Silver Lining: Reeling from pandemic closures, some arts groups have found new ways to work together

click to enlarge Silver Lining: Reeling from pandemic closures, some arts groups have found new ways to work together
Courtesy photo
The Tucson Fine Arts Association at the Temple of Music and Art in 1928.

It took a pandemic to get the Arizona Theatre Company and the Tucson Museum of Art to join forces once again.

Sort of. 

Nowadays, ATC is the sole art organization that makes its permanent home in the Temple of Music and Art. But back in the 1920s, when Tucson was smaller, the Temple was host to a multitude of arts, including theatrical groups that were the precursor of ATC. And the Tucson Fine Arts Association—the forebear of the TMA—was the equal of the other groups. 

 It “used to occupy gallery space on the second floor,” says Jeremy Mikolajzak, director of the Tucson Museum of Art, displaying art and bringing in esteemed lecturers from the likes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Eventually the association moved on to other digs, and in 1975 built the Tucson Museum of Art and took that as its name. 

Now, thanks to the pandemic, ATC and TMA are sharing some space, just as their forebears did long ago. The theatre now rents six offices in the museum’s Baker Center, while still maintaining its theatrical home in the Temple, a 15-minute walk away. Luckily, the actors won’t be rehearsing Shakespearean sword fights or other scenes in the museum. The rehearsals will still be in the Temple, in a large hall that is also useful for stashing scenery. 

The switch came about when ATC sold the Glenwood Hotel, a handsome historic building on Scott Avenue. It was sold this spring to developers for $1.1 million. The theatre company had had their offices for 14 years at the Glenwood, which is conveniently right across the street from the Temple. But ever since COVID forced a shutdown in March 2020, the theatre has been dark. Without ticket sales, ATC was strapped for cash. And like workers across the United States, the theater’s staffers fled to their homes to avoid the deadly virus; they quickly switched to doing their work on laptops and their meetings on Zoom.

“Once the pandemic hit, we had three or four people in the Glenwood,” ATC artistic director Sean Daniels says. “We were using half of that building. Empty offices, tons of storage. The office culture has changed” and it’s not coming back. “We learned in the pandemic that people are going to be able to work from home. We can work from multiple places.”

 It made sense to sell.

“For us to own office space is not where an arts organization should be. We should be putting money on stage or on our staff.”

Daniels says ATC was careful to sell to buyers who would respect Glenwood’s cultural value. One of the developers, Kevin Volk, told the Arizona Daily Star that the group is “committed to honoring the property and preserving the architecture.”

For a company that almost folded a few years back, the money is a gold mine. “We’re really in a fantastic place right now,” Daniels says, “looking to come back really strong.”

If the pandemic unexpectedly got the theater on a good financial footing, it also pushed the company into the online world. 

“A year ago we were like every other theatre. We would put some ads on Facebook and wondered why it wasn’t working in terms of digital marketing,” he recalls. With live theatre impossible, COVID forced the staff to up their virtual game. Before long, Daniels was hosting a popular online talk show every Friday. ATC started staging free online readings of new plays, performed by actors in their homes all over the country. The audiences watching from their own homes have numbered as many as 24,000 over the course of one play, far more than the audiences the company attracts in person. 

“Now we have a real base of people that we connect with online on a weekly basis,” Daniels says. “It’s a newer audience—a real silver lining. We won’t try to get them all into the theatre, but if 10% of them came, 20% came, that would be transformative.” 

Over at TMA, director Mikolajzak can also count some blessings. Renting the rooms out to his ATC friends brings in some welcome cash.

The museum was closed for months, and then reopened on July 30 with limited hours and capacity, which means a loss in revenue. Unfortunately, the office rooms now occupied by ATC staff are empty in part because some TMA staffers were let go. 

To make the ATC folks feel comfortable, the art museum hung up an old print of a painting in the Fine Arts Association gallery in the Temple in those early days. 

 “Collaboration is something we in the arts talk about all the time,” says Mikolajzak. And now that they see their theatre colleagues often, “we’re talking about collaborative lectures, talking about our summer arts program. There might be a performance that goes along with an exhibition. 

“I’m excited for this collaboration. I want museum patrons to go to the theater, to the university, to MOCA, to experience contemporary art, desert museum or zoos. Arts in a city like Tucson really do need to stick together.”

Some of the town’s smaller arts groups have also found positive ways to counteract the coronavirus. Ballet Tucson partnered with other organizations in a series of outdoor dance concerts this winter and spring, bringing attention to all of them. The troupe danced at Tucson Botanical Gardens, public parks, St. Philip’s Farmers Market and Tucson Museum of Art. After the two performances at TMA, audience members were invited to come inside and look at the popular Wyeth show, the new Latin American Art wing and others. 

John Salgado of Raices Taller says that the 23-year-old gallery  has weathered many ups and down, so COVID 19 was “one more to tackle.” The Latinx gallery has always been an in-person enterprise but early in the lockdown Salgado taught himself how to create online exhibitions.

“We’ve had great results,” he says, “and we have actually increased our outreach.” Artists from Croatia, Canada, Mexico, India, the Netherlands and others have now shown their work in the virtual gallery. Sales are up too, so much so that Salgado plans to make all future exhibitions hybrids, showing art both online and in person. 

“Definite silver linings have allowed us to continue our mission,” he says.

Contreras Gallery has likewise assembled virtual shows. Husband and wife Michael Contreras and Neda Contreras have continued making their own art in their space, and their work, Neda’s paintings and Michael’s handmade silver and turquoise jewelry, helped pay the rent.

Last spring, Michael vowed that the gallery would not open its doors until an effective vaccination was widely available. That time has now come, and Contreras will open on the Fourth of July weekend. There will be no reception but the show of work by nine women is still a celebration. 

“We’ve been in hibernation,” Michael says. “And now we’re finally emerging.”

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