CitySpeak Forum Review: Art Matters, Even During a Pandemic

The Advocate’s most recent CitySpeak panel delved into the creative response from the local art community during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, asking how organizational and financial structures around creating and presenting art have been impacted, and why art matters in such a difficult time. 

The CitySpeak panel included Cynthia Spencer-

Hadlock, The Arts Center executive director; Jimbo Ivy, Majestic Theatre supervisor; Erin Sneller, Oregon State University events and communications manager for the College of Liberal Arts; and Paul Turner, Darkside Cinema owner. 

The Arts Center 

Spencer-Hadlock is a former studio potter who stepped into nonprofit administrative work over the years. She said The Arts Center, while still open, is keeping the community engaged virtually as the coronavirus forces changes in how group events and public spaces operate. The Arts Center has also distributed bilingual art-making kits to families who receive assistance from the Corvallis School District to help in this time of need. 

In adjusting for the pandemic, Spencer-Hadlock said The Art Center staff is learning to navigate in the digital age, broadening its platform for connecting people. The online experience has been beneficial in some ways, letting those who might not normally participate get involved, including a recent event participant from Australia. But she acknowledges that something is lost without the in-person connection for artists. 

“Communing with art or communing with other people is really missed,” she said. “Trying to figure out how to create systems where people can still have that kind of connection is a challenge … the arts are a really great way for connecting people who wouldn’t necessarily be connected otherwise, so I’m hoping that’s a great way to keep Corvallis a welcoming community place.” 

Majestic Theatre 

With around 20 years of experience managing arts and culture venues, Ivy has been running the Majestic Theatre for the City of Corvallis Parks and Recreation Department since 2015. For the past five years, he’s been focused on rebuilding and networking to make the Majestic a home for community arts performance. However, the pandemic gave it a one-two punch in the form of an operating revenue budget crunch that comes as the organization completely redefines its operations due to COVID. 

Majestic performers pivoted to online with the rest of the nation this past spring, turning to Zoom for performances – around 40 since March, and reaching an estimated 30,000 people while keeping hundreds of artists active. The next step was bringing performers back to the Majestic and filming the action on stage with coronavirus precautions, and streaming the shows for home audiences. Ivy said the performers’ determination that ‘the show must go on’ has driven the effort to entertain, backed by undaunted volunteerism. 

“The adventurous and irrepressible spirit of our volunteers really made everything possible for us,” he said. Ivy also applauded support from the city government and parks and rec in thinking outside the box to keep the Majestic open in some capacity as pandemic conditions shuttered operations elsewhere. 

Ivy noted a positive side-effect of the pandemic has been increased access for those who otherwise wouldn’t participate in the theater experience. Going online allowed under-represented people to take center stage. He said the barriers that were brought down by COVID would not go back up when the pandemic ends. 

Oregon State University 

Sneller got involved in the arts many years ago as a volunteer. Though she’s not an artist or a performer, she’s always been a patron and an enthusiast. She currently works as the events and communications manager for the OSU College of Liberal Arts, a position she took just as the pandemic hit the U.S. 

Coronavirus hasn’t stopped performing arts students at OSU, but it pushed the college to find new ways for showcasing student work such as virtual shows, radio-style podcasts, and a Facebook Live series – strategies that could be farther reaching than in-person events, despite other shortcomings. The experience has also benefited technology students who have assisted with productions that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. 

“Theater is meant to be performed live in front of an audience that reacts to you,” Sneller said. “So, there are definitely challenges with that, and radio performance isn’t exactly the same, but I think they’re giving the students a great experience regardless.” 

Sneller said everyone involved with planning events at the college is aware of and focused on the need to present more diversity-based content for audiences, and more material dealing with themes such as gender, race, and social justice.  

Darkside Cinema 

Darkside Cinema touts its status as the only independently owned and operated movie theater in Corvallis, curating independent, foreign, and art films that aren’t typically screened by big-money movie theaters. Like many, the pandemic forced Darkside to close its doors, so it took the silver screen online.  

Owner Paul Turner said despite being closed, the public has remained engaged with Darkside through streaming movies, t-shirt sales, and fundraising donations from what Turner called an amazing community. He credited a vast array of assistance from sources too numerous to list, from big to small, said Darkside wouldn’t remain without that support, noting efforts to find funding from the government, applying for grants, and that even the film studios are kicking in. 

When the pandemic is over, Turner hopes the arts remain part of the character and spirit of Corvallis – the flavor of the town, as he put it. He said if the arts aren’t supported until COVID has passed, Corvallis will be a different place, and the affect won’t just be cultural. Turner highlighted the economic advantages inherent to a cultured city – a point Ivy later hammered home by citing a recent Americans for the Arts survey showing the arts bring $75 million a year to the Corvallis area.

By Cody Mann