The Show Must Go Online: Valley Arts Organizations Get Creative in the Wake of COVID-19

Leah LeMoineJuly 31, 2020
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Photo courtesy Arizona Theatre Company
Photo courtesy Arizona Theatre Company

The arts have always been a comfort during our toughest times – a way to unwind, to escape, to imagine. What happens when the arts go through a tough time?

“It hit us like a tidal wave,” Patty Barnes says of the pandemic. For the past 37 years, Barnes and her husband, Thomas Houlon, have run Spirit of the Senses intellectual salon. “We had a whole month of in-person salons, which usually involve maybe 30-40 of our members showing up in someone’s living room with a speaker or performer… we realized we can’t meet in those rooms.”

Like many arts organizations around the Valley, they moved their content online, switching to videoconference salons. It was an unexpected boon. “We’ve doubled our attendance,” Houlon says.

“Boundaries have been eliminated… We have members now in Spain, Australia, New York City, Boston, Chicago… It’s really been a huge silver lining.”

Reaching a global audience was also a pleasant shock for Arizona Theatre Company artistic director Sean Daniels. “We made a really early shift to digital,” he says. Despite shrinking from a full-time staff of 95 to 32, ATC started a podcast and a digital talk show that nets 14,000 viewers. Online readings – “we had a stage manager in Florida, actors in Brooklyn… a technician in New Jersey” – were test runs for a digital season.

At press time, The Phoenix Symphony’s and Ballet Arizona’s fall seasons were up in the air. Some museums, like Heard Museum, reopened. Others, like Phoenix Art Museum, remain closed. And instead of going online, some folks have gone outside: Artist Kristin Bauer debuted Untitled Gestures, a series of text installations at places like Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, and Phoenix boutique Practical Art launched Roadside Attraction, “a socially distanced art show” with public art around town.

“The more that people can invest and buy subscriptions… so that these organizations get the cash in, [the better],” Daniels says. “And then, when it all lifts, you get to go see all these great shows.”

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