The curtain of the region’s 2020 summer cultural season rose to reveal a setting unlike any seen before.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the State of New Jersey’s productive but painful response to it by closing performing art venues and galleries of all stripes has wreaked havoc on the arts.
Self-employed individuals regularly hired for short engagements or commissions and staff members of cultural organizations both great and small are looking at blank calendars, closed until further notice signs, and hemorrhaging bank accounts.
While government and philanthropic entities have been swift to develop programs to provide relief to relief for artists and groups and the state has cautiously reopened some cultural venues, the very real threat of a deadly virus with no vaccine is casting a shadow over future engagements, presentations, gallery gatherings, and income.
And although virtual or digital presentations have become a lifeline for the arts community to show its presence, the presentation of most art is in the here and now. So the virtual versions for many are a temporary fix.
Despite the potential that this fix may also contribute to developing an audience that prefers easy, comfortable viewing from home rather than going to a venue, there is a hope that things will return to normal.
But without a vaccine the idea of getting back to normal is more than remote, it’s dangerous — as a look of the history of pandemics will tell anyone who wants to know.
And if that idea isn’t scary enough, there are growing legal considerations — just as realtors are having people sign COVID-19 related forms safeguarding against lawsuits for placing individuals in unsafe situations.
So it isn’t a surprise that artists and arts presenters are starting to reimagine the presentation of art.
One such innovation is the appearance of drive-in performances.
Using the model of drive-in movie theaters — incidentally a New Jersey innovation — socially distanced concerts and performances occur in front of an audience of car drivers and passengers who hear the concert by setting their car radios to the concert’s dial number.
Such concerts have already been produced in Europe as well as in several American states where active drive-in movie theaters still exit. There is only one such theater left in the New Jersey, and that is in Vineland.
While a Toms River tavern with music recently began presenting these concerts in a parking area that could host 40-cars, the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, New Jersey, is presenting two drive-in events at Monmouth Park in Oceanport.
The Asbury Park/Bruce Springsteen-connected Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes band appears on Saturday, July 11, to an already sold-out concert. Comedian Jim Gaffigan gives a live onstage presentation on Sunday, July 12.
According to the Count Basie info, there is a basic ticket price per vehicle ($150 and $165 respectively) and the show is available only in digital format.
Other information shows how this is different from the old-time drive-in movie experience. The maximum occupancy per car is four, and ticket buyers are warned that violators will be turned away without compensation. Cars must be parked nine feet apart and staggered for viewing. Patrons can only leave their vehicles to use the restroom and must wear a mask and maintain social distancing. And portable, single-stall restrooms will be cleaned between patrons.
A reviewer for a recent European concert gave the radio sound and social feel of the concert a thumbs down. But thumbs went up on the performer/audience connection. Instead of applauding, audience members honked car horns.
Recently Advanced Media News shared veteran New Jersey concert promoter John Scherhe’s thoughts on the subject: “On a certain level, I think it’s a brilliant idea. People will not have the same experience you’d have at a regular show with the comradeship you have with an audience, when you’re standing or sitting next to each other. But I think it’s a better experience than streaming concerts online. It gives you some sense of an audience. The band would actually be live. I think it’s worth an experiment.”
Elsewhere in New Jersey, The Lighthouse International Film Festival is using the Jersey drive-in model to launch its 12th festival.
As promotion materials say, “This year’s unprecedented event will run from Tuesday, June 16, through Saturday, June 20, at a variety of locations around Long Beach Island, ensuring a secure environment for watching new, exciting cinema on a big screen from the safety of one’s own car.”
A pass for the 80-film festival is $49. Films ranging from shorts to features will be held in a drive-in format.
And OperaDelaware in Wilmington recently presented “Drive-Through Arias,” three sets of parking lot performances. The 15 to 20-minute presentations featured four professionals performing for an audience of up to 10 cars. Admission was $25 per car. One reviewer said it wasn’t the optimal way to present the music but added that until audiences could gather in the theater, “let’s hope for more programs like this.”
In addition to concerts and film festivals, visual artists are seeing that cars, bicycles, and even walking can connect audiences and art.
In Princeton artists Mic Boekelmann, Robin Resch, Vince Bush, and Mary Waltham — all members of the recently formed Princeton Artist Directory — are participating in the international art initiative Art-in-Place.
Based on the model of a since deceased Chicago-area art promoter who hosted art exhibitions on her property, the concept has been carried on by another city group, CNL, which currently lists nearly 300 artists displaying original work outside or from a window in their homes.
Waltham says she learned about the initiative from a New Jersey State Council on the Arts opportunity posting and sent it out the other artists who signed up for the registry.
“I love the idea,” she says about her involvement. “At the moment I have an exhibit at the Princeton Public Library, and no one can see it. This is outside (on Springdale Road) and people are walking and driving by, so it was something to see. I had a mural up since the fall, so I refurbished it and added a fox and flowers.”
It is also a work in progress. “When the news has been unusually grim I put flowers out, and people stop and take photos. They say, ‘I love that,’ and I smile. People can connect to (the work’s figures) emotionally. That’s what we’re all after.”
The current exhibition continues through June 20. Go to www.cnlprojects.org/artinplace for more information.
“Drive-By-Art (Public Art in This Moment of Social Distancing)” is another project that has viewers visiting the artists.
Conceived by post-conceptual artist and writer Warren Neidich, Drive-By-Art exhibitions have been organized in Long Island, New York, where approximately 50 professional artists participated, and Los Angeles, California, with more than 120.
The project works similarly to coordinated open studio weekends with online maps with stops and artists information (but no images of the work). Learn more at www.drive-by-art.org.
But not everything is happening in the car. In May the nation saw its first socially distanced live rock concert with an actual audience performed an Arkansas theater.
Bishop Gun rock-n-roll band musician Travis McCready reduced the Temple Live performing venue’s 1,100 capacity theater by 80 percent to sell 229 distance-complying seats.
Concert attendees arriving at the old Masonic temple were required to wear masks and have their temperature taken, and they were directed to walk in one-way directions through the venue.
Other precautions called for limiting the number of people using the bathrooms, where all soap and towel dispensers were automatic.
Then there are groups experimenting with the digital and making new art from it.
The New Jersey Symphony, for example, has recently commissioned a new work designed to be performed by musicians playing remotely.
What makes the work even more significant is that composer and conductor Jose Luis Dominguez’s “Gratias Tibi” (Thank You) is rooted in the present. The work is dedicated to the pandemic frontline workers who have kept the nation alive during the current crisis.
Accompanied by the Montclair State University Singers, the NJSO will premiere the work on Monday, June 22, at 7:30 p.m. It will then be available on the NJSO website at www.njsymphony.org. (See related story.)
All of the above new approaches and even potentially new forms of art are something akin to what Princeton-based playwright and past McCarter Theater artistic director Emily Mann recently mentioned to a Los Angeles Times reporter about the future of theater — and art in general.
“I do not believe we are ever ‘going back to normal,’ if that means returning to making theater the way we did before the pandemic.”
Instead, she suggested that the current situation “demands asking the essential question — is theater necessary? Just as we did in the ’60s and ’70s, inspired by Peter Brook’s ‘The Empty Space’ and Jerzy Grotowski’s ‘Towards a Poor Theatre,’ we will have to strip down to what is fundamental to making great theater. Some of the most important work of the 20th century came out of this movement.”
Additional, she noted, “Plagues have closed theaters before. And they reopen, often stronger than before. Shakespeare wrote ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Lear,’ and ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ during his quarantine, his finest work. I am excited to see what the future brings to our beloved and besieged art form after this period of enforced meditation. We will have to demonstrate why we are necessary.”
Yet in order for that to happen, artists and audiences will have to accept the new landscape and embrace the new way of doing old things.
And most importantly remember that art making happens through human beings — who also need to make a living.