Some Chattanooga-area artists, makers and creatives have gotten, well, creative with finding new ways to do what they do, and hopefully make a little money, during the coronavirus pandemic.
Musician Lon Eldridge, for example, would normally pay his bills by performing his brand of old-time classics live several times a week at places all over town. With that option taken away, he turned to what was previously just a hobby — making bolo ties.
"I've always been a fan of Western wear and making bolo ties," he said. "It started as a hobby, but I lost a lot of gigs and was scrambling for ways to make money. Somebody said, 'Hey, your bolo ties are cool.' I thought, 'What can it hurt?' so I started selling them and now I sell them all over the country. Even a couple in Belgium."
His newfound business doesn't equal the money he was making playing music, but "during a pandemic, it is an amazing supplement."
Stratton Tingle, executive director of SoundCorp, a local nonprofit created to grow the local music scene in a professional manner, said Eldridge is just one example of a local artist who has adjusted.
"What we've learned is that the really important thing is that for individual artists the idea is one of diversification," he said. "Especially if that means that live events are your biggest source of income. Artists need to find other ways to make money."
Tingle added that this is a great time for musicians to be improving their craft, songwriting and recording, but it is also a good time to get your paperwork in order, as many have found that applying for stimulus money from the government can be difficult at best if an artist doesn't have things like past tax returns or touring schedules up to date.
"If you didn't feel like you had time in the past, now is a good time so that when you do get back out on the road, you have a stronger, more bullet-proof master plan," he said.
James McKissic, president of ArtsBuild, has been hosting teleconferences with area artists and heads of local arts organizations since the pandemic began closing things down in an effort to share ideas on how to survive the crisis.
Friday's Zoom meeting had 79 participants including heads of the Hunter Museum of American Art, Barking Legs Theater, Chattanooga Theatre Centre and Tennessee Ballet, which will shut down on June 1 after 34 years in operation. Anna VanCura has operated the facility with her late husband Barry, and she spoke briefly to the people on the call about how excited she was to see the future work being done by the hundreds of people who have trained at the facility over the years.
She was warmly thanked by several people on the teleconference for the center's contributions to the local art scene.
Another casualty is the Palace Theater in space once occupied by Yesterday's in Patten Parkway.
"We have decided not to reopen the doors of the Palace Theater," the arthouse/theater/bar announced on its Facebook page. "This was a difficult decision, but we see no path forward economically in this environment."
It goes on to promise that the spirit of the organization was never about a building, but rather to present arts, and that it will find a way to continue.
Robert Farrimond with Chattanooga Ballet presented to the group a slideshow detailing the new guidelines students, teachers and parents will be following going forward. The teleconferences have been a source of both information and inspiration to the attendees.
"I'm so proud of our artists and arts groups," McKissic said. "They just said, 'Let's put our heads together and get to work. How do we learn from this?'"
He said many groups are using the time to take a hard look at everything from their mission statements to how they operate.
"How do you connect with your audience? Who is your audience?," he said.
Organizations such as the Creative Discovery Museum, Glass House Collective and even art teachers within the Hamilton County Schools system have found ways to provide art kits and projects for kids to use while sheltering at home, for example.
Barking Legs created Drive-In Dance, which broadcasts classic songs from dance movies over WUTC-FM 88.1 while drive-in audience members watch from parked cars in a vacant lot near the Dodds Avenue venue as dancers interpret the songs. The next one is Saturday, June 6, at 8:45 p.m. Visit barkinglegs.org to learn more.
Several organizations have used teleconferencing as a way to teach everything from art classes to music lessons.
"They are artists, so they are creative," McKissic said. "I myself have participated more from my dining room chair in some of the art performances than I do in regular life."
McKissic said he feels the local arts scene as a whole is doing well during a difficult time, and that even people who don't normally support the arts realize how important they are to well being and happiness.
"Imagine life now without books, movies, TV shows," he said. "And we always reach to artists during times like these to help us make sense of things."
What the future and upcoming seasons look like is uncertain for many.
Tickets for the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera's 2020-21 season beginning in September went on sale in February, and subscription sales are down by about 30% from what they would typically be this time of year. Most of the subscriptions sold so far are to current subscribers who chose to renew, Executive Director Samantha Teter said.
"Obviously we know people are in a wait-and-see approach right now,"she said. "We don't want to make decisions too early, but we need to have a couple of different plans in our back pocket just in case we can't move forward with the normal season."
Options the organization is considering include gathering small groups of musicians to perform for much smaller audiences. Another is to schedule a few different performances of the same concert to allow more people to see it, Teter said.
The group is also looking at opportunities to do some livestreaming or recorded content, she said, but the financial situation is as uncertain as the plans for the coming season.
In March, the symphony and opera canceled the last six shows of the 2019-20 season, and patrons could either donate the cost to CSO, trade in their tickets for a future show, credit their subscription for the coming season or get a refund.
The organization paid out around $60,000 in refunds, "which was a little rough," Teter said.
Most of those refunds were for the Disney in Concert show, which attracts a different audience than the symphony's typical patrons, she said.
"Subscribers and donors and others have been very gracious and donated or exchanged their funds so we didn't have a huge influx of refunds to have to pay out," Teter said.
The symphony was still able to pay musicians almost 80% of what they would have been paid for the canceled shows, Teter said.
The Chattanooga Theatre Centre's 2020-21 season is also set to begin in September, kicking off with "The Sound of Music," the first of 11 shows scheduled.
Board President Mitch Collins said the centre has a variety of plans in place for different scenarios.
Potential changes include seating people farther apart and keeping capacity between 30-50%, altering procedures for entering the building, eliminating intermission during shows to avoid mingling and requiring audience members to wear masks.
Grant Money Available
As part of the $2 trillion federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act passed by Congress to provide economic relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, $550,000 will be re-granted by Humanities Tennessee to Tennessee cultural organizations. These funds will support organizations that provide public programs examining and reflecting upon ideas, stories, history, arts, and culture.
To apply, visit https://www.humanitiestennessee.org
Subscriptions for the upcoming season are now on sale, and Collins said the three "anytime" subscription options that allow patrons to attend any four, eight or 12 shows of their choosing have been popular due to the uncertainty of what's to come.
Like all performing arts organizations, the theater's budget is affected by ticket sales. But the board has been successful in its fundraising efforts and the theater received a Paycheck Protection Program loan that is helping to offset some of the loss in revenue.
"It's a challenge, but not organizational ending," Collins said. "We definitely have to tighten our belts a little bit. We've been doing this for 97 years, and we're not going to stop now."
The Tivoli Theatre Foundation — which promotes shows at the Tivoli Theatre, Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium and the Walker Theatre, including a full slate of Broadway shows, concerts and more — has been successful in rescheduling about 80-85% of shows originally scheduled for this spring until later in the year rather than having to cancel them, said Executive Director Nick Wilkinson.
The three venues are owned by the city of Chattanooga and will follow the city's lead with their reopening plans, he said.
"Obviously we are anxious to get open and provide entertainment," Wilkinson said. "We're also mostly concerned with how that's going to be done in a safe and healthy way."
He said the next shows are scheduled in early fall, but everything is subject to change depending on the spread of COVID-19.
"We understand that some theaters have different timelines; everybody's kind of unique and different on this," Wilkinson said.
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