A week ago, Vashon Center for the Arts took its first tentative step toward re-opening its facility, allowing patrons to visit its Koch Gallery to gaze at art up close and personal.
The re-opening — after its closure of the facility in mid-March — comes with a number of safety protocols, including mandatory mask-wearing and hand sanitizer use by gallery visitors, and a limit of only 10 visitors at a time inside the 800 square foot gallery.
Hours are limited to 12 noon to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, but private appointments can also be made to visit the gallery from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays.
The exhibit on display, “Heart of Resilience,” features works by dozens of local artists in multiple mediums. Also viewable online at vashoncenterforthearts.org, the show is a fundraiser for nonprofits in the community, with 40 percent of the sale proceeds going to the nonprofit of the buyer’s choice, and 40 percent going to the artists. VCA takes the remaining 20 percent of the sale proceeds.
The tagline for the “Hearts of Resilience” exhibit references the definition of the word “resilience” — “Expressions of the Ability to Recover or Adjust to Change.”
In the past months, VCA has made numerous efforts, like other arts organizations throughout the region and nation, to recover and adjust to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Allison Halstead Reid, VCA’s executive director, acknowledged in a phone interview last week that the pandemic had tested the organization, and that now, as places such as restaurants and churches start to open up while theaters remain closed, every day remains a challenge.
“There is no switch back to normal,” Halstead Reid said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m in a dark cave with a flashlight I have to shake to turn on.”
Still, there have been bright spots for the organization in the past months, as staff members have mobilized to present several online programs in recent weeks, live-streamed from VCA’s Katherine L. White Hall.
VCA’s online gallery has had strong sales, said Halstead Reid, and the organization also has had a strong response from artists who want to participate in VCA’s third-annual Summer Arts Fest — which islanders will be able to view in person at the newly opened gallery. It will open on Friday, July 3, with a rolling lineup that will include 30 shows with work by 71 artists.
VCA has also been buoyed by donations to its Resilience Fund, created to help offset losses caused by the pandemic. So far, the fund has garnered more than $70,000 in direct donations and in purchases of ticket passes for future events at VCA.
“The Resilience Fund will be our number one fundraising focus as long as the crisis continues to impact our programming,” said John de Groen, VCA board chair, in a press statement. “Until our operations can ramp back up we need to rely heavily on the generosity of our community.”
Still, the most difficult part of the past months, said Halstead Reid, has been the necessity of making significant staff reductions at the arts center — a process that happened in two waves.
“The departure of more than half of our staff is a loss that cannot be overstated,” she said.
In late March, the organization furloughed nine of its 19-member staff but was able to reinstate the positions following the receipt of $230,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program in late April.
Of the funding, $215,000 covered the payroll costs of the staff and also paid some of VCA’s art instructors to attend training and other sessions held online.
But the funding only lasted for eight weeks, and on June 3, a new round of layoffs was announced. The only full-time employees remaining at VCA are Halstead Reid, marketing director Joseph Panzetta, gallery director Lynann Politte, and finance manager Lara McKnight. Six other positions remain as part-time jobs, most of which have very limited hours.
The deep cuts include the positions of VCA’s associate executive director, arts education program director, arts education assistant, Vashon Center for Dance director, Vashon Artists in the Schools program manager, bookkeeper, marketing coordinator, assistant house manager, development communications director and database manager.
Beyond these employees, VCA’s cutbacks will ripple out to dozens of island artists who have been contracted each year to teach VCA’s arts education and dance classes, and conduct residencies in its Vashon Artists in Schools program.
On June 3, it was announced that the organization’s board had approved a reduced budget of $1.3 million for the organization — down 57 percent from the start of the year when the organization was operating with an all-time high budget of $2.4 million budget, that was crafted to facilitate a greatly expanded calendar of public events in 2020.
VCA is not alone in suffering from the impact of the pandemic, which has had a devastating effect on cultural arts organizations. Last week, the Seattle Art Museum, Chihuly Garden & Glass, The Space Needle, and ACT Theatre all announced new layoffs, joining The Seattle Opera, which also recently announced a more than 50 percent reduction in its staff.
For VCA and other arts organizations, the end doesn’t appear to be in sight as increased demands to cut costs and adjust programs appear on the horizon.
In mid-May, VCA sent surveys to its more than 5,000-person mailing list, querying islanders about their comfort levels and expectations in terms of returning to in-person events at the arts center.
More than 430 islanders completed the survey, providing a snapshot of the island’s mood at the time.
A majority of those responding — 63 percent — said they would be willing to visit VCA’s gallery either immediately (30 percent) or later this summer (33 percent). In another encouraging sign, almost 77 percent of the respondents said they would consider attending an outdoor concert right away or later in the summer.
But islanders were much more hesitant about coming back to VCA’s theater. While 45 percent said they feel comfortable right away or later this summer coming back to the Kay White Hall for events that admitted only 50 people, more than 67 percent of the respondents said they would not come back to VCA for events seating for up to 250 guests until 2021.
“The survey results were clear,” said Halstead Reid. “Islanders may feel comfortable walking into our gallery during Phase 2, but attending an event in our auditorium or enrolling their students in classroom projects is a harder decision.”
Most of the offerings in a series of online summer camps planned for July, Halstead Reid said, have not sold well, and she now hopes that public health conditions will allow for small, in-person camps to be held outdoors in August.
VCA has also announced one-on-one, outdoor dance classes with Vadne White, whose position as director of Vashon Center for Dance was lost in the layoffs but will still contract with the organization to teach classes this summer.
And for now, Halstead Reid said, VCA has other work to do, in the wake of protests across the country focused on undoing systemic racism.
Halstead Reid said that the arts center will now embark on creating a robust anti-racism plan that encompasses all areas of its operations, including staffing, board membership, partnerships and programming.
She pointed to VCA’s strong work in the past of presenting works by Black and other performers of color, its partnerships with Latinx community on Vashon and its recent art exhibit of work by Warren Pope, in February, as examples of VCA’s ongoing support of equity initiatives.
Still, she said, more was needed. A broad-based anti-racism plan, she said, would ensure “we’re not just giving lip service.”
And in the meantime, VCA will keep working to present live-streamed shows, art exhibitions and serve the community as best it can under the present circumstances, said Halstead Reid.
It’s next online show, “Glitter and Be Gay — The Queers That Invented the Broadway Musical,” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 27, at vashoncenterforthearts.org.
The show will feature David Armstrong, the artistic director emeritus of The Fifth Avenue Theatre, sharing his knowledge of LGBTQ contributions to musical theater. Armstrong will be joined by 5th Avenue Theatre stars Richard Gray, Chris DiStefano and special guest Albert Evans, singing the timeless songs of Cole Porter, Noel Coward and Lorenz Hart. There is a $10 suggested donation.