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Looking back: A year unlike any other for the arts

Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute Facebook
"Terrible Beauty: Richard Friedberg Sculpture" is on view through May 30.

It’s been one year since music concerts, theatrical performances and museum exhibitions came to an abrupt halt, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Artists and arts organizations in central New York have endured financial loss and were forced to adapt to new circumstances. But a generous community has helped cushion the blow.

John McConnell is a singer, songwriter and guitarist in Oswego. He’s been hosting an open mic at the Old City Hall bar every Tuesday for the past 13 years. It was St. Patrick’s Day last year when he was waiting to hear if he still had a gig. 

“The proprietor of that establishment gave me a call and said sorry kid, we can’t do it,” McConnell said.

That’s also around the time when his lucrative summer shows start getting booked. 

“It was kind of a buzzkill,” he said. “It was kind of a spirit crusher.”

To make some money, McConnell, like other musicians, started playing music on virtual platforms like Facebook.

Credit John McConnell
John McConnell during a Facebook Live show.

“Ironically enough, the platform that I think in part has contributed to a downward trend in local music, is the platform that I’ve become completely reliant on,” McConnell said.

Livestreaming, he said, has been a godsend. Fans can tip him on apps like Venmo and Paypal. And the people he's gotten to know over the years, have been very generous.

“Relationships are invaluable,” he said. “When it’s safe to do so, shake as many hands as you can and try to get to know folks on some sort of level.” 

Gigs are starting to trickle back in for McConnell. The future is not so clear for live theatre. Earlier this month, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced arts and entertainment venues can reopen in April at 33% capacity. But Jill Anderson, the managing director of Syracuse Stage, said their biggest hurdle is Actors' Equity, the union that represents stage managers and actors.

"They are not yet approving most, if any, in-person work for actors,” Anderson said. “Right now, they’re still remote only.”

Syracuse Stage’s last live, in-person show was a year ago with the opening of “Amadeus” on an ominous Friday the 13th. 

“That night felt electric,” Anderson said. “I think everybody knew it was the beginning of something unknown. To just be cresting at that point when you would normally open, and feel the triumph of getting to do it once. I think it has forever bonded that particular cast and creative team to each other.”

Their season was canceled but they still produced shows. Some were filmed on stage and distributed electronically with video on demand. For their more recent productions, the cast has had to be completely remote. The play "Annapurna," which is now streaming, takes place in a dilapidated RV. They used a married couple, who are actors, who happen to live in a Sprinter van.

“We had GoPro cameras rigged up all over their RV,” Anderson said. “We’re able to provide additional props and things to make their place look dumpier. And we filmed this two-character play, director was never in the room with them.”

Syracuse Stage lost almost two-thirds of their subscribers during the pandemic. But Anderson said there has been incredible support from the community. It's a similar experience for the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica. There was a significant drop in their endowment, membership and ticket sales. Anna D’Ambrosio, president and CEO, said they were able to reopen the museum to the public in July, with rigorous protocols and the help of an industrial hygienist.

“I will tell you I didn’t know industrial hygienist was a career,” D’Ambrosio said. “But she was absolutely fabulous. And we did everything from our air filtration systems, to the location of hand sanitizers.”

She credits generous donations, grants and the dedication of the staff with getting through this tough time and pivoting to online learning and digital programs. She said they’ve received comments from visitors who have missed having emotional experiences and dialogues in person, brought on by the art.

“The arts express common human emotions and experiences,” D’Ambrosio said. “The arts are one of the things that brings us all together, at a time where we’re feeling all very disconnected.”

Exhibitions have resumed. Richard Friedberg’s aluminum mesh screen sculptures of natural disasters titled, “Terrible Beauty,” runs until the end of the month.

This is just one of a series of stories from WRVO this month on how the coronavirus pandemic has affected life across central and northern New York. Find the rest of the series here.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.