This year was devastating for the arts and culture community, but there was brilliance among the wreckage

Young Kwak photos; Derek Harrison illustration
Jess Walter, left, and Emma Noyes

Let's be clear: 2020 absolutely sucked. For pretty much everyone. (I gather Jeff Bezos and some other billionaires did just fine, but I digress.) And it especially sucked for the arts community, a world that operates on a shoestring even during the best of times. We're obviously not close to the best of times, or even so-so times.

The national response to the pandemic when it comes to arts organizations, artists and businesses dedicated to the things that make life worth living — concert halls, theaters, clubs, etc. — is an embarrassment. Anyone wanting to make the case for Americans being an uncultured mob with no regard for anything but money need look no further than how we've treated artists during the pandemic. I'd love to say the state response was better, but Washington's support in terms of CARES Act funding aimed at the arts pales compared to many states.

While other decimated sectors like retail and restaurants could at least open to some degree for much of the year, the performing arts have been shuttered since March. The Spokane Symphony pushed its entire 75th season back a year. The stages at the Bing and First Interstate Center for the Arts remain dark nine months after the first state shutdown, as do those at the Lucky You Lounge, Big Dipper, Berserk, Spokane Comedy Club and others. The Pin! closed permanently, as did local treasure the Richmond Arts Collective. If this pandemic goes on much longer, we'll likely lose more arts venues, and who knows how long it will take for nationally touring events like Broadway shows or pop concerts or, hell, Disney on Ice to get revved up again?

But I'm not here to simply recount the horrors of the recent past. No, I'm actually here to recognize that among the shitpile of 2020 bloomed some incredible creativity in the Inland Northwest, giving us things we'll remember fondly long after we've put 2020 in the rearview.


Area stages remain dark heading into 2021. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Area stages remain dark heading into 2021.

Just take a look at our local literary scene. Not only did Jess Walter's latest novel, Spokane-set The Cold Millions, land on several year-end "best books" lists, but Leyna Krow saw one of her short stories picked up to be made into a movie by Hollywood heavyweights Jordan Peele and Issa Rae. Emma Noyes' fun-for-all-ages book Baby Speaks Salish was published in September, and Cassandra Tate's Unsettled Ground arrived in the fall, offering a revealing new look at the Whitman Massacre. Not only that, but the Spokane library system and Auntie's Bookstore found ways to ramp up author "visits" via Zoom that included pretty cool events almost every week, including stops by Mike Birbiglia and Roxane Gay, among others.

Local theater groups obviously struggled without their planned seasons to produce, but nearly all of them pivoted to some kind of online performances. The Spokane Civic Theatre showed old productions and produced new virtual shows, Stage Left hosted monologues from community talents, and the Inland Northwest Opera in Coeur d'Alene created "operagrams" that sent their talented performers out to sing socially distanced arias on demand. We had an operagram in my front yard over the summer, and it was amazing. And the Spokane Theater Arts Council didn't let the pandemic slow down its work to make Spokane stages more inclusive for actors of color and other historically underrepresented groups, meeting over Zoom with veterans in the fight for making life onstage look more like the community offstage.

The visual arts had it a little better than the performing arts, with museums and galleries able to open for much of the year, with restrictions in place. The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture had a banner year, truly, with hugely popular shows dedicated to artifacts from Pompeii, Pop Art and Mount St. Helens. Terrain had to cancel its namesake event and summer and winter markets, but managed to support local artists via its gallery and shifting focus on online showcases. And Spokane Arts offered massive support to visual artists (and everything from culinary artists to filmmakers to musicians), doling out some $645,000 in grants to individual artists, organizations, collectives and creative businesses to help them all navigate a brutal year. The region's visual artists also helped brighten our locked-down lives, whether through new murals and public art pieces in the community, or pieces inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement that dotted downtown Spokane after the George Floyd protests in early June.

The arts and culture scene is vital to our sense of community, and that's how we see sports in the Inlander as well. Our collective fandom leads to some of our best local events, and everything from Hoopfest to Bloomsday to the book-centric Get Lit! festival had to adapt to do events without filling the streets and salons of Spokane.

Some of the virtual events worked better than others, but it's safe to say all of us are itching to get together again, in person, to compare notes on a new art show, to have an author visit in the flesh, to laugh at a comedian as a group or to ring in the new year with Beethoven's Ninth and the Spokane Symphony, then hit the town.

Maybe when "normal" returns in 2021, we can appreciate all the more all the things we took for granted in 2019. As for 2020? As my Italian grandfather would say, maybe fuhgetaboutit!

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About The Author

Dan Nailen

Dan Nailen is the managing editor of the Inlander, where he oversees coverage of arts and culture. He's previously written and edited for The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City Weekly, Missoula Independent, Salt Lake Magazine, The Oregonian and KUER-FM. He grew up seeing the country in an Air Force family and studied...