The Pandemic Pivot and the Resiliency of Arts Access

State-FlagThis is the seventh and final article in a series on reopening arts and cultural organizations across Tennessee. As Tennessee continues to open up in this ever-changing environment, new opportunities and challenges appear as we come back together in person. In addition, arts and cultural organizations are essential to the recovery of Tennessee’s economy. In recognition of the very challenging circumstances facing arts and cultural organizations, these articles aim to bring us together as a community by sharing how different organizations find opportunities and solutions to moving the arts forward in our state.

By Kim Johnson, Director of Arts Access

Throughout Tennessee, artists and arts organizations representing populations whose opportunities to experience the arts are limited by culture, ethnicity, economics, geography, or disability have faced many challenges during the pandemic.  Organizations that work directly with populations to increase accessibility in the arts, especially on behalf of people with disabilities, older adults, ethnic groups, and active military/veteran populations, have faced significant challenges. Like other arts organizations, these challenges during and after the pandemic were related to programming activities, audience numbers, and financial solvency.

Most of these organizations closed during the pandemic and were unable to provide in-person programming.  As an alternative, they moved to virtual programming to continue to provide arts activities to people in the community.  Virtual programming was not without its challenges.  Limited staff had to quickly learn new technology skills to help artists and audiences adjust to virtual programming while working with leaner budgets. As Nicole Minyard, Executive Director of Poverty in the Arts, an organization that provides arts programming to individuals who are homeless, stated, “due to COVID-10, our organization experienced an increased administrative burden as we adapted our programming into virtual formats.  We adapted our infrastructure for the community by creating new ways for potential customers to interact and purchase artwork (e.g., virtually gallery space), as well as changed the ways in which our artists were able to engage with our programming (e.g., digital formats, arts supply care packages, delivery volunteer positions, etc.).”

Organizations also reported on the advantages of virtual programming. As Lori Kissinger, Executive Director of Borderless Arts Tennessee, an organization serving people with disabilities, stated, “continuing to do our programming digitally is saving on the cost of space, opens our artist options and opens us up to more participants.” No longer were audiences limited by physical geographic regions, but through virtual programs, increased numbers of people were able to participate.

In the western region of Tennessee, Virginia Murphy, Executive Director of Playback Memphis, stated, “we have been reborn.  This time has allowed us to strengthen our operations and culture in a powerful way.” With the reopening that’s occurring around the country, many organizations have had time to strategize new directions for their organization. In the meantime, most organizations are currently maintaining hybrid models that support both in-person and virtual programming.

During the pandemic and now after, organizations have demonstrated flexibility, innovation, and resiliency in serving Tennessee’s most underserved and underrepresented people. Now, as these organizations begin to reopen their facilities and programming, some are using innovative ideas like outdoor classes/performances, mailed art supplies, and limited attendance numbers to transition their programming before fully reopening over the coming year. By pivoting and embracing new ideas, organizations have found different ways of working with the most underserved populations in our communities as they seek to reopen.