Arts and Culture

Indiana’s cultural sector is discussing how and when it will safely reopen under the state’s Back on Track plan

The state’s cultural agency, Indiana Arts Commission, hosted a virtual panel Friday morning that included arts leaders from around the state, touching on topics like phased reopenings, how to protect workers, visitors and artists, issues around equity and how to enforce social distancing rules.

“It’s not just about reopening,” Tod Minnich, president and CEO of Honeywell Foundation in Wabash, said. “It’s about completely relaunching the business in a new way with a lot of variables we don’t know. We don’t know how the audience is going to behave and we don’t know who’s going to come back.”

Institutions like the Newfields Museum & Garden Shop in Indianapolis are looking at strict timed ticketing, online-only transactions and phased reopenings, starting with the outdoor spaces. Nickel Plate Arts in Nobelsville is weighing the safest ways to host festivals again, with plentiful hand-washing and sanitizing stations throughout the events and doing away with communal condiment counters near their food vendors. 

Equity Concerns

Ernest Disney-Britton, vice president of community impact and investment with the Arts Council of Indianapolis, raised concerns about equity. 

After surveying “the financial health of our local arts partners,” Disney-Britton said a majority of the city’s organizations focused on youth and people of color are at risk of not making it through this crisis.

“We do not want to see a repeat of the federal situation of [Paycheck Protection Program] loans where those with the most resources get the highest priority in terms of [personal protective equipment] that’s so vital to the operations of these organizations who currently don’t have specific guidance nor the resources to support these additional costs in terms of mitigation,” he said.

Disney-Britton is hoping the state will help in these situations, but he’s also working with local arts groups to ensure that equity remains a priority as they move into this new phase. 

Impact On Rural Communities

Some groups may have a tougher time getting the resources they need. 

Anne McKim of the Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana said rural communities could go without arts experiences for a while because artists and venues might not be able to get adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) or stay afloat with smaller audiences. 

“Smaller and rural arts organizations don’t have the same staffing capacity as say, Newfields, where you’ve got a team working on, researching and developing these plans,” she said.

McKim urged larger institutions to keep sharing virtual offerings.

“If we’re really committed to serving the entire state, that’s a place that we, as arts administrators, need to make sure that we continue whether or not we’re able to gather again in six months or 12 months,” she said.

The Indiana Arts Commission told WFPL local arts groups may use emergency funds from the commission toward protective measures, such as PPE, as they reopen. The state’s Economic Development Corporation is also offering PPE to small businesses and nonprofits

Will/Can Volunteers Return?

Volunteers play a critical role in the operations of a number of large institutions and there were questions about how to protect them when they return to the organizations’ facilities. 

Tod Minnich of Honeywell Foundation said volunteers will receive the same PPE and protective procedures that any of their employees do. The larger concern is whether volunteers can or will come back, which will have an effect on an organization’s operations. 

Newfields’ Charles Venable echoed this, though he anticipates a volunteer labor shortage. 

“Many of these people are in our high risk categories” for the virus, he said of Newfields’ hundreds of volunteers. 

“In order to make sure we can focus on our most important, particularly now, revenue generating things, because we desperately are going to need that revenue to come in, we are frankly cutting an enormous amount of our activities and our events out of our schedule,” he said. “And that’s not just for June.”

That means no summer camps and “hundreds” more events canceled.

“We have to focus on what is essential, not on the things that are nice to have,” Venable said. “I don’t mean to be overly black and white about that or cruel, but we’re not going to be able to have the resources, from labor to money, to be able to do what we’ve done.”

Social Distancing

Aili McGill, executive director of Nickel Plate Arts, said it’s “really important for us to know our space considerations:” how many people can fit in your indoor and outdoor spaces while still practicing social distancing. 

To develop a “traffic flow plan,” she stressed the need to “identify those pinch points in advance… whether it’s restrooms or other spaces, where people are going to have to get in closer proximity.” 

“I think we’re going to have to really think about how we handle entrances and exits… where you can still have some sense of being able to count attendance and also communicate expectations,” McGill said.

And conversations in the arts community more broadly have shifted from whether people will show up to how to make sure people social distance, as new data from sources like Colleen Dilenschneider of IMPACTS Research & Development shows a gradual, but growing appetite to return to cultural events and institutions. 

McGill said they’re also talking about how they’ll handle people not following these new expectations, including if that escalates to having to remove attendees. 

Of course there also needs to be social distancing measures in place for performers and backstage crew, McGill said. Things like microphones will need constant sanitation.

As for seating, there is national guidance out from the Event Safety Alliance. 

Vice President Steven Adelman told WFPL that venues will have to “kill seats” and rethink getting people in and out of the seating areas. 

“You have to load the seating area from the front and, just like we get off of airplanes, unloaded from the back, so that people aren’t all standing around next to each other,” Adelman said. 

How It Will Change The Art

Artists are going to have to create performances and productions that reflect the world we’re in now, according to Indianapolis Children’s Choir executive director Don Steffy, who is also a former dancer.

“Choreographers will think of new ways to use social distancing in new works to amplify this particular social situation,” he said. “We’re not going to try to tolerate social distancing. We’re going to embrace it in the way we create.”

He said the choir will be doing that as well and, because singing can spread the virus at greater distances, he doesn’t see the choir returning to normal in the near future. Instead, they’ll explore virtual creations and hybrid experiences, with some in-person performers and some streamed performers. 

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.