Effects on Madison Art

Local Madison arts scene put on pause due to COVID-19

By Emily Knepple

The Majestic Theater in Madison
The Majestic Theater, located on King St., is one of the many Madison venues impacted by COVID-19. Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

One of the first things I remember hearing about Madison was their art scene. Growing up just outside of New York City, art has always been important to me. I like to associate albums with parts of my life and find solace in a classic trip to the movie theater. 

Needless to say, I couldn’t give that up when choosing where to spend my next four years, and with Wisconsin being somewhat foreign to me, to hear they had live music, a theater that housed Broadway shows and much, much more, my liking of the city grew exponentially. 

Places like The Sylvee, the Majestic, the Overture Center for the Arts, the Chazen and the New Orpheum (just to name a few) bring all kinds of artists from all over the world to decorate Madison and bring it to life. When the Coronavirus began to threaten our favorite pastimes and dim the lights of their stages, there came a time when decisions had to be made. And like most Madisonians, I didn’t doubt their ability to make the best out of the situation. 

Matt Gerding, President of FPC Live, the booking company that overlooks Madison’s biggest venues like The Sylvee, High Noon Saloon and the Majestic Theatre, said that everyone wanted to make the call in the best interest of the safety of their staff. 

It became clear that closing the doors was their best option and with Gov. Evers issuing a stay-at-home order in the middle of March, the decision appeared to be made for a lot of Madison employers. Gerding shared that most performances are looking to be postponed until a later date rather than canceled, hoping to instill excitement for the future. 

Kirstin Pires, Editor of the Chazen Museum of Art, says that the Chazen began looking at responses to the pandemic as early as January. 

“We developed a plan to have reduced hours over spring break. We knew we would follow guidance from campus,” said Pires. “We have always had a disaster plan in place, so to some extent it was just reviewing those plans.” 

Most Madison art venues are finding ways to stay engaged with their audiences online. Gerding tells me that FPC Live has launched a Facebook livestream series with the Isthmus titled “Social Distraction,” where local artists are given a chance to perform and raise money. 

At the Chazen, finding ways to turn galleries of artwork digital has allowed them to be innovative and take advantage of these testing times. Trying to make their art as accessible online, Pires says that they are using their website and social media to offer newer content and “experimenting with whatever might work.” 

But, as most art-lovers will understand, removing the in-person experience of walking through a gallery is a hard thing for tech to recreate. “It’s pretty dramatic when you take the ‘in real life’ part away,” said Pires. “On the other hand, all our staff are being really creative and thinking about how to deal with the restrictions.” 

COVID-19 has a mass impact on all of us and for the arts scene more specifically, those that make our Saturday night trips out for a show possible are also feeling the consequences of this shutdown.

The Chazen Museum of Art virtual events
A list of virtual events being held by the Chazen to keep their audience engaged is displayed on chazen.wisc.edu.

Max Flanagan, a sophomore at UW-Madison, is an usher at the Overture Center for the Arts. Flanagan, who has seen the virus unfold as an employee first-hand, shares that the Overture was “committed to serving patrons for as long as ethically feasible.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, while still at work, Flanagan tells me that his management was very understandable. There was no questioning of volunteers that did not feel comfortable coming in anymore. 

“Most of our employees and volunteers fall into the particularly vulnerable age range, so many did not want to take unnecessary risks,” said Flanagan. “Shifts were easily swapped or cancelled.”  

Due to a halt in revenue, Flanagan is currently not getting paid, but he shares that the Overture has continued to host weekly meetings to check-in on their staff and try to keep high spirits. He also sees additional safety protocols being implemented upon their return, whenever that may be. 

“Personally, I expect our capacity size to reduce dramatically getting back into the swing of things,” said Flanagan. He adds that the Overture has always taken sanitation and maintenance very seriously and he anticipates their “amazing work” to continue once they return. 

Like most people involved in the Madison arts scene, Flanagan admits that normalcy will take some time to get back to. However, he’s hopeful, as the Overture Center did just release their 2020-2021 season. While things might be different, Flanagan shared that “hopefully once this world overcomes this pandemic together, we can resume attending our beloved shows and performances.” 

With uncertainty lingering for all, I firmly believe that the arts scene in Madison will bounce back. For a community that so strongly values their own musicians and opens their arms to many, I have a feeling that this pandemic will only further the appreciation for the arts. Similar sentiments came from those involved, like Gerding and Pires, who see Madisonians rallying behind art once this comes to a close. 

“I’m not sure about the how, but I am sure it will recover,” said Pires. “This community values art highly, and will begin making it and seeking out as soon as it’s possible.”