' donation, Executive Director Melissa Huggins says.

That's in addition to $42,000 of regularly scheduled Phase 1 SAGA grants, which caused some recipients to burst into tears. "That's how much even a modest grant can mean to a cultural group or arts organization," Huggins says.

Phase 2 will be a rolling application process for faster disbursement, and overall they've shifted more money from their three-year granting period into 2020 to address what they anticipate are higher needs.

"Spokane Arts has a unique, dual role in the community: We're the only local arts agency tasked with promoting and supporting the entire arts and culture community, in addition to the work we create that's unique to us, and we take that responsibility really seriously," Huggins says.

They've continued to collect data about the impact to the creative sector and advocate for the arts on the local, state and even federal level to underscore the many ways the arts are, indeed, essential.

Moscow's Megan Cherry addresses that another way: "The arts have been essential to human experience for millennia, and while uncertainty does seem to rule the present moment, artists and arts organizations excel at adapting to evolving needs," she says. "I'm constantly in awe of how effectively creative people and arts organizations act in service to others. They're quick to synthesize lived experience and to reflect the human condition. These are challenging times, to say the least, but the arts are always here to help us find our way." ♦