The Journal Gazette
 
 
Friday, February 05, 2021 1:00 am

Smaller arts groups forging ahead with help, creativity

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

At the end of 2019, board President Derek Devine sent a letter to Cinema Center's email list recounting what had been a rough year. At one point the organization had considered shutting its doors permanently.

But by the time of that email, Devine was optimistic as debt was being paid down and larger audiences were being attracted. That continued in the first couple months of 2020 until the pandemic hit locally and Cinema Center was forced to close. It has remained closed for in-theater screenings.

The timing wasn't ideal, but the pandemic hasn't crushed Cinema Center. The nonprofit has found partners and relief funds to help, and the annual Hobnobben Film Festival – which serves as the organization's major fundraiser – was a success in October.

Devine says the organization is more financially stable today than it was a year ago, and it is nowhere near being permanently closed for monetary reasons.

It might be an unexpected thing to hear during a time of uncertainty when the arts are often among the hardest hit sectors, but several smaller arts organizations in the area say they are faring well.

Finding support

Cynthia Smyth-Wartzok says the amazing thing about 2020 was how much support Pulse Opera House received despite not having in-person shows.

It has been incredible and humbling, the Warren theater's artistic director says.

Pulse's budget typically relies about 50/50 on fundraising and ticket sales. Though Pulse was the recipient of grants in 2020, which Smyth-Wartzok calls a lifesaver, she doesn't see it as wise to rely on grants in case they don't continue.

A “Fill the Seats” fundraiser met its goal by the end of 2020 as the theater used leftover costume fabric to make slipcovers for its seats that featured the names of donors that gave at least $20.

A volunteer donated more than $5,000 raised by making and selling face masks.

Pulse has been on the receiving end of community support before. The theater faced struggles several years ago as Smyth-Wartzok and her husband, Ron Wartzok, faced health issues – breast cancer for her and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma for him.

Things had gotten back on track when the pandemic forced Pulse to stop performances of “The Shakespeare Stealer” midway through its run in March.

“We were just coming out of a very rough period,” Smyth-Wartzok says. “We had a year where we were building back up and things were going, and then this hit and I didn't know what was going to happen.”

Pulse couldn't even do a typical drive for support because it wasn't safe to gather 20 or more volunteers to put together the mailings. But things are better now, and Smyth-Wartzok says Pulse actually received more in fundraising than it would have in a normal year.

In Fort Wayne, All For One Productions has seen an increase in individual donors and donor retention is up almost 5% year over year, executive director Stacey Kuster says.

“I've been a little bit surprised myself at how this year has turned out for us,” she says, crediting donors with generous support and being flexible with program changes.

When “The Dreadful Journal of Phoebe Weems” was switched to a virtual-only presentation in September, Kuster says “a generous person” underwrote the cost of putting the show online.

So even though the organization didn't sell as many tickets for the virtual stream as they might have for an in-person show, it didn't lose any money on the production.

Expanding reach

Garrett Museum of Art was not eligible for some of the pandemic-related grants and aid that were available in 2020, but gallery coordinator Angela Green says it was fortunate enough to receive a sizable donation from a private donor that covered its costs.

Attendance for exhibition openings at Garrett Museum of Art is down about 50% and about 40% on other days, Green says. The museum attributes that to many of its regulars being older than 50 and more reluctant to go out during the pandemic.

While the pandemic has altered how some smaller organizations are approaching programming, Green says there hasn't been a great change in how the museum plans its exhibitions – though it has seen at least one out-of-state artist who didn't want to travel to be at the opening of an exhibit. The museum has unveiled an exhibition calendar stretching through 2022.

It includes two larger national exhibits being loaned from other museums in 2022, and there is the potential for two more of these larger shows in 2023. That expansion of the museum's reach was in the works before the pandemic and the virus didn't delay the progress, Green says.

The 2022 shows include the Edward Curtis Collection of photographs documenting the lives of American Indians and conceptual photography by Brooke Shaden. Both exhibits have been in the works since 2019.

Cinema Center is also finding ways to expand its reach.

Though it hasn't offered in-theater screenings, the theater has continued its mission to provide independent movies through its website, which has a curated list of free short films and a selection of full-length movies that can be rented digitally with a portion of the proceeds going to the organization.

The rentals probably won't continue after the pandemic (distributors are unlikely to continue making titles available that way when theaters are fully open), but the short films likely will continue to be part of Cinema Center's online presence, executive director Art Herbig says. He believes curating those movies is one of the great things the organization has been able to do during the pandemic. Short films are often offered on services such as YouTube because filmmakers have a hard time getting attention for them.

Staying active

Though fundraising became the focus of 2020, there are other things that need attention, Smyth-Wartzok says. Pulse and other organizations need to find ways to keep their name out there.

Part of that is maintaining a healthy online presence. Smyth-Wartzok maintains a Facebook group with more than 400 members where she posts historical items about Pulse and Warren.

The theater is also among those in the area that have created virtual performances.

Early in the pandemic, Pulse streamed some small shows and was able to feature performers from all over the country that had at one time been associated with the theater.

But Smyth-Wartzok felt that sort of virtual programming eventually ran its course. Not all of the theater's patrons are computer savvy, and it is hard to monetize those sorts of productions when a family that once would have purchased six tickets now only has to buy one virtual pass.

Pulse did return to streaming for a presentation of “At Your Own Risk” in November and has more streaming opportunities coming up.

All For One has offered several virtual shows during the pandemic, and Kuster says the digital offerings aren't nearly as popular as the organization thought they would be. She chalks that up to people preferring to have a live event instead of tuning in on a digital device.

Reopening

Herbig and Devine point to Hobnobben Film Festival, which Cinema Center offered in the larger space of Embassy Theatre because of the pandemic, as an example of what audiences can expect when the art house theater on East Berry Street reopens.

The film lineup explored subjects such as sex trafficking, racial injustice and conservation efforts with hopes of inspiring conversations.

That level of engagement sets art house theaters apart and is what audiences will experience when Cinema Center reopens, Herbig says. The theater is less about being a place to sit and watch a movie and more about being a place for the community to gather for films and take part in the cultural discussions they inspire.

Herbig says Cinema Center will reopen when the board and executive team decides everyone is ready. That wasn't a feeling they had when larger chains such as AMC, which operates two multiplexes in the city, reopened.

For Cinema Center, the key is making sure they can safely bring people into the theater and also make sure the audience feels safe there.

There will come a time when the board and executive team puts a plan in place, complete with a reopening date.

“But I can say with comfortable certainty that, having met with the board over the past few months, we're certainly not there now,” Herbig says, adding that mutual trust is a big part of creating the community atmosphere Cinema Center strives for.

One factor in the decision to not reopen yet is the inconsistency of guidelines as counties in the state move back and forth through various restrictions and recommendations based on where they fall in Indiana's color-coded chart measuring weekly cases per 100,000 residents and the seven-day positivity rate for all tests completed.

Pulse is also standing by until conditions are right for it to reopen.

Among grants it has received is one earmarked for reopening costs, so the money is there to start up again. But Smyth-Wartzok says Pulse needs to be able to fill at least half its seats before it is able to present in-person shows, and she just hopes it isn't another year before that can happen.

Whenever the time comes, she points out that it takes about six weeks to get a show up and running because of auditions, rehearsals, set building and the like. But when they do reopen, the first show will be “Nunsense A-Men!”, which is the next show Pulse was working on when it was forced to shut down production at the start of the lockdown. The rights had already been purchased and some of the production elements were already constructed.

After that show, Smyth-Wartzok says Pulse will likely do productions with smaller casts for a while.

Kuster says All For One is planning for 2021-22 the way they would have in a non-pandemic world.

It has booked ArtsLab for all four of its productions for 2021-22 season with the same number of dates it previously would have planned for.

There is some flexibility because matinees can be added and the Thursday “brush up” performance could be opened to the public to create more ticket options if social distancing and capacity sizes continue to reduce maximum allowed attendance.

But the organization is coming up with backup plans and other options so people would still have something to watch. One possibility is Advent readings at the holidays.

All For One also started a podcast in the fall called “For Starters” in which the first chapters of books are given a dramatic reading in hopes of encouraging the audience to pick up the book and read the rest.

Four of the first five readings were funded through the Community Foundation of Greater Fort Wayne, and staff is writing grant proposals with an eye toward producing new episodes in the months ahead.

Shifting attitudes

As Smyth-Wartzok looks ahead to live theater returning to Pulse, she wonders what the public's mood will be.

Will people be looking for comedies and musicals or serious plays? Murder mysteries previously have been fun because the audience could mingle at intermission to share theories on “whodunit” – but is that something they will want to do now?

Though answers might be awhile off, Smyth-Wartzok says the theater will be learning a lot this year about what audiences want. In the meantime, Pulse has used the downtime for projects such as installing storage and a new sound system.

Throughout the pandemic, local arts leaders have speculated the public will be hungry for the arts with our period of isolation is over.

Devine says his hope is that as we come out on the other side of the pandemic, people are more proactive in looking for cultural activities instead of waiting for arts groups to try and get their attention.

“I love the arts, especially now. I think we could all use a vaccine and a shot of culture,” Devine says with a laugh.

cmcmaken@jg.net

About this series

This is one of several Weekender stories that will explore issues affecting the local arts and culture community as the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus outbreak being declared a pandemic approaches in March.

The stories are part of “COVID-19: Caught in the Grip,” a Journal Gazette series about changes prompted by the virus – at least temporarily – as individuals and communities rallied to respond and learned to cope.

Other stories from the series can be read at https://on.jg.net/CaughtInTheGrip.

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