With COVID-19 shutdowns currently crippling the city, it's imperative that arts organizations find new ways to reach the public, and that the public seeks them out in kind
I’ve never used my regular column with Alive to talk about the work that I do outside of journalism, and there is something ironic about being invited to do so when I can benefit from such attention the least. The gray areas around everything are shifting daily under the weight of COVID-19, such is the power of a civilization-altering pandemic.
As the founder, CEO and sole staffer of Streetlight Guild, my job is to maintain a small but mighty performance venue and fill it with dope programming. That’s basically the mission of the organization, my job description and my passion. I curate events -- art exhibits, concerts, poetry readings, workshops, lectures and anything else that smacks of being culturally defining -- and I consciously focus on Columbus-based creators and organizers. I come up with about 75 percent of the stuff that shows up there, and the remaining percentage comes from people looking to do something in a space dedicated to helping them put on the best culture-facing event possible. So for the people who respond to my rants about how Columbus doesn’t have a cultural identity with, “Well, what do you do to fix the problem, Scott?,” there is my answer.Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
When the virus warnings were aimed at large events, I didn’t have to change anything. My venue seats 50 audience members, so even when the audience cap dropped to 100 people, I was still theoretically OK.
For a while, smaller organizations like mine were still able to function. I don’t need 300 people in my venue to turn a profit. I don’t need 30 staffers to change course with me when I make a decision. I don’t serve food or drinks, so my overhead is low compared to places that have similar programming. I could afford to be nimble, flexible and creative with the programming. I even began offering my space to small events that had been shut out of places that had to close. The first day Ohio State announced its shutdown, I got several messages seeking assistance, and I was happy to help the ones that I could fit into my space.
But as it became clear the virus wasn’t just creeping into my life but was already here waiting to reveal itself, popping up first in the country and then the state, the course became clear. I had to start canceling events. I couldn’t even risk having 20 people for a planner meeting or a poetry workshop or a clinic on crafting mental health narratives (which we could all use right about now).
Fortunately, group event bookings were light in March -- I was waiting for the storm to hit, so my venue schedule was active but intimate -- so when a person tested positive in Stark County under community spread conditions, I had to cancel some bookings, but nothing that cost me thousands of dollars in revenue.
I got lucky. Every other venue I can think of did not.
The art gallery in my venue was also affected. I have an exhibit that had another month remaining on display. No one can see it now, or experience it in the way the artist intended. At least that exhibit had an opening; I know of several exhibits around town that had to shut down before anyone could see the art, both in smaller galleries and at the Columbus Museum of Art.
I feel for those artists. The thing that nobody tells you about visual artists is that they are crammers. Not procrastinators so much as a species that works until the last minute to make sure that the art they’re creating represents them in that precise moment. A lot can change about an artist’s work in six months. They’re capturing themselves as much as their subjects and ideas, so an exhibit of new work that never opens is devastating for them. As someone who processes sales for artists, I can tell you that it’s not about the money. Most of the people who go to art shows don’t buy art. What artists are having a hard time swallowing right now is the possibility that the art they created over the last year will feel like a relic in even just six months. Having a representative body of work is important.
For myself, I cannot sit still for long when it comes to the work of building culture. Organizing events is an art form, and I am the Kara Walker of event planning: bold ideas, frequently larger than life executions, and unapologetic regarding its purpose. So when my job with the library shut down for three weeks and my schedule at Streetlight Guild opened up, I suddenly had more time than I’ve had to do anything in years.
Given that kind of time, I could have hunkered down and finished the second draft of my novel, or my next poetry manuscript, or that book of essays that’s been mocking me, but ultimately my organizer wiring won out. Within a few days, I was already plotting ways to commit acts of culture under cover of quarantine. I booked a livestream tour with the Columbus Museum of Art (which will become a series of online tours as long as the law permits), partnered up with the Johnstone Fund for New Music to host a series of empty room concerts from April to June and started running my weekly Writers’ Block Poetry Night open mic through Facebook event pages.
I can’t engage in-person audiences with any of this work, but that’s not how most people engage art these days, anyway. If I can fit culture onto a phone screen, I can get it to hundreds or even thousands of people by the end of the day. And that’s what matters in a time when I can’t just take your money and show you art. Artists and organizers have to find new ways to do the work that make us both solvent and relevant.
Everyone is struggling, but large cultural institutions struggle in a way that is very specific to them. As mission-driven entities, it’s not enough to stay solvent. You have to remain relevant, as well. You need to do the work, and not just because people need paychecks. When symphonies and museums can’t do their work, the absence craters the morale of a city. Even if you aren’t a regular visitor, their existence has a ripple effect in the political, business and cultural schema where you live. A silent symphony isn’t just on leave; it’s a crime. A closed museum may as well have been burned to the ground.
The arts are beyond ubiquitous; they are inescapable. You can avoid COVID-19, but not art. That would be true if there were no virus. But art constantly stands at the front line of crisis, and in times like this, you should be seeking it out. Not for my benefit, but your own.