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The Arts Issue 2021

Utah arts groups rev up to find a new normal

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The Living Traditions festival adopted a multi-venue format for its 2021 event - TRISTAN SADLER
  • Tristan Sadler
  • The Living Traditions festival adopted a multi-venue format for its 2021 event

State of the Arts
A look from the top at 18 tumultuous months of adaptation and survival.
By Scott Renshaw

It already feels like an eternity ago, but there was a moment there—in the late spring of this year—when it felt like a corner had been turned. Events calendars that had been empty or filled with virtual events suddenly started to promise festivals, performances and other ways to appreciate the arts live and in person again. After more than a year, we saw a light at the end of the tunnel. And then that light turned out to be the lamp on a runaway train called the Delta variant.

The ongoing uncertainty about what to expect a few months or even a few weeks down the road now feels like a part of life for all of us, and the Utah arts community has faced unique challenges in figuring out how to invite patrons back safely in the face of rising case counts and confusing, counterproductive or unenforceable rule-making at various levels of government. But through it all, these organizations keep moving forward, surviving on a combination of crucial funding support and creative thinking.

As we reach a milestone 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders of local arts organizations and government arts entities are able to reflect on a time of ever-evolving plans and rapid pivots to remain vital and relevant. Where the state of the arts in Utah might have seemed precarious not too long ago, these voices now paint a picture of cautious optimism for a community that has always shown a passion for supporting the arts.

Memories of March
In March 2020, after weeks of uncertainty, the world as we knew it took a radical turn as the lockdown period commenced, and most Utah businesses—including artistic and cultural venues—closed their doors. Throw in an earthquake just a few days later, and the sense of instability only became more pronounced.

"We started, and we stopped, and we started, and we stopped, and we started again," recalls Felicia Baca, director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council. "When we left the office, we put some voicemail reminders on and said, 'We'll be back in two weeks,' and none of us really knew what was coming."

Like a lot of people, Vicki Bourns—director of the Utah Division of Arts & Museums—also thought that the shutdown period would be short-lived.

"Early on, I was optimistic, thinking this would be over by fall of 2020," she says. "Things shifted, and we realized that wasn't going to happen. We made some strategic decisions about not meeting in person, so we wouldn't be spinning our wheels planning something, then having to pull back."

Bourns adds that the earthquake delivered a double whammy to the tremendous challenges involving the state's own art collection, including damage to storage facilities. "It was a tense and stressful time," Bourns says. "We have a way of storing the art, and they all collapsed. Paintings were like dominos against the wall. It took us a while to get in and figure out what was going on."

All organizations faced the uncertainty of the new disease, including lack of definitive information about what activities and behaviors were most dangerous, and what it would take to return to "normal." But at the governmental level, groups began working together on solutions in a way that the participants describe as immediate and nearly unprecedented.

"We immediately joined in with our partners around the state," Bourns says, "and for a while did a weekly call to try to share information, whatever resources we knew."

"What really stands out for me," Baca says, "is that probably more than any time I've experienced in my career, a number of organizations and governments and individuals came together in a really collaborative way to solve these challenges. Despite physical distance and working from home, I've seen my peers and colleagues more than I ever have."

Thinking Differently
If the earliest days of the pandemic were spent focusing on what people shouldn't do, the ensuing weeks for arts organizations became a test of figuring out what they could do. If they couldn't gather audiences in a theater, could they do it virtually? If they couldn't perform inside, could they do it outside? And could arts organization employees apply their skills to different notions, like Pioneer Theatre Co.'s costume shop creating masks from archived costumes?

"I was so impressed with all of the groups we worked with," Bourns says. "They all did such an incredible job. ... All of the dance companies—Ballet West, Ririe-Woodbury, Tanner Dance and more—started to stream performances, but also dance classes and interactive activities. We actually learned that sometimes performing virtually allowed more access. As much as we love to meet in person, our state is so large. Having some trainings and classes and workshops allowed us to have more people participate."

Baca notes that the long-running Living Traditions Festival adapted by moving its typical annual event—held in a single location at the Salt Lake City & County Building—to multiple venues around the valley, in addition to creating the "Living Legacy" series of online videos. Like many of the innovations necessitated by the pandemic, Baca believes this can have an ongoing positive impact on the cultural community groups that they serve.

"A lot of those communities may not have digital or promotional assets for their food truck or their community nonprofit or dance group," she says, "so it became not only documentation for future generations, but an important tool for, essentially, promoting the small businesses that artists are."

Derek Dyer, director of the Utah Arts Alliance, also believes that the pandemic provided an opportunity for new creative thinking, even though different kinds of organizations faced different kinds of challenges with such adaptation.

"It may be easier for smaller or mid-size organizations to pivot a little more," Dyer says. "If you've been doing the same thing for half a century, it might be a little harder to change direction. ... But figuring out new ways to be able to connect with the community is only going to be good for the community going forward. Like thinking of alternative venues—we're going to use a parking lot, or a drive-in, or whatever. That doesn't need to end when COVID ends. A theater group can think, 'We don't necessarily need to spend $10,000 on a venue for this play; let's go to a park.'"

Public  funding through Zoo, Arts & Parks helped keep doors open - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Public funding through Zoo, Arts & Parks helped keep doors open

Staying Alive
As much as organizations and individuals were able to come up with some innovative ways to keep creating, they still faced tremendous financial pressures from the inability to operate normally. Those pressures took varying forms, from the loss of admissions revenue during closures to the additional costs that some venues incurred once they began operations again.

"Zoological organizations and botanical gardens were among the first allowed to open," Bourns says, "and even though they had to reduce their capacity, it actually took more people to safely sanitize and ensure proper distancing. Even though they were allowed to open, they lost so much money, because they needed so much stuff to get people through their facilities."

Among the keys to keeping organizations solvent was the funding at the federal level through the 2020 CARES Act and 2021 American Rescue Plan (ARP), which was administered through the state. According to Laurel Cannon Alder, grants manager for the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, more than $26 million was disbursed at the state level to roughly 150 organizations and 800 individual artists. And that funding was able to get into the right hands with surprising efficiency.

"We were one of the first state agencies to have allocations from the state Legislature to fund impacted organizations," Alder says. "It usually takes us months to plan for and open a grant, but we were able to work exceptionally quickly to get money where it was needed."

"We had this large wave of emergency funding," Baca says, "and we thought, 'We're going to develop rubric and criteria, make the application process easy so that people can access what they need.' ... At a time when swiftness was important, we were really able to expedite payments, and we were able to do it as teams that might really never have worked together before."

"We did see in the early days that the need outweighed the demand," Baca adds, "and that's still the case. ... While we know that demand exceeded what there was, we're all seasoned grant-makers. That's something we've done before. But it's still hard, still instances where there wasn't enough to go around."

In addition to the emergency funds provided by the federal and state governments, many local arts organizations also benefited from the stable source of revenue provided by the Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts & Parks (ZAP) program. ZAP director Kirsten Darrington says that in 2020, nearly $19 million was provided to 220 recipients.

"We were holding our breath at the beginning of 2020, [expecting] we'd see a big hit to the revenue stream," Darrington says. "But our program did much better than others; we were pretty flat, which was a huge sigh of relief for our grantees."

Darrington says that while the ZAP program is not completely unique nationwide—similar funding structures exist in cities like Denver, and in communities in Pennsylvania and Ohio, for example—it's a relatively uncommon type of public funding source for local arts organizations. And its importance to the recipients is something that Darrington was extremely aware of over the past year.

"What has been most surprising to me," she says, "is hearing from different sizes of organizations—whether it's a multimillion-dollar organization or one that's all volunteer. It was, 'We could keep our doors open because of ZAP, we didn't have to lay anyone off.' ... I kept thinking, 'Oh, we're going to see people close their doors.' But I haven't been hearing that."

All the world was a stage for scaled-back performances - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • All the world was a stage for scaled-back performances

"Plan A, B, C and D"
Surviving financially has been challenging enough over the past 18 months. A different kind of challenge emerged, however, from the inability to make plans that would make sense a few weeks down the road. Whether it was from the earliest realizations that this wouldn't just be a shutdown of a few weeks, to the troubling COVID-19 spike resulting from the Delta variant, to shifting public health guidelines, the idea of "long-range planning" has begun to seem almost comical.

"For us, having to already go through 2020 with COVID and having to pivot," Dyer says, "we've had to have plan A, B, C and D, wherever we are in the moment. Everyone postponed events until the fall, so now everyone's competing for the same events for the same audience. It's frustrating for everyone. You're having your 20,000 person festival the same weekend as another one? Maybe you only get 10,000.

"One of the things that was frustrating to me was, come the spring, we went from like zero to 100 [percent] overnight, rather than kind of baby-step towards recovery," Dyer adds. "The flood waters were released in the spring. For our organization, we still kind of tried to pull back and keep some precautions in place."

"Planning is much more difficult, because we are still living in uncertain times," Bourns says. "What we're planning for is, it's easier to plan for smaller events. I think what I'm hearing or seeing is that masks are starting to be required in theaters again. We're planning to continue to do things either in a hybrid or virtual model as we move forward."

"It's, of course, challenging," Baca notes, "but I feel like we have acclimated in a way, where our expectations for a week-to-week period are very real. ... The name of the game is responsiveness. If you feel that you're helping, or making someone safe or making sure someone gets paid, you're driven to do that."

Film fans attend an outdoor screening from the Utah Film Center - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Film fans attend an outdoor screening from the Utah Film Center

Prognosis Positive
In the midst of such uncertainty and pain—both physical and fiscal—it's understandable that emotions can fluctuate almost as much as the conditions of the pandemic itself. There have been periods of optimism that seem to be followed almost immediately by shifts to greater concern. So where does the Utah arts community find itself not just after this particular 18-month leg of the COVID journey, but looking toward the future?

It's certainly true that organizations and individual artists have felt the impact of the pandemic, in ways as varied as their fields—and that the cancellation of arts events impacts parts of the community beyond the artists themselves.

"There are different parts of the arts community that may be struggling more than others," Baca says. "An art gallery for a visual artist is very different from a promoter of a concert. As a state, and by the numbers, we did better than other states. But we still have artists who are struggling. And there is a trickle-down. People who go to a Twilight Concert spend on dinner, a babysitter, public transit—so there's an economic ripple effect."

For most of the local leaders however, including Baca, the picture is relatively optimistic, in large part due to the way arts organizations have almost always had to deal with big challenges to their existence.

"Most of us struggle with something or another constantly, whether it's funding or locking down permits," Dyer says. "We're always running into impossible obstacles and hurdles. It's just part of the job. A lot of us in the arts are artists, too, so using that creative problem-solving process has helped a lot in this sector."

Bourns adds, "What's really incredible is our resilience. It's been hard. There have been times it's been really hard. But we have pulled ourselves together, we've done what we've needed to do. We've pushed through. It shows the discipline in our fields. It's really helped us to be resilient—rehearsing every day, even if you don't feel like rehearsing. We've internalized that ethic."

Darrington offers a similar sentiment, one that underlines the notion of artists not just as creative problem-solvers, but as survivors: "One of the amazing things to me is that there never was a sense of, 'We're giving up.' It was, 'Let's find a way through this.' That sense of resilience is so baked into the arts and nonprofit community, that if anyone could make it through, it would be them."