News about the crushing impact of COVID-19 on the arts often focuses on major players such as Broadway theaters and international concert tours. But smaller venues in the Chippewa Valley are feeling the pain as well.
Adding to their stress is that when financial help emerges, such as Wisconsin’s newly announced COVID-19 Cultural Organization Grant Program, community arts centers are standing in line with operations that have more recognition and bigger budgets.
Debra Johnson, executive director of Chippewa Falls’ Heyde Center for the Arts, said she will “go out there and fight for what I can.” But many of her large and small peers likely will apply as well.
“There’s a lot of need out there,” she said. “I recognize that. Some of our bigger venues have just closed down versus trying to operate at partial.”
But she emphasized the outsize impact smaller arts centers, including Heyde Center, play.
“We have a tourist impact, we have a human impact, we have an economic impact, community impact,” she said.
The grant program will award up to $5 million total in grants to organizations whose primary mission is the production, presentation or exhibition of cultural disciplines such as music, dance, theater, literature and the visual arts, or items of environmental or scientific interest.
Awards will be up to $250,000 or 25% of the organization’s average three previous fiscal years of operating revenue, whichever is less. Organizations have until Sept. 30 to apply.
Making doAs her comments suggest, Johnson empathizes with the dire situation the organizations are facing.
“These big venues, they have a lot bigger things and expenses that we don’t have,” she said. “We keep ourselves thin and lean — no casting aspersions on anybody. But if (grants are given out) in $250,000 blocks, that’s only 20 venues.”
Another smaller arts center in the Chippewa Valley, the Mabel Tainter in Menonomie, will “definitely” be applying for a state grant, said Lucas Chase, who last month became the Mabel’s director of operations.
But with the understanding of the industry’s struggles, the Mabel has started its own fundraising campaign. Called Give $20 in ’20, the effort seeks 2,020 donors to contribute $20 during the year 2020.
If everyone gave exactly $20, that would come out to $40,400, although Chase was happy to report that the first week of the campaign brought in more than $5,000. Between 30% to 40% of the people who donated gave more than $20 — and some well over that amount.
That doesn’t mean the Mabel isn’t interested in receiving state financial help.
“Of course we’d love to, but we can’t count on it, so that’s why we started our own operational fund,” he said.
Other legislative measures to help the arts industry have been proposed but not yet approved. Those include the Save Our Stages Act in the U.S. Senate and the ENCORES Act in the House.
Johnson learned how appreciated Heyde Center is to the community recently when a couple viewed the facility’s visual artwork, which, she pointed out, is displayed in “open, spacious galleries people can walk through; they don’t have to touch anybody.”
The visitors told Johnson: “‘Thank you! I needed to get out of the house, I needed to get out, I need to feed my soul.’
“That’s what the arts are about,” Johnson said. “Living in your house is one thing, but living without the arts is part of a basic need for humans, and we’re trying to provide that in safe ways.”
Heyde Center has presented what they called “house concerts,” in which musicians played onstage before a socially distanced audience.
The next live show is the community theater production of “Over the River and Through the Woods,” a locally produced comedy that explores intergenerational relationships, Friday, Sept. 18, through Sunday, Sept. 20.
In addition, they have a bus coming to Heyde Center for a dinner theater presentation of the play. For health and safety considerations, tables will be 9 to 10 feet apart. Also, the dinner will be served with disposable utensils and the goal of “how we can make sure it’s as contactless as possible but still having the dinner theater option,” Johnson said.
Additional safety measures Heyde Center is taking, such as frequent hand-washing and wearing face masks, are listed on its website.
Heyde Center also is selling tickets for “Ghost in the Attic,” an interactive dinner murder mystery Oct. 30 and 31.
Other planned performances by regional and nationally known talent have been postponed or canceled because of the virus.
The Mabel Tainter is a building that “thrives off having people in it,” Chase said. Thus, tours are offered noon to 3 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. In fact, those who have toured the building will be happy to learn that new items, including original family pieces and other Menomonie artifacts, are now on display.
In fact, the Victorian theater’s beauty is part of how Chase would make the case for receiving funds in a grant application.
“I think the biggest thing that the Mabel has to it that not all theaters do is just the facility itself,” he said. “It really is one of the most spectacular theaters in the world. … It’s not just a theater, it’s also a community center and a historic building on the National Register of Historic Places. These are the types of buildings that the government really doesn’t want to see shut down because they bring so much more than just a place to see a show to this community and to the Chippewa Valley.”
While not presenting shows, the Mabel rents the facility for meetings, weddings and baby showers.
The arts center follows the Dunn County Health Department guidelines related to COVID-19, in which gatherings are limited to 50 or fewer people. With that in mind, the annual fundraiser Night at the Mabel is Saturday, Oct, 3. Fifty guests will be in the building, and an online component will be offered as well.
While the Mabel hasn’t resumed live performances, some of the postponed shows by nationally known artists have been rescheduled, including:
- Folk legend Judy Collins on Wednesday, May 5.
- Country star Rodney Crowell on Thursday, May 6.
- Comedian Charlie Berens on Friday, May 21. Tickets aren’t yet on sale for Berens yet but should be by the end of the month, Chase said.
Eau Claire’s Pablo Center at the Confluence, which opened in 2018, has opted not to present live performances until after Jan. 1. The center is, however, offering livestream events and art exhibits that can be viewed online.
Among Pablo Center’s fundraising efforts is the Bridge Campaign, which seeks to raise $500,000 to cover operational needs from August through December.
Pablo Center announced Thursday that the Bridge Campaign has reached 70% of its goal.
To contribute go to pablocenter.org or call the box office at 715-832-ARTS (2787).
Heyde Center did receive funds from the Paycheck Protection Program, but all of the federal effort’s funds have been given out and Congress hasn’t restarted the program.
“We’re trying desperately, like every other smaller business, to still get some revenue coming in,” Johnson said. “And that helps us stretch donations, which people have been extremely generous about.”
The public may not understand that, despite being closed or simply open to a more limited extent, arts venues have continuing expenses.
Maintenance at the Mabel costs about $850 a day. “We’re having repairs every day just because with a building this old, this is just kind of what it takes to keep it in the condition that we want it to stay in,” Chase said.
Johnson pointed out insurance must be maintained for the 113-year-old Heyde Center, which, like the Mabel, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition, facilities with small staffs (Heyde Center has three-and-a-half full-time equivalent employees, and the Mabel has two staff members) need to be ready for the eventual full-scale reopening.
“We’re not like a factory that’s been shut down and that once we open up we can start making widgets right away,” Johnson said. “It does not work like that.”
In other words, they must plan, however tentatively, for when health officials deem it safe to do. It’s also important to maintain the art center’s presence in the community despite the slowdown.
That’s because, she suggested, livestreaming may be a wonderful way to experience music, dance or theater, but the next best thing to being there isn’t the same as being there.
“Even if it’s social distanced, but having the murmur of the crowd, or you get to a comedy scene and everybody starts laughing, and you just kind of feel you’re part of everything else,” Johnson said. “Or if something really touches you, almost like you feel the entire crowd kind of tearing up at a touching moment. Those cannot be replaced sitting in front of a TV or a computer.”
That is to say, Johnson firmly believes venues must continue their vital mission of providing a place for the arts to happen — and now more than ever.
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