Story by Brenna McCallum
To understand the evolving impact of Covid-19 on the state’s arts network, the North Carolina Arts Council sent a survey to all 2021-22 grantees. We asked many quantitative questions and were also interested in learning about the less measurable aspects of Covid-19’s effect on how organizations do their work. We received 200 survey responses, with many organizations indicating they had a unique story to share about unexpected opportunities or innovations that arose from the pandemic.
As the Arts Council evaluated the data received from the survey, we also conducted group sessions to hear first-hand testimonies and reflections from organizations. From October 2021 and to January 2022, we held five such sessions and heard from nearly 40 organizations. Some themes rose to the top. North Carolina arts organizations described the following commitments:
♦ Supporting artists who were financially impacted by the pandemic
♦ Facilitating safe, innovative programming
♦ Engaging children who were experiencing the detrimental effects of isolation
♦ Delivering opportunities for healing experiences during a time when physical gatherings were impossible
The Sparks of Light series explores what the past two years have meant for the arts. The commitments just listed are a testament to the ways in which North Carolina arts organizations continue to exhibit resilience and dedication during a time of unprecedented struggle and darkness. The stories staff told when they met with us on Zoom over the past four months are important and inspiring. Sparks of Light will gather some of them and share them with you.
The arts have been a source of healing during the pandemic. Sharing some stories about that is a fitting way for the North Carolina Arts Council’s Sparks of Light series to close.
Arts as a mechanism for healing is not a new concept: organizations in the state have long incorporated use of the arts for healing in their missions and objectives. However, the pandemic introduced a drastic change in the ways that healing arts experiences could be facilitated. The experiences of the three organizations reported here are good examples of those challenges. They show how a sense of community and connection can be fostered even when the medium must be digital, and how logistical hurdles of access to technology and supplies can be overcome.
Creative experiences for veterans
The primary mission of the Joel Fund, based in Wake County, has been to identify and relay services to veterans that help them reconnect to life at home. “Operation ART”—which offers workshops primarily in the visual arts—is one vehicle it uses to do so. When the pandemic hit, the fund was trying to figure out how to keep its services to veterans operational and extend them to people on active duty. Making more services virtual was challenging, and not all participants wished to participate that way, but for others, online access was an advantage. For example, two active-duty soldiers stationed in the Middle East were able to call in and attend one Operation ART workshop series because it was online.
Organizations these days are wondering if virtual programming will be viable in a post-pandemic world, but the Joel Fund has found that the internet is a good fit for its programs. Since adopting virtual modes of operating, the organization has increased the reach of Operation ART to men and women on active duty, as well as to veterans in rural areas for whom a trip to Wake County might have been a struggle even before the pandemic. The fund provides scholarships for those who can’t afford the fee for a workshop series.
Services for children with medical conditions
Headquartered in Buncombe County, Arts For Life provides guided visual art, music, and other creative activities for patients and their families in pediatric hospitals in three chapters across the state. When visits to hospitals had to stop, the organization realized that the pandemic presented an opportunity to improve its services to children with compromised immune systems. A virtual platform allowed Arts For Life to bring live arts lessons to children inside and outside of hospitals, in the safety of their own environment. Offering lessons online was also a chance for Arts For Life to take advantage of virtual translation programs that enable access by non-English speakers. As the pandemic wore on, Arts For Life recorded and shared instructional videos of varied duration, allowing participants to choose projects that worked with their interests and schedules. Arts For Life also ultimately implemented a concierge service, “Creativity on Call,” which pairs families with a staff member to determine the best online participation model for their needs. These programs culminated in an online hub for virtual creative resources titled “Arts For Life Anywhere.” The organization incorporated innovations inspired by the pandemic into its in-person program design, and learned much from the experience of delivering programming entirely online.
Programming for aging populations
Creative Aging Network-NC (CAN-NC), in Guilford County, discovered one positive outcome of the pandemic: an increased public awareness of the needs of aging populations and the detrimental effects of isolation and loneliness. CAN-NC believes that arts are essential for people in living facilities for the aging to build community and form friendships. During the pandemic, the network built out new programs that allowed these residents to have arts experiences when they could not gather face-to-face. It delivered creative activity kits to group living facilities and began offering virtual art classes right away, positioning a camera directly over an art teacher’s project so residents could follow along. Because some facilities lacked the technology that residents needed to participate, CAN-NC bought six Chromebooks for them, which residents who wished to access virtual programming could share. The network began to offer short series on topics such as women in art and African American artists at no charge to assisted living and nursing facilities. The virtual audience for these extended to locations nationwide and in Canada.
CAN-NC operates 22 studios, which it rents at affordable rates to resident artists. Generally, the rent helps cover the network’s own overhead costs. During the pandemic, however, the network was able to cover these costs using government relief funds, freeing it to make studios available at no charge to resident artists whose income had dropped. The network also had some older artists on fixed incomes who typically split studio space with a friend; with the need for social distancing some of those artists chose to relinquish their space leaving their partners in a financial bind. The network was pleased to be able to honor the lower rate for those who wanted to continue their studio work at no extra cost.
Venues for healing and connecting arts experiences were perhaps more important than ever during the period of isolation. These stories document the urgency with which organizations in North Carolina worked to facilitate therapeutic and healing experiences through the arts in new ways during the pandemic.
This concludes the Sparks of Light series. The stories that organizations told North Carolina Arts Council staff show the vitality, fellowship, and healing that the state’s arts community drew upon during the pandemic. Bringing those stories to you here has been an honor and a joy.
For more stories about how arts organizations have navigated the pandemic with strength and determination, check out the latest season of the North Carolina Arts Council's podcast, Arts Across NC, wherever you listen to podcasts.