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San Diego Arts Organizations Reflect On A Year Of Adapting, Uncertainty

An empty lobby bench awaits theatergoers in The Old Globe's Viterbi Family Lobby, in an undated photo.
Courtesy of The Old Globe
An empty lobby bench awaits theatergoers in The Old Globe's Viterbi Family Lobby, in an undated photo.

San Diego Museum of Art, The Front Arte & Cultura, The Old Globe and The Casbah weigh in on running an arts organization during the pandemic, and the reality of reopening

Local arts organizations weigh in on the last twelve months of art and music during the pandemic and face continued uncertainty and adaptation as we move towards reopening.

COVID-19 claimed the lives of over 537,000 Americans. Nearly 57,000 of those who died were Californians and 3,462 were San Diegans. The San Diego art world shouldered a lot of impact from the pandemic — many suffering a complete upheaval of livelihoods — but also including the grief.

"The virus hit our family," Barry Edelstein, artistic director at The Old Globe, one of San Diego’s most well known theaters, said. "The virus took artists from us in the American theater. The virus took the great Larry Baza, one of the great advocates for the arts in San Diego. The virus took members of families of Globe staff members and families of Globe artists. So there's been a sort of sense of grief, of just the sheer human toll of this terrible pandemic."

In an effort to decrease the number of people sickened or killed by the virus, schools were moved online, restaurants were asked to only offer takeout, theme parks, movie theaters, museums and music venues were closed and in-person shows and events were canceled.

Uncertainty Mixed With Hope For Live Music

Tim Mays, owner of the Casbah and also a partner at the Soda Bar, said that the early days of the pandemic were filled with both uncertainty and hope.

"When this first started in March, April, the first two months were spent canceling shows, rescheduling shows, because everybody thought by, you know, last summer things would be OK. How long could this last?" Mays said. "I had a bunch of shows booked in late May and I thought, OK, we'll be good by late May. Memorial Day weekend is going to be huge, you know, and obviously that wasn't the case over the summer. It was not a lot going on because everybody was kind of waiting to see, especially with the surge in cases all over the world. I've got some shows that I've probably rescheduled three or four times, you know, keep pushing further out."

But like the rest of the art world, Mays and the Casbah adapted. They started livestreaming shows from inside the venue — which is something he said may continue when in person shows are again allowed. "If we have a sold out show, maybe we put it up so people can watch it at home, things like that. So that's definitely in the works," Mays said.

A Digital Landscape For Visual Art

Digital adaptations were already in the rafters for some cultural institutions. Long before the pandemic, the San Diego Museum of Art had begun focusing on its digital efforts with its app — which won a 2016 CONNECT Most Innovative New Product Award after its launch.

But, the closure of the museum sped up and increased the museum’s virtual presence. Something that Roxana Velásquez, SDMA's executive director and CEO, said isn’t going away.

The exterior of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park is pictured in an undated photo.
Courtesy of SDMA
The exterior of the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park is pictured in an undated photo.

"It has really broadened the capacity, the accessibility to different audiences. So there is obviously a silver lining and there's a piece that also has taught us. So we are not changing now. We will not get back to only physical spaces. We know we have to continue providing this virtual platform. And as I like to say, there will be two avenues that run in a parallel way," Velásquez said.

Throughout the pandemic, businesses have had to respond to state orders on when and how they could be open. That was also the case for museums and galleries. While some smaller galleries were able to operate with an appointment-only model, larger museums and institutions not functioning or identifying as retail had to close when the virus impact worsened. SDMA reopened in September and was open for two and a half months before closing again.

Related: A (Brief) Glimpse Of Reopening For San Diego Museums

"We don't think it is absolutely fundamental to open the doors of a museum. We think it has been a mistake in a way, right, to keep them closed for so long because people do need a respite and the soul gets nurtured with the art," Velásquez said.

She also pointed out that great art often springs from times of historical strife. "We know that art matters. But art, in these moments of crisis, it helps in responding to many of the quandaries and questions that appear in our brains," Velásquez said.

Art Gives Hope To A Hard-Hit Neighborhood

In San Ysidro, The Front Arte and Cultura is a gallery linked to the nonprofit Casa Familiar. The gallery typically hosts multidisciplinary exhibitions and events, including performances and screenings.

"Before the pandemic, we would have had this exhibition in person and the opening reception, usually a very big crowd and photographers, journalists and art lovers and the overall community getting together at the gallery," Francisco Morales, gallery director at The Front, said.

The pandemic moved us outside for dining, exercise, socializing as well as for the arts. The Front made that transition by painting five murals outside of its gallery and projecting a photography exhibit on its outside walls.

Related: Public Art Connects Neighborhoods Across The Border

"We were able to bring art to the streets. And why not give some hope to the people and something to look at and some something to to feel proud of in the community of San Ysidro? That was very hard hit by the pandemic," Morales said.

The Front gallery director Francisco Morales stands in front of Fifí Martínez's mural on September 25, 2020. The work is part of a seven-artist collaboration across the border.
Julia Dixon Evans
The Front gallery director Francisco Morales stands in front of Fifí Martínez's mural on September 25, 2020. The work is part of a seven-artist collaboration across the border.

Morales said he was able to experience a sense of being back to normal with appointment viewings, and at a gallery opening with a small group of people in November.

"We would just go inside to see the exhibition. And then we were outside because we had the projection on the façade, and the general feeling was of happiness, of being together and everybody feeling safe, everybody wearing masks, everybody keeping their distance. But we were able to have some kind of social moment and felt really good, really, really good, because that was before the last very strong lockdown in the holidays in December and January. So I think that kept us alive in a sense, spiritually satisfied for a while, at least for those who were able to go," he said.

Live Music Venues On The Line

When the arts do fully reopen, it will be a new normal. And the long-term financial impact on surviving organizations and the loss of those that couldn't make it through is yet to be seen. The Casbah’s Tim Mays is working with the San Diego Independent Venue Association, part of the national movement to fight for relief for event venues.

"There is the shuttered venue operators grant that is part of a bill that passed in late December, and we've been waiting patiently for them to roll out the application process for that. It's being administered by the (Small Business Administration) and they have yet to release an application. So, it passed by December 27th. Here we are, mid-March," Mays said.

With the Casbah empty of audience members, local band Creepy Creeps were able to spread out for their October 30. 2020 livestream set.
Tim Mays/Casbah
With the Casbah empty of audience members, local band Creepy Creeps were able to spread out for their October 30. 2020 livestream set.

With San Diego county now entering the less restrictive red tier, many museums — including those in Balboa Park like SDMA — have announced reopening dates, some beginning this week.

The Theater Of 'Spreadsheets And Models'

Performing arts organizations continue to think about when and how they will fully reopen. For The Globe, they're hopeful that their existing outdoor theater will help, but with capacity restrictions it will still be a challenge to pull off productions.

"Basically life at The Globe right now is about spreadsheets and models and scenarios. And every day we sit down together and we say, all right, what if it's this? What if it's that? What can we do here? What can we do there? What have we learned?" Edelstein said.

Before the pandemic, an audience in The Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre awaits a performance.
Craig Schwartz
Before the pandemic, an audience in The Old Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre awaits a performance.

As for live music at the Casbah, Mays said that due to financial reasons they may not be able to reopen until the state will allow venues to operate at at least half capacity.

"So, when we are able to open at whatever capacity and in a certain capacity, it's not feasible to open financially, but say we're able to open at 50% capacity. It's going to be local talent and regional bands because there's not going to be anybody out on the road on big tours at that point," Mays said.

Related: Can Livestreamed, Full-Production Shows Save Empty Music Venues?

Like in the early days of the pandemic, Mays said the music world is starting to see some tentative advance booking, again using arbitrary future dates. "Now, I have a lot of things on the books for October, November, December. So, yeah, there's no certainty at all. But things are progressing and people are starting to book things," said Mays.

He's optimistic that people will show up, despite over a year spent without live music, crowds or even staying out late. "People are going to be so happy to be out and see live music or a deejay or see their friends and participate in some sort of social event," he said.

But for the time being, uncertainty and adaptation will continue to take center stage.