Editor’s Note: This article was inspired by the insights shared during a Spring 2021 session of “Community Voices,” a series of virtual panel discussions that was created by our foundation to bring together experts from nonprofit and community organizations to discuss our community’s evolving needs and opportunities. Watch here.
A yearlong unexpected intermission that impacted all our area’s arts and cultural organizations has underscored the role these vital entities play in connecting, healing, and replenishing our spirits. While facing tremendous economic hardships and safety concerns brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, artistic-based nonprofit organizations have courageously taken centerstage in adapting and reimagining the experiences that enrich our lives as well as the physical, mental, and emotional health of our community.
The Community Foundation of Sarasota County cast this idea of how healing takes many forms through creative pursuits during a virtual conversation with donors, community members, and local arts and cultural leaders providing arts-focused wellness efforts across generations. As you would imagine for a community like ours that is so built around the arts, the discussion wove itself into nearly all facets of who we are, touching on children and families, education, health, cultural relevancy, age, connectivity, and equity and access.
At the beginning of the conversation, each speaker was asked to share one word that they felt encapsulated how the arts community has responded to the last year. Their words captured both the past and offer hope for our community’s next act.
Christopher Hird, Education Director, The Sarasota Ballet
Practicing ballet introduces students to a beautiful art form and it teaches them life-skills such as time-management and discipline. So, when in-person lessons became unsafe at the onset of the pandemic, The Sarasota Ballet knew it had to swiftly leap into the digital world.
Through grant support made in part by the Community Foundation, The Sarasota Ballet was able to give every student part of its Dance – The Next Generation (DNG) program a tablet at no cost, which provided a window into enrichment opportunities – from touring universities to attending the orchestra – for building self-esteem and lifelong success. The significance of this opportunity goes beyond just technology: DNG serves students grades 3-12 who are most at risk of dropping out of school and invites them to participate in a 10-year, full-scholarship program in dance that enables them to apply for scholarships at local colleges and universities.
The Sarasota Ballet's Dance - The Next Generation program continued to connect and serve students grades 3-12 who are most at risk of dropping out of school during the height of the pandemic. This program invites students to participate in a 10-year, full-scholarship program in dance that enables them to apply for scholarships at local colleges and universities.
Digital access wasn’t just reserved for the younger students, either. Professionals working remotely could tap into the ballet’s reservoir of classes, as could adults living with Parkinson’s Disease at home alongside their caretakers through a partnership with Neuro Challenge Foundation. When asked what keeps his team going, Hird replied: “The chance to keep inspiring students.” And the Ballet continues to do so by creating a safe space where students of all backgrounds can feel comfortable to learn, experience, and develop for the future.
Julie Leach, Executive Director, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe
For 20 years, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe (WBTT) has focused on building bridges across divisions through empathic storytelling, and that mission hasn’t been cut from the casting call even during a global pandemic. In fact, the digital capabilities of Zoom have expanded its reach.
Budding actors, stagehands and playwrights continued attending its Stage of Discovery intensive summer program, providing much-needed social connections to middle and high schoolers who had just experienced a once-in-a-generation shift to remote learning last year. In the fall, WBTT continued its development of artistic understanding through the theater’s outreach program for Sarasota County high schoolers learning about Jazz’s origins and evolution at various times in American history. Leach shared that technology has also offered ways to support adults who are hard-of-hearing populations, by including closed captioning on all its performances, which the theater continued to offer throughout the year, both safely in-person outside of their downtown Sarasota building, and online.
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe continued its Stage of Discovery intensive summer program for budding actors, stagehands, and playwrights ages 13-18, which culminated in a public performance pictured above. Photo Credit: Photo by Sorcha Augustine, provided by WBTT.
Notably, the stage remains set for artistic development at WBTT. Since going virtual, the theatre has employed and housed several new artists, as well as encouraged longstanding members to take time to develop their own personal projects. Many of these will explore culturally relevant and sensitive topics and join the national call for greater equity within underrepresented communities.
Kelli Maldonado, Education Director, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
Focused on a two-generation approach serving children and parents simultaneously, the Van Wezel shifted its educational curriculum and performances onto an online platform, aptly called “Arts Anywhere,” initially to mitigate summer learning loss and prepare students for the upcoming school year. Since then, “Arts Anywhere” has blossomed into an ever-evolving resource serving 38,000 students, parents, and teachers to date – 8,000 more than pre-pandemic audiences. Many of these connections are powered by partnerships with local organizations like Girls Inc. and Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties, who bring the art activities seen in these videos to life through meaningful, in-person engagement safely held at their facilities.
Student creativity blossoms during a session of Artworks for Schooltime, which is part of the Van Wezel's "Arts Anywhere" engagement series.
Venturing off-stage, Maldonado shared how the Van Wezel is identifying and addressing needs and expanded access to the arts in our broader region. One such way is its collaboration with Oak Park School that brings drama workshops, visiting artists, and connections through a partnership with Lakeview Elementary School 2nd graders, all of which tap into the creativity and inspiration of more than 300 students with disabilities.
Maldonado understood the eagerness to experience the lights going down and the stage lighting up again in-person, but she also stressed that cultural institutions have proven over the last year that we can and must reimagine ways to work together and ensure everyone can re-enter and re-live the magic of the theater.
Laura Steefel-Moore, Head of Educational Programs, The Ringling
How can the arts activate collections and performances to become essential? For The Ringling, innovative partnerships and approaches with technology are helping answer this question. Robots are virtually transporting patients at Sarasota Memorial Hospital – many of whom have endured months of isolation and longing for connection – into the museum’s collections alongside their own personal, mechanical tour guide. Doctors and nurses also partake in social-emotional trainings focused on honing observation skills, building teamwork, and cultivating empathy to see patients and fellow health care professionals in a new light, both in-person and on-screen.
Arty the robot has facilitated connections between patients at Sarasota Memorial Hospital and the vast collections at The Ringling. The Ringling plans on continuing to grow their virtual tour program beyond the coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit: The Ringling.
Robots aside, virtual experiences are unlocking new opportunities for connection and conversation, as seen through the Ringling Reflections program serving people with dementia. This also extends to how The Ringling is showcasing pieces normally not on display to museum goers and juxtaposing others in digital galleries to encourage thinking through an equity lens, conscious not only of what to showcase, but also who is viewing and how the artwork is being perceived.
Throughout the discussion, common threads and intersections emerged. Although each panelist expressed their relationship with Zoom as love-hate at best, digital access set the stage for levels of engagement and inclusivity previously unseen among audiences and patrons. Barriers to access this year were alleviated by charitable support for programs reaching all ages, including individuals living with disabilities and those aging in place. And our national reckoning with racial injustice and calls for greater equity also took center stage at all institutions, with each speaker underlining the shared responsibility of ensuring the arts become and remain culturally relevant, sensitive, and inviting to artists and audiences of all backgrounds.
As these programs vividly illustrate, artful approaches to healing are vital to our community’s recovery both during and beyond the coronavirus pandemic. If we reflect on the words chosen by our speakers – inspiring, resilient, ever-changing, and essential – you will see that our arts community is all of these things and a whole encore’s worth more. Because, as Steefel-Moore so astutely put: “Art reminds us that humanity endures and from tragedy comes things of great beauty and joy.”