2020 In Review: The Fighters

2020 In Review: The Fighters

Arts venues make live or online choices to survive


All Broadway shows have been canceled through May 30, 2021.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra just canceled all programming originally scheduled from Jan. 7 through March 30, 2021.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., didn’t reopen until Sept. 12, with timed ticketing and masks required, of course.

You get the idea. It’s been a challenging year for arts organizations everywhere. But in Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley, the show has gone on in ways large and small. These are some of “The Fighters,” the ones who have figured out how to deliver the arts to their patrons and still keep the coronavirus at bay.

Fort Smith Symphony Keeps Playing Live

The Fort Smith Symphony played the first two concerts of its 2020-21 season outdoors at the U.S. Marshals Museum. (Courtesy Photo/Fort Smith Symphony)

John Jeter, music director of the Fort Smith Symphony, says he “never really considered pivoting to streamed concerts only” when covid concerns came rolling into the River Valley. “The core of what we do is live performance, for which there is no substitute. There seems to be a way or ways of doing just about anything if there is a willingness to be inventive, flexible and work very hard.”

As of now, the Fort Smith Symphony has given four live performances in its 2020-21 season, all of them covid-safe and audience-approved.

“The size of the orchestra for these performances was about 56 musicians,” Jeter explains. “Audience size was reduced greatly to comply with social distancing needs. The November concerts were performed outdoors on the grounds of the U.S. Marshals Museum, and the December concerts were indoors at the ArcBest Performing Arts Center.

“So far,” he adds, “everything has been great. Despite all of the protocols, our concerts are quite similar to ‘normal’ in many ways and artistically as strong as ever. I think the remainder of the current concert season, which runs through May, will see performances similar to what we are doing now.”

Shiloh Museum, MONAH Conquer The Internet

Susan Young, outreach coordinator for the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale, discovered that old and new audiences alike were eager to interact with the museum online.
(Courtesy Photo/Shiloh Museum)

The Museum of Native American History in Bentonville was already planning its annual Native American Cultural Celebration, along with “Companion Species: We Are All Related,” a first-ever joint exhibit with Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, when covid-19 forced Director Charlotte Buchanan-Yale to close the doors in March.

Those doors remain closed, but “reinventing MONAH has been like creating a new startup company,” says Buchanan-Yale. The museum has updated its website, added a virtual tour in English and Spanish and continued to host myriad events online even as its collecting continues behind the scenes.

“With the ability to record productions, we now have an educational archive with more information about our art and artifacts, and through virtual programming, we can give a broader platform to indigenous cultural leaders making history today including scientists, astronauts, environmental science professors, musicians, authors, actors, storytellers and artists,” she says. “This expanded direction has made history more exciting and accessible [and] we are sought after by educators, museums, libraries and media for collaborations.”

Buchanan-Yale says the museum plans to “slowly” reopen in time to enjoy the shared exhibit with Crystal Bridges Museum, but “we now will have the best of both worlds with adding the virtual element to our bag of tricks.”

Down the road in Springdale, the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History has expanded its online offerings so successfully, “our virtual visitation through November is up 178%,” says Director Allyn Lord. “In June, July, and August, the total number of people we served was more than in those 2019 months when we were open!”

Not only did the Shiloh Museum put entire exhibits online, the staff stepped up with a weekly eNews letter “to show what staff were doing while we were closed”; created a new video series, “Shiloh Shout-Outs,” to showcase behind-the-scenes happenings, as well as museum collections, buildings and history; created “Minute History,” a series of video shorts highlighting historic sites in and around Northwest Arkansas; and converted two week-long history camps to virtual camps, tripling attendance online.

The Museum of Native American History pivoted online, creating a new interactive website and hosting a year’s worth of virtual events.
(Courtesy Photo/MONAH)

“Over these past months, the museum world has realized that many of our new offerings, especially those online, provide more content, often a more interesting delivery of that content, and a way to make content accessible to more and varied people,” says Lord. “And that’s how, as a field, museums continue to grow.”

APT Turns To Alternative Storytelling

Arkansas Public Theatre in Rogers had just closed its run of “Newsies” and was literally days from opening “Meteor Shower,” a Steve Martin comedy, when Broadway decided to shut down.

“That gave us pause,” says Ed McClure, the theater’s artistic director. “We’ve always known we could keep our audience safe, but how do you keep actors safe in a play that requires intimate interaction? ”

Instead, the volunteers of APT quickly turned their attention to online offerings, and by May 17, were releasing “Mastergate: A Play on Words,” a political satire by “M*A*S*H” creator Larry Gelbart, with an original radio series by Barry Cobbs — titled “Amanda Kill” — following in June.

“And then in addition to that, we got some guidance … and were able to determine ways to safely reopen the theater for movies,” McClure adds. “So we’ve had … not a film festival but seasonal movies pretty much every weekend. And that’s helped pay the bills.”

Arkansas Public Theatre in Rogers couldn’t create theater onstage, so volunteers tried their hand at online productions.
(Courtesy Photo/APT)

McClure sees more ancillary entertainment offerings in APT’s future, but he promises the heart of live theater will return in February with “Buyer & Cellar,” “an outrageous comedy about the price of fame, the cost of things and the oddest of odd jobs.” Auditions will be Jan. 4.

“We’re looking forward to producing theater, to having our friends and fans in the theater, to having art in our gallery — to the whole APT experience,” he says.

Arts Live Theatre Creates A Virtual World

A Fayetteville-based theater for young people, Arts Live didn’t just dip a toe in the internet waters. It jumped in with a splash and has created more online programming that Executive Director Mark Landon Smith can even list off the top of his head.

Arts Live presented its first virtual production in April and has continued its season with shows like “The Lord of the Flies and “Little House on the Prairie,” while also adding new titles written for online production and writing, adapting and producing its own original programming, including “Alice In Cyberland,” which has been published by Pioneer Drama Service. And that’s not to mention all the classes.

“We also partnered with the 24 Hour Plays to produce two series of the 24 Hour Monologues where we paired professional writers with student actors and professional actors with student writers to write, rehearse and produce a monologue in 24 hours,” Smith enumerates. “Our next production is ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ as part of the Arts Live Theatre Radio series which will be available on the ALT YouTube channel and the ALT podcast channel.”

Smith says the best part of online programming is being able to bring together 250 young artists from all over the country for virtual productions and having more than 16,000 views of the Arts Live YouTube channel.

“I think going forward we will continue having virtual options for our season and providing opportunities for young artists around the world,” he says. “We have seen the advantages of a blended season and the possibilities it provides.”

Art Ventures Takes Galleries Online

Arts Live Theatre, a children’s company in Fayetteville, jumped into the internet with classes, productions and even a new play that’s been published since the pandemic hit.
(Courtesy Photo/ALT)

Even before covid-19 hit Northwest Arkansas, the Art Ventures gallery, long located on the Fayetteville square, was in essence homeless.

“We had to focus on creating exhibitions at our off-site exhibition spaces since we were unable to secure the Center Street location we were negotiating,” says Art Ventures Board President Sharon Killian. With an exhibition about to open at Eclectic Kitchen in March, Killian realized more change was inevitable.

“We had a photographer go to the exhibition to create a video that we could share virtually … so that everyone could experience the show that they may not ever see live,” she says. “The immediate filming of the ‘Women Contem-Plate’ show was like a lightbulb going off in my head. We had become accustomed to using videos to promote our exhibitions and used video to memorialize important events. We decided that if people wouldn’t be able to come to us, that we would go to them — virtually. We all stepped up our game to make virtual exhibitions as exciting as we could.”

Showcasing art online has been such a success for Art Ventures that getting a new home was almost anti-climactic. But in November, the arts organization announced it has been leased a 6,o000-square-foot gallery space in an historic home at 20 S. Hill Ave. in Fayetteville known as “the Putman House.”

That doesn’t mean no more “virtual” exhibits, though.

“We are so happy to have delved into the virtual/online exhibitions, and those will continue to be created,” Killian says. “There is no going back to the way we were. Accessibility to art in the 21st century is now achievable online, and for many people, this may be an option they never dreamed to have, and here it is.”

Crystal Bridges, Momentary Find Right Blend

In May, a Crystal Bridges initiative called “the Social Connecting Campaign” asked members of the community to color line drawings created by nine Northwest Arkansas artists and write “inspirational messages” on the back. Then the postcards were returned to Crystal Bridges and delivered to hospitals and senior living facilities — along with art kits — hopefully bringing joy and social connection with them. The artists then painted large-scale, colorful versions of the postcard drawings for display at places like the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks hospital in Fayetteville. (Courtesy Photo/Crystal Bridges Museum)

And then, there are the “big kids,” Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the new arts location the Momentary, and they set the bar in 2020 for how to merge the virtual and live worlds.

“We’ve had a very positive response from the community about providing safe and inspiring in-person art experiences, and we continue offering resources online, knowing there are still many people who can’t travel or aren’t comfortable in-person,” says Rod Bigelow, Crystal Bridges executive director and chief diversity & inclusion officer. “As art organizations focused on access, it’s always been important to provide offerings in a variety of ways — in addition to our on-site experiences, we’ve always had online experiences like virtual reality videos, tours, blogs, podcasts, etc. While we were closed, nearly all of our various offerings — art, education, programs, performances — moved online.”

But the museum didn’t choose an online-only existence.

“After we opened in June, we continued to host virtual programs and slowly started integrating a few outdoor on-site options, with limited capacity, face covering requirements, and other safety guidelines,” Bigelow says. “Programs like Sunday Reset on the Momentary Green, concerts on the lawn at Crystal Bridges and in the Arvest Bank Courtyard at the Momentary, and North Forest Lights have been successful and served our community needs in terms of a way to enjoy outdoor offerings while also meeting state guidelines for safety.

“We were happy to be able to transition quickly and offer safe experiences and were particularly pleased to be able to extend the temporary exhibitions ‘Hank Willis Thomas … All Things Being Equal’ and ‘State of the Art 2020,’ which had both opened right before we closed,” he adds. “These exhibitions spoke to cultural topics such as social justice and inspired interesting and powerful dialogue in a difficult time for our community and country.”

Bigelow also remarks on the fact that online visitors can come from anywhere, pointing to notes of appreciation from Kansas, Wisconsin, Missouri and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

“While we’re still evaluating how to move forward into the unknown, Crystal Bridges and the Momentary will remain committed to fostering social connections through arts experiences, expanding our digital footprint, and leaning in to the power of art to build community,” he says. “We will continue to embrace online experiences but treasure the in-person visit, creating an environment where synergy can be built and transformative moments are possible.”




‘First’ Concert

In May, a Fort Smith music venue, TempleLive, scheduled a concert heard round the country — not because of its star, Travis McCready, but because it was planned for May 15, three days before Arkansas officially reopened large indoor venues after pandemic closures. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said local police could be deployed to stop the performance, and the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division revoked TempleLive’s liquor license.

In the end, TempleLive rescheduled the concert for May 18, the Arkansas Department of Health approved, and the performance was probably still the first indoor concert in the country after covid-19 rolled into town in March. At least, Kevin Mazur, in-demand celebrity photographer and co-founder of WireImage, thought so, showing up to shoot the show for Getty Images.

“I was there for Live Aid in Philadelphia; I was at the Freddie Mercury [tribute concert] in England; I was the photographer for the 9/11 concert in New York,” he said. “I do all the big, historical events. To me, this is equal to that.”

Categories: Music