Midwest art and music turn to technology to keep making fans—and money

As it has with nearly every aspect of life over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we experience art. With many galleries and performance venues closed or limiting in-person attendance, art organizations and artists across the Midwest are increasingly turning to technology to showcase their work safely and maintain relationships with…

Image courtesy Nebraska Arts Council and Danielle Dewees
Image courtesy Nebraska Arts Council and Danielle Dewees

As it has with nearly every aspect of life over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we experience art.

With many galleries and performance venues closed or limiting in-person attendance, art organizations and artists across the Midwest are increasingly turning to technology to showcase their work safely and maintain relationships with the public. This comes at the same time as a general financial upheaval in the arts industry.

“The organizations that have maintained their links with their audiences — and with their donors — are probably going to come out of (the pandemic) more viable … It doesn’t matter if they’re a large organization, medium-sized or a small one,” said Suzanne Wise, executive director of the Nebraska Arts Council, which provides grant funding and services to artists and art organizations throughout the state. Recently, the agency helped launch Nebraska’s new Support the Arts license plate option.

As the scale of the pandemic began to make itself known in the United States last spring, Omaha’s Peter Kiewit Foundation surveyed more than 30 local arts and culture organizations to estimate the financial impact of the virus. By July 2020, the report stated, the surveyed organizations had canceled more than 2,700 events, resulting in a loss of about 858,500 patron visits. That translated to more than $6,900,000 in lost revenue from admissions, according to the report, with another $5,700,000 in reported losses in non-admissions income.

That number has almost certainly risen in the intervening months. In December, Omaha’s American Midwest Ballet reported to NPR that losing its annual live production of The Nutcracker would result in a loss of half a million dollars on a budget of just under $2 million.

The popular music scene—locally and nationally—has also suffered.

“I think it is safe to say 2020, as a result of the pandemic, has rendered the live musical landscape an apocalyptic wasteland,” said Matt Maginn, bassist with the Omaha rock band Cursive. “All tours and most live shows were canceled. This left venues with up to 100% reduction in revenue and no relief from overhead. Musicians were left with no live performance income at all.” 

The picture looked no less bleak across the river in Iowa, said Megan Helmers, director of marketing and public relations for the Des Moines Symphony. In the spring and summer, as the novel coronavirus began to spread with alarming frequency, the symphony was forced to cancel its slate of concerts, including the Yankee Doodle Pops Fourth of July celebration, one of the symphony’s biggest fundraising events.

In order to stay connected to its audience, the symphony began hosting a number of virtual events that listeners could tune into online, Helmers said. Since April, the symphony’s musicians have been livestreaming small weekly concerts from their own homes, and symphony experts have hosted videos diving into the careers of various composers.

The Des Moines Symphony has also hosted a number of larger concerts and virtual events, including its recent New Year’s Eve fundraiser, since the pandemic began. In doing so, it partnered with local media company JABbermouth Media and Iowa Public radio, to produce the audio and visuals.

“We’d never done anything like this before. We were a pretty analog organization,” Helmers said. Now, “we’re doing the same amount of livestreams that we would typically do concerts. We’ve added other online videos as well that are free to access. So, if someone’s missing the symphony, it’s so much easier to stay in contact now because of the additional programs online.”

The American Midwest Ballet has also entered the world of digital programming. This holiday season, the ballet released The Nutcracker Home Cinema Edition, making the show free through the end of 2020.

Visual arts venues, too, have had to adapt in the face of the pandemic. The University of Nebraska at Omaha Art Gallery has limited the number of people who can visit to 10 at a time, said Jeremy Menard, curator and visual resource manager for the gallery. The gallery has installed a doorbell camera and electric lock to control the flow of visitors and requires masks and social distancing once they’re inside.

“The events we normally would do we were unable to because of capacity limits during the pandemic. We host a lot of events throughout the year — last year we had 90 events in the art gallery, and we haven’t been able to host those this year,” Menard said.

Even so, the gallery has been able to host some larger events virtually, including live talks with graduating art students and guest speakers. Sculptor and printmaker Terry James Conrad and photographer Nadia Huggins have both participated in talks via Zoom. The gallery also hosted a virtual retrospective for retired UNO art professor Bonnie O’Connell.

As vaccination efforts continue, many including Menard, are cautiously optimistic that the coming year could see a return to more in-person programming. In the meantime, some relief efforts have paid off — the National Independent Venue Association recently successfully lobbied to include aid for music venues in the most recent COVID-19 relief package.

“A portion of venues, promoters, talent bookers will hopefully start a road to recovery,” Maginn said. “I would predict both live acts and venues will be more selective than in the past for the foreseeable future. People will be hesitant to be in crowds and all live performance parties will be behaving more efficiently due to the challenges and losses of 2020. I believe that a new and improved live (or recorded) performance streaming element will gain more of a foothold into the regular touring and promotional cycles for most bands.”

Blake Ursch is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter living in Omaha. His work has appeared in the Omaha World-Herald, the Kansas City Star, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal and other publications around the Midwest. 

JOIN THE MOVEMENT!

Sign up to receive daily updates in your inbox.