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Tri-county museums pivot to survive COVID-19 pandemic

By   /   Thursday, June 4th, 2020  /   Comments Off on Tri-county museums pivot to survive COVID-19 pandemic

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Freshly painted red walls, black and white photographs and relics from the United Farm Workers movement occupy the Museum of Ventura County, but the public has not been able to see them.

The exhibit, “Huelga! Photographs from the Frontline,” was installed and ready for visitors on March 14. More than 1,000 people had filled the museum wings just days before and nearly 4,000 students had passed through its doors since the new year. Then, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Californians to stay home and the museum had to close.

“Friday the 13th will always be etched in my memory,” said Denise Sindelar, deputy director of the museum. Sindelar cancelled the exhibit’s opening reception, wiped out the events calendar, and asked staff to work from home.

With cultural calendars postponed indefinitely, museums, galleries and arts nonprofits in the Tri-Counties that once thrived on bringing communities together have pivoted and changed operations. In the fallout of COVID-19, many secured government assistance to pay for salaries and developed innovative ways to engage with the public.

But most cannot predict what will happen to public programming, let alone fundraising efforts, beyond the summer.

Three months into quarantine, Sindelar has secured a Paycheck Protection Program loan to cover 90 percent of staff salaries. She extended the museum’s member benefits, collected feedback from volunteers and fast-tracked the museums’ digital projects.

Troy Wagner of Virtual Tours Ventura volunteered to turn the exhibits into a 360-degree online experience. Her “small and nimble” team redesigned the website and expanded the online education offering. They even wrote letters to home-bound seniors with limited internet access, ensuring no one felt abandoned.

“Now we’re focusing our energies on thoughtfully planning for a staged reopening later this summer,” said Sindelar. “We’re figuring out the protocols we need to put in place to create a safe environment for our patrons.”

Other arts organizations, like the 45-year old Summer Solstice Celebration in Santa Barbara, have been diving into the digital world and discovering unexpected advantages. The festival normally takes place at Alameda Park and attracts around 100,000 people.

Executive Director Robin Elander has made sweeping changes to the three-day program, transforming the artist-led workshops, meals by local restaurants and the iconic parade into an online happening. In addition, she set up a new website with a merchandise store and donation-based classes and tutorials.

“We hadn’t done this before,” she said. “We’d been all in-person. This allows our people to make and do things and enhance our organization throughout the year.”

This year’s parade will be a video collage of miniature floats imagined by artists and participants doing everything from dancing in their kitchens to drawing on sidewalks.

“Everyone is trying to do what they can,” said Elander. “It’s really limiting in some regards, but I think after the initial shock, some valuable creative changes are coming out of this.”

Sullivan Goss gallery in downtown Santa Barbara has seen positive developments. Owner Nathan Vonk closed his 3,000-square-foot space except for private appointments and has been producing videos to advertise the art work. He successfully applied for a PPP loan.

During the last week of May, sales shot up. He sold 15 paintings, split evenly between digital and in-person sales.

“Digital stuff is the payoff for the work we do to have a trustworthy online presence,” said Vonk, “People feel comfortable buying on our website. They know the artist’s work and they know we work hard to make it look good on their computer screen.”

Vonk said patrons arrive “elated,” happy not to be stuck at home and ready to see “beautiful art.” Nonetheless, he anticipates sales will slow in the upcoming months, and he remains on the lookout for work opportunities for the artists he represents.

In March, the California Arts Council conducted a survey to assess the impact of stay-at-home orders on the 11,563 arts nonprofits across the state. Sixty-six percent of the respondents said they had cancelled events that “can’t be rescheduled.” The council estimated an average loss of $193,642 per organization and a $23,857 average loss per individual for the survey period.

Sarah York Rubin, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Office of Arts and Culture, has been working to fill in the gaps by sharing PPP loan and unemployment information with artists and nonprofits and creating new funding opportunities.

“Santa Barbara County is ninth per capita in the country in terms of working artists,” she said. “It’s what makes it a special place to live. We had a whole workforce uniquely hit by lost performances, gigs, and commissioned events.”

Applying lessons learned from the Thomas fire, York Rubin established a relief fund for artists in partnership with the Santa Barbara Foundation and Santa Barbara Bowl. In addition, her office started an honorarium to pay artists for work created during quarantines.

“These micro-grants can make a big difference in artists’ capacity to go out there again and get the equipment they need to set up shop,” she said. “They represent a big role in the economy here.”

And while arts organizations serve a vital purpose in communities, many nonprofit executive directors, including David Bolton of the California Missions Foundation in Santa Barbara, feel reticent about asking for funds while nonprofits that provide direct assistance, like food banks, have been forced to cancel galas that bring in most of their operating revenue.

“We can do our year-end appeal and ask people to think of historic locations, but it’s delicate,” he said. “It’s hard for us to ask for money for an historical-related site when people are out of work and in the food lines.”

Bolton said he will reevaluate the fundraising program by the end of summer. In the interim, it has applied for grants and put short videos of the 21 missions — including their grounds, artifacts and art collections — online for students and teachers. Every year, the foundation welcomes tours of 3,000 fourth-graders to the missions.

“If this pandemic continues in the next school year and students can’t go on field trips, we’ll expand our website to include Zoom tours, interviews and other things, so it’s more interactive,” he said.

• Contact Abigail Napp at

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