Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Stories of survival: The arts community is beginning to emerge from a most difficult year, but challenges remain

As the nation continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we take a moment to check in with a few of our many area arts organizations. With restrictions and shutdowns, our once-lively and diverse cultural scene has been dealt a heavy blow, but innovation from the creative types who lead these institutions has helped them survive.

The Rowland Theatre

“Life changed drastically for us when the COVID mandates first went into effect on March 17, 2020,” says Rebecca Inlow, secretary/treasurer of the non-profit board that manages Philipsburg’s historic Rowland Theatre. “The theater was closed for five weeks for the Spanish Influenza in 1918, and I had been doing my own countdown and remember when we hit the 35-day mark of our closure and thinking how crazy it was that we were surpassing that.”

Inlow and a dedicated troupe of volunteers, namely theater manager Kevin Conklin, reopened the Rowland on Fridays and Saturdays after the mandates were relaxed somewhat, playing mostly classic films.

“The fortunate thing for the Rowland Theatre is its large space,” Inlow notes. “We seat 1,000 people, and they are able to sit extremely far apart. We followed CDC guidelines and did thorough cleanings after every movie. I’ve always felt very safe in the theater throughout the entire pandemic.”

Nevertheless, “Attendance was very sparse for most of 2020,” Inlow says. “Revenue was down more than $100,000 for the year.”

Rowland volunteers kept busy when the theater was forced to shutter its doors, replacing seats in the lower balcony and crossing other “to-do” items off their list.

Despite the Rowland crew being made up almost entirely of volunteers, the cost to keep the massive structure in shape is considerable. Inlow says donations of any size are helpful, and buying a movie ticket is a simple way to support the theater.

The Rowland caretakers are also using a gift from the Philipsburg Borough Crew as a special fundraiser. The borough workers, overseen by Borough Manager Joel Watson, repurposed some ancient town trees that would otherwise have been left to rot, by hand-making them into picnic tables. The Rowland will decide the best way to raise funds by raffling or auctioning off the table that was donated to them.

“We are extremely grateful for the people who have come to the movies,” Inlow says. “Throughout this past year, we had some regulars, and I see them as Rowland friends. They stuck with us. We often have people come through concessions, buy a popcorn and soda, and tell us to keep the change. Some people have stopped in the theater while we were open and given us $20 and turned around and left. It’s these gestures that have made us smile during the pandemic and helped us realize that the people of Philipsburg and beyond have understood what is happening and don’t want to see this theater die.”

Inlow adds that the Rowland is “a true treasure of not only Philipsburg, but of Centre County and central Pennsylvania.”

“Seeing a movie or show at the Rowland is more than just an evening out. It’s a visit back in time,” she says. “The Rowland Theatre survived the pandemic at the beginning of the 20th century. This pandemic of the early 21st century has been really challenging, but the story of the Rowland Theatre has been a story of survival, and we believe we still have a great story to tell.”

Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts

The Board of Directors of the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts on March 18 announced the cancellation of the in-person event planned for July. But virtual events will go on.

While the increasing number of people getting vaccinated was encouraging, ongoing public health guidance made it impossible to produce the event “our community has come to know and love,” festival organizers said in making the announcement. A decision had to be made sooner rather than later, given the logistics of producing the festival.

“This was an even more difficult decision to make this year than it was last year in the early days of the pandemic” Renata S. Engel, the Arts Fest board president, said in making the announcement.

Rick Bryant, executive director of Arts Fest, says the show will go on virtually, as it did last year.

“When we decided we were going to have a virtual festival [last year], there weren’t any roadmaps to follow, and not many of our peer festivals had done anything like that,” Bryant says. “Obviously, it’s different from having a real, in-person festival here in downtown, but people tuned in, they listened to music, they bought some art, we had a fantastic response to asking people to make friendship bracelets; so the community really did respond in a heart-warming kind of way.”

Though he acknowledges some people’s art translates better to an online platform than others, Bryant says last year’s virtual Arts Festival was a success.

“Our goal was to get 100 [artists], and we got 150,” he says.

Bryant says people can support the festival by making a donation online at arts-festival.com and/or buying a vintage T-shirt from the festival’s online store.

“We would love that!” Bryant says. “We have a storage shed filled with them.”

Columbus Chapel & Boal Mansion Museum

To comply with COVID-19 mandates, Boalsburg’s Columbus Chapel and Boal Mansion Museum canceled all special events in 2020, including festivals, concerts, high teas, and weddings.

“We did do a greatly modified tour schedule,” says Robert D. Cameron, museum director. “Tours were only by reservation and limited to either a family or small friend group. All guests were required to wear a mask. Common surfaces were sanitized after each tour. The two-hour tour times were expanded to twice per day, seven days a week.”

Cameron says the chapel and museum will continue the safety protocols they’ve implemented, and he plans to resume the season on May 1, “unless state guidelines or requirements necessitate more stringent actions.”

The museum lost 98 percent of its seasonal income, according to Cameron.

“Consequently,” he says, “a number of projects were postponed. Despite the financial setback, volunteers built a 46-foot bridge linking the museum’s 3 miles of public trails with Blue Spring Park, a birding observation platform was constructed, wood duck boxes were installed, 500 native trees and shrubs were planted, and additional formal gardens were initiated.”

People can support the museum by visiting boalmuseum.com to become a member or by simply donating. The museum is also planning to host its annual Renaissance Faire in October, Holiday Tea in December, the Home for the Holidays Celebration with Kristkindl Market, and Candlelight Tours.

Centre Furnace Mansion and Centre County Historical Society

Mary Sorensen, executive director of the Centre County Historical Society and Centre Furnace Mansion, says her organization quickly switched to virtual and remote platforms to keep board members, staff, volunteers, and the public engaged with the CCHS mission.

The cancellation of the annual Stocking Stuffer holiday market, which Sorensen says accounts for 20 percent of the historical society’s operating budget, was challenging to navigate, as was an unforeseen and ill-timed major repair project the community helped see the CCHS through.

“During the summer of 2020, just before we planned to open for tours, we experienced a water line break at the Centre Furnace Mansion that required expensive major excavation and repairs,” Sorensen says. “But the community quickly came together in an incredible and humbling effort to cover the expense of these repairs. Our membership and supporters in the community have sustained us during this challenging year in a way that we will never forget.”

On May 8, the CCHS will host its annual Plant Celebration fundraiser sale outdoors; the society also plans to re-open for tours at the Centre Furnace Mansion in mid-summer, with staggered appointments, masks, physical distancing, and plenty of hand sanitizer available.  

“Major restoration construction is planned this spring at the Centre Furnace Mansion that includes replacement of the roof and other restoration work, through July, and we plan to wait to open for tours or hold other outdoor activities until most of the construction is finished,” says Sorensen. “Indoor group activities will remain on hold until it becomes clearer that we can do so safely.”

Donations, volunteer services, and membership are all ways to help the CCHS and the Centre Furnace Mansion. More information is available at centrehistory.org, by emailing [email protected], or at (814) 234-4779.

The Palmer Museum of Art

Penn State’s Palmer Museum of Art reopened on February 10 with a new, contactless timed-ticketing system.

The Palmer website (palmermuseum.psu.edu) explains: “Visitors to the Palmer Museum must reserve a free timed-entry ticket online via the museum’s website prior to arriving at the museum. Once inside, museumgoers will be assisted by new visitor services associates who will answer questions and help guests make the most of their visit to the Palmer. Capacity in the building will be limited to 30 people. To reduce gathering and lines, there will be two reservation slots available for up to 15 visitors each hour for an hourlong stay in the galleries. No public tours will be offered until further notice.”

The museum is also continuing virtual programming with lectures, museum conversations, art-making activities, and other video-based events.

“We are into the second month of our reopening and enjoy seeing students, friends, and community members back inside the museum, masked and socially distanced, of course,” says Erin M. Coe, Palmer Museum director. “We’ve received many positive comments from visitors about our reopening. One of the oft-repeated phrases that we are hearing is, ‘It’s great to be back in the museum.’ And I want to take this opportunity to say to our community, it’s great to have you back!”

In addition to the museum’s permanent collection, the Palmer will be featuring some new acquisitions this spring, notably work by 19th-century African-American artist Grafton Tyler Brown, known for his Western landscape paintings, and a loan exhibition, Field Language: The Painting and Poetry of Warren and Jane Rohrer, featuring modernist art of a remarkable couple who were based for many years in Lancaster County.

Art lovers can support the Palmer Museum by stopping by for a visit, buying or gifting a membership, purchasing items from the gift shop, and donating in person or online.

The State Theatre

Like so many venues hosting live events in 2020, the staff of The State Theatre had to react quickly to an ever-changing series of cancellations.

“It took a lot of manpower and energy to make sure all of our patrons were getting the necessary communication – reaching out to a year’s worth of ticket holders,” says Kerry Cavanaugh, the theater’s general manager. “We had a ton of events in the next week after the original shutdown order came that we had to hurry up and contact our patrons and let them know the event was being rescheduled.”

Cavanaugh says the theater was “in a pretty good financial situation before the pandemic hit,” and since then, “we were able to pivot in some pretty unique ways that maybe other theaters weren’t able to.”

When Penn State announced its hybrid learning model (part in-person, part online), for instance, the university rented The State Theatre so students could distance themselves during classes.

The theater also hosted small-group private screening rentals.

“We’ve had a great response from the community for that,” says Cavanaugh. “Small groups can rent out our theater and watch a movie, TV show, sporting event, whatever their choice is on the big screen.”

Cavanaugh says people of “existing COVID bubbles” have utilized the theater for date nights, anniversaries, and family birthday parties.

The theater has also played host to virtual streams, a virtual film festival, and the “We’re All in This Together” fundraiser.

“It was really a celebration of our decade-long tradition of hosting benefit shows, as well as highlighting all of the local talent and the local musicians who participated in it,” explains Cavanaugh.

Going forward, Cavanaugh is optimistic that, “Every show we were not able to hold on the original date is going to be rescheduled. We have almost every show with a couple of hold dates right now, where once we get confirmation from the bands, well be able to announce the makeup dates. It doesn’t seem we are going to lose any of the original shows we had intended on having – they’re just taking place a year later.”

Basically, Cavanaugh says, The State Theatre is doing 2020 over again.

“We forklifted our calendar into a brand-new year,” she says.

Large-scale, in-person events are a huge revenue stream for the theater, and Cavanaugh says having its doors shut for a year hurt financially, but “things are OK. We could definitely use your donations or membership, but we are OK. We’re going to be around, and we are looking forward to opening our doors to the public again.”

“The first time we can have a full band on stage, no capacity restrictions, no mandates that make us unable to serve concessions or anything like that – what a fantastic experience that is going to be!” Cavanaugh adds. “That’s definitely what I’m looking forward to: drinking a beer, listening to some music with a packed house, and giving my friend a hug during it.”

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With restrictions loosening amid the vaccine rollout as of mid-March, check arts organizations’ websites, and social media channels for schedule updates.

Teresa Mull is a freelance writer in Philipsburg.