Cincinnati’s arts organizations may have had to cancel events and close their doors, but many have found new ways to connect with their audiences during this timeCorinne Minard They say the only constant in life is change. But it’s probably fair to say no one was expecting such a big change when we entered spring 2020. More than three months after Governor Mike DeWine issued his first stay-at-home order due to COVID-19, businesses, organizations and individuals are adapting to changing regulations and attitudes.
While everyone has been impacted, Cincinnati’s arts organizations have been particularly hard hit. Most of them were designed specifically for bringing together large numbers of people into a small space—something that can no longer be done safely. These organizations have been asking themselves the same question—Andrew J. Hungerford, producing artistic director for the Know Theatre of Cincinnati, asked it best: “How do we maintain the core values of our mission when we’re not actually able to gather together?”
Cincinnati’s arts groups have answered this question in many ways. Virtual classes, pop-up performances, online events, audio plays—they did all of these things and more. Local organizations have found a variety of ways to connect with audiences both in the Tristate and around the world, even in the midst of the coronavirus.
Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra
The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra (CCO) was one of the first organizations in town to officially cancel its summer events. Summermusik, the CCO’s monthlong music festival, is typically held in August. On March 27, CCO announced that the festival would be postponed until 2021.
The event’s early cancellation allowed CCO to quickly approach donors for operational funding and set up the Musicians Relief Fund. That assistance, along with the Paycheck Protection Program loan the orchestra received from the U.S. Small Business Administration, has enabled CCO to find new ways to bring music to the community.
“We realized we had eight weeks to keep everybody employed at their regular full-time rates and we had eight weeks to hire a lot of musicians,” says LeAnne Anklan, executive director of CCO.
Anklan and her team decided it was time to go all in on its new virtual program, CCO@Home. With CCO@Home, the organization has been able to post all sorts of content online—musicians have showed viewers how their instruments work, given private solo performances and interviewed each other as well as acclaimed international artists.
Once stay-at-home orders were lifted, CCO moved to expand a program that had already been in place—CCO2GO, which includes all of the orchestra’s community outreach and engagement.
“We don’t want to encourage any unsafe gatherings, so we’re being really cautious and we’re calling them pop-ups. If you see us, you’re lucky,” says Anklan.
During these pop-up performances, CCO musicians have performed at Woodside Cemetery, Cincinnati parks and on streets downtown. No advance warnings are given, making the performances into special surprises for whoever walks by.
“I’ve received several notes asking me if there is a schedule of our CCO2GO events because [our fans] are so excited,” says Anklan. “But we’re not trying to encourage gatherings so that’s been really important to us and the way that we’re talking about these events.”
This unusual time has also enabled CCO to do something it’s always wanted to do—collaborate with other organizations. With SPCA Cincinnati, CCO created the Summer Barkestra Concert Series. Performed live on Facebook, the streaming concerts feature CCO musicians performing for animals at SPCA adoption facilities throughout the region. Then, between songs, SPCA staff introduce local adoptable animals to viewers.
CCO has also partnered with the Cincinnati Art Museum—where musician ensembles performed on the stairs of the museum’s Art Climb when the museum reopened June 20—and with Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum, where musician ensembles performed alongside the sculptures for a special evening event June 25.
Cincinnati Art Museum
When the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) in Eden Park closed its doors, its Learning and Interpretation department, along with marketing and communications, quickly moved to create an online community for its fans.
“We closed to the public on Friday, March 13, and CAM Connect was up and running by Tuesday, March 17,” says Emily Holtrop, director of Learning and Interpretation for CAM.
CAM Connect is a new Facebook group created by the museum that hosts the many, many pieces of content CAM has been creating during the pandemic. In the group, members can participate in CAMCMCReads, a free book club hosted with the Cincinnati Museum Center that features public domain novels; watch CAM Look, daily videos in which CAM staff introduce and describe pieces from the museum’s collection, including ones that aren’t on display; make a craft with CAMDo, which shows viewers how to make art with household items; or take a yoga class with CAM Breathe.
“We just looked at what our strengths were as far as staff, and said, ‘OK, we can create a program around that or a program around that,’” says Holtrop.
For example, the museum’s move into video games was inspired by Russell Ihrig, the associate director of interpretive programming, a self-described gamer. The museum used that passion to create a new YouTube series, A Curator Reacts…, in which an art museum curator and video game novice gives their thoughts while watching someone play a popular video game, and upload pieces from CAM’s collection in the game Animal Crossing so players could feature those works in their virtual homes.
“That’s Russell being a video gamer person and understanding how to do that,” says Holtrop.
The Facebook group has proven to be popular with art fans, with the group growing from one member March 17 to over 3,000 members by May 22.
While COVID-19 forced the Cincinnati Ballet to reschedule its spring performances (they’re now part of next season) and move all its ballet academy classes online, Scott Altman, president and CEO of the ballet, feels the organization as a whole didn’t skip a beat.
“We’ve actually found some really great new avenues and new content by going virtual,” he says.
Nicole Doll, director of Communications and Public Relations for the ballet, says that people from all over the world have been viewing their online content. The ballet’s online content has included streaming recordings of past performances, barre and Pilates classes, and live streams of group classes taken by current Cincinnati Ballet dancers. But more atypical content has been offered as well, with the ballet making videos about how to make a bun on top of your head and activities, such as a choreography cube, that can be printed out at home.
“Almost every posting we put out will have a little category of comments back and forth of ‘I miss Cincinnati Ballet,’ or ‘I love this piece,’ or they’ll call out a particular dancer,” says Altman. “It’s happening with every post… People are asking for more. Keeping up with the content is a big part of our conversation now.”
That content conversation includes discussions about collaboration, both locally and internationally. The ballet has started to have artistic directors and choreographers from around the world lead virtual classes for its dancers, classes that can then be viewed online by the ballet-loving public.
“I think everybody in the artform really kind of linked arms over the last couple of months and realized just how important it was for us to able to use this as a way to spread joy to our own local communities as well across the country and across the world. And I hope and I believe that that spirit will continue as we move into the next normal,” says Altman.
For the Know Theatre in Over-the-Rhine, the coronavirus meant rethinking how people can experience theater while still supporting local artists.
“We fairly rapidly started putting up some archival recordings of performances with the intention of doing a revenue split with all the artists involved. Every quarter we’ll pay residuals to all of the artists that were in the show just as though it were a TV show,” says Hungerford.
Those who buy a streaming pass, which range from $5 to $20, to a show are able to watch the recording through a certain date at any time that is convenient for them. New recordings have also been added every couple weeks, allowing the Know to support more artists while giving theater lovers more options.
In addition, the Know has started offering downloadable audio plays on its website.
“Essentially, it’s just a $5 purchase for a brand-new audio play featuring a cast of local artists. I think it’s been a really great way to keep people engaged and to continue producing the kind of work that we love to do and which our audience expects from us,” says Hungerford.
The biggest impact COVID-19 had on the Know Theatre, though, was on its annual Fringe Festival, held May 29-June 13 this year. The 14-day festival usually encompasses more than 200 performances of around 40 productions of new works in 10 venues in OTR. With social distancing guidelines still in place, the event became an all-virtual one this year.
“It’s such a big part of what we do that scaling that back was pretty dramatic,” says Hungerford. While only 50 events this year, the Know still made sure to include versions of the community gatherings for which the festival has become known. In addition to its 20 on-demand shows, five ticketed special events and free family shows, the festival featured a nightly Fringe Bar Series. Those who tuned in for the free events could see live concerts and even have a bartender help them make a drink with what they had at home.
“The marketing challenge is how do we convince people to switch to this rather than Netflix. Of course, that’s one of the ongoing challenges with live theater in general—one of our big marketing challenges is how do we convince people to put on pants and go outside. So at least now they don’t have to worry about those two pieces, it’s just going to the website,” laughs Hungerford.
The Cincinnati Opera, which was planning to celebrate its 100th season this year, instead had to cancel all of its shows due to the coronavirus.
“But our board president, our wonderful Liz Grubow, counseled all of us to say, ‘Don’t announce what you are canceling without figuring out what you can do,’” says Evans Mirageas, artistic director for the opera. While understandable from a public relations point of view, Mirageas says this statement encouraged the opera to be creative in new ways.
“We realized … two things: First of all, that good ideas would come from every corner of our company because everyone who works for an opera company is passionate about opera—you don’t work for an opera company to get rich, you work for an opera company because you love the artform—and, secondly, that there is plenty that we could be doing virtually,” he says.
Everyone in the opera was asked to come up with ideas, leading to the variety of content that can now be seen online. There are the Apartment Arias, in which Cincinnati Opera singers perform songs that are meaningful to them from home; Opera Raps, a to-go version of the company’s lecture series, featuring short interviews with opera performers, supporters and staff; Opera Storybook Hour, where opera artists read an opera-themed book and perform a song; virtual Opera Chats, in which fans are invited to watch a streamed opera performance and then discuss it with other fans and opera staff; and Opera & Yoga at Home, in which an opera singer performs during a Zoom session of yoga.
And then there are the events and community outreach. A singer serenaded a local firehouse and the opera bought pizza for first responders at a local firehouse. The organization started a socially distanced event series called Share the Love Truck Tour, in which an opera singer performs in neighborhoods from the back of a pick-up truck with just a PA system and a piano. The Cheers to Opera series had the opera team up with local breweries and wineries for streaming events that showcase local libations and talks with opera singers.
“Both virtually and physically we’re staying in touch with the audience in every way that we do opera—whether it’s mainstage type events, which we transfer online; education and engagement, which we either do online or live; [or] being a good partner in the community,” says Mirageas.
While the pandemic has been challenging for us all, all of the arts organizations that we spoke with felt that they had gained something during this time as well.
The CCO’s musicians have learned how to film and record themselves, a skill the organization can use for more online content and which will be put to use for the digital version of Summermusik CCO plans to put on this August.
CAM is also committing more of its resources toward digital.
“When the museum opens the physical doors, we can’t close our virtual doors,” says Holtrop. “CAM Connect will continue.”
As the museum looks at fall, it’s already thinking of ways its regular programs, like lectures and art classes, can be done online or implemented safely.
The Cincinnati Ballet is looking to further invest in technology, with the possibility of recording shows specifically for online audiences.
The Know Theatre is working with artist organizations to find a way to allow future performances to be recorded for online, which could make theater more accessible for those who are hard of hearing or unable to go to the theater.
And the Cincinnati Opera already has plans underway for more event throughout the summer and beyond.
“What we have learned is that we can do anything we put our minds to and that we can pivot and get content out immediately in the turn of a dime,” says Altman.