A Virtual Awakening

Bri Bower’s 2018 KMAC Couture design. Photo by Leslie Rodriguez.

How Louisville’s arts and culture community is uniting during the pandemic

By Liz Bingham

At a time when it feels like a dark cloud has descended upon both our country and the world, the arts and culture organizations of Louisville have found ways to be a beacon of light in our community amidst the plethora of closures and cancellations. As quickly as the COVID-19 pandemic took over our daily lives – leading us into a constant state of uncertainty and separating us from the social interactions we were accustomed to – this did not keep them from providing the content our community has come to love and rely on. After speaking with numerous leaders and individual artists in the Greater Louisville area, it became apparent that all art forms are still being shared and created, just in a different way.

Thanks to modern technology and social media, this past month has seen an outpouring of every type of self-expression imaginable: full orchestras performing in unison remotely, audible storytelling and poetry, virtual ballet lessons, streaming pre-recorded plays and musicals, virtual museum tours and interactive historical content.

For what feels like the first time, art forms of every kind are more available than ever in a constant flow right at our fingertips, connecting us all in a way we had never felt before. President and CEO of the Frazier History Museum Andy Treinen commented, “This is an odd time in world history and is an event that’s being compared to World War II. As a history museum, we thought it was our responsibility to capture that with a virtual museum that features things people are feeling about it, such as original artwork, writings and videos.” In addition to launching their online resource, Virtual Frazier, where visitors can access free entertainment and educational content that is updated daily, the Frazier also created a sharing platform for students and the public to share how this pandemic is affecting them. In partnership with Jefferson County Public Schools, the University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections and other school systems, the Frazier created the Coronavirus Capsule to document and preserve how people are seeing, feeling and coping with this pandemic. “Everyone has all these feelings and has never been through this before. This is an opportunity to allow them to express those feelings and then for us to curate and share them with the community,” said Treinen.

Andy Treinen, president & CEO, Frazier History Museum with Amanda Briede, curator. Photo by A.J. Cornell.

The Speed Art Museum also launched a similar platform upon having to close their doors. Speed Online includes three different ways the public can interact with the museum while in the comfort of their homes. The first of the three pillars is Art Sparks, a virtual place where parents can find inspiration for fun, kid-friendly activities to do at home. For those missing the carefully curated films at the Speed Cinema, they are now available via Speed Cinema Streaming along with recommendations, information and conversations with film curator, Dean Otto. The third pillar is Museum from Home, where curators and other art influencers share behind the scenes stories about works from the permanent collection. Regarding upcoming shows, the grand opening of the highly-anticipated exhibition, “Andy Warhol: Revelation,” has been put on hold until the museum doors reopen.

Speed Art Museum Director Stephen Reily commented, “We’re very mindful of the very serious human needs right now and understand that a museum and the arts in general can’t provide the food or shelter for those suffering from this pandemic. But humanity will bounce back, and when it does, the arts are going to be as important as ever. They will lighten the human spirit and give us ways to think about our culture, ourselves and our history together.” To do their part to support the staff of the museum, the entire senior leadership team and curators have all taken a 10 percent pay cut. While the institution remains closed, Reily will be donating his entire salary to the museum. “We’re all in it together,” Reily said.

KMAC Museum also moved their experience online, generating an even stronger social media engagement than expected. Executive Director of KMAC Museum Aldy Milliken commented, “Facebook and Instagram allow a certain level of feedback or conversation not always generated within the walls of a museum. People are more likely to remain engaged when we’re asking them for their direct input, their interpretations and their voices to be heard, creating a running dialogue.” Milliken plans to engage the public even further by taking them inside the museum – hosting a virtual Zoom tour of the museum’s current exhibit, “Picasso: From Antibes to Louisville.”

An incredibly unique and popular annual event in Louisville, KMAC Couture, was also affected by this pandemic. After having to postpone the event only a month before its scheduled date, the entire team of KMAC Couture leaders and artists are having to rethink what it will mean to our city once we overcome this pandemic. Milliken commented, “KMAC Couture is such a special and exceptional event that now there is a hole, a longing that’s been created when we can’t see it and do it and witness it, so we feel responsible to our artists. The art is there, it’s being made, just how do we deliver it safely to our public?” KMAC Couture artist Bri Bowers, whose design themes are often a commentary on current society, shared that due to COVID-19, she decided to completely change her KMAC Couture design. Her new design will reflect the isolation our society is experiencing and how this pandemic is affecting the fashion industry.

When he learned of this redesign, Milliken said, “This is why we have to support our artist community. They’re going to tell us so much information about ourselves because we’ve all had this shared experience. How do we process what we’re going through? Artists are going to help us and guide us through these conversations and challenge us to think in new ways or to resolve or to mourn even.” 

Bowers is also a resident artist and employee at Revelry Boutique Gallery, where she works and creates alongside a team of six other artists. When the doors of the gallery had to close to the public, the artists inside continued working and creating. One of Bowers’ immediate reactions was making Andy Beshear t-shirts, stickers and magnets that were available on Revelry’s website and sold out almost immediately when posted.

Bri Bowers’ Andy Beshear-themed shirt. Photo by Leslie Rodriguez.

“Making the Beshear-themed items is what came naturally right away and was the most fulfilling because it was so relevant to the moment.” When asked if it’s challenging as an artist to find inspiration to create during this time, Bowers said, “What’s hard is when you’re still going through something, you’re not fully inspired until you can have that point of reflection on that experience. It’s hard to see what you’re going through while you’re in it.” Bowers encourages those wanting to support the arts community to commission their own piece and says, “[Art] is not essential, but it is essential. Having something creative and an outlet, the virus can’t take that away. It can’t take away our creativity or our need to create.”

Owner of Revelry and artist Mo McKnight Howe has been working 12-14 hours a day trying to come up with new streams of income for local artists, uploading content online from her gallery and also encouraging other artists to do the same. “While all I see on my Instagram and Facebook right now are people at home ‘Netflix and chilling’ and working on their yoga poses, which is all well and good, all the artists I know and everyone in my industry are doing the opposite of that. We are all hustling – that’s the best way I know how to describe it.” She continues, “Artists often thrive under pressure or when faced with really difficult, traumatic things that happen in life. Where most people are having a hard time isolating, artists are taking it to the canvas or to their studios.”

Mo McKnight Howe at Revelry Gallery. Photo by Sarah Katherine Davis.

After having two zero-dollar days, McKnight Howe turned to her personal Facebook to make a plea for support, and the response was overwhelming. “The generosity and the amount of orders we’ve been receiving since then has been such a testament to the culture that has been created here in Louisville. It shows that our residents really value the arts, they value artists and they value small business.”

McKnight Howe is also on the board of Fund for the Arts, which recently launched the $10 million Cultural Lou Recovery Campaign to support local arts and culture organizations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In partnership with the Arts & Culture Alliance, the campaign is co-chaired by David Wombwell, market president of US Bank, and Campbell Brown, president of Old Forester. Organizers hope to subsidize the $1.3 million daily losses occurring in the arts and culture sector due to COVID-19 in comparison to the $462.5 million in total economic activity typically generated by the nonprofit arts industry in the Louisville area. In an initial interview with President and CEO of Fund for the Arts Christen Boone, she described how quickly the Fund had to respond to this need. She shared that statistically – at the national, state and local levels – the majority of arts and culture organizations have three months or less of cash on hand. Boone and others knew they had to act fast.

“We pivoted our work to address the short-term challenges presented by the COVID-19 outbreak and began the planning for the longer-term recovery from this crisis,” said Boone. After setting up numerous virtual meetings to address the challenges presented, they pooled all partners and resources possible to make it happen quickly. When asked why it’s so necessary to support this facet of our community, Boone commented, “The arts bring hope, joy and comfort. They will be an integral part of bringing us together again to celebrate and heal after this period of uncertainty and social isolation.”

“Where the Mountain Meets the Sea” at Actors Theatre. Photo by Jonathan Roberts.

Two longtime partners of Fund for the Arts that have also been drastically affected by COVID-19 are Actors Theatre and the Louisville Ballet. For the first time in 44 years, Actors Theatre of Louisville had to cancel the Humana Festival of New American Plays. According to Executive Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming, there was no other theater in the country that was premiering five different plays with five full companies that had to cancel performances due to the pandemic. Fleming said, “I think it’s hard for people to comprehend the impact of having such a seminal event in our season. This is the thing we live for. There’s Derby, there’s the NCAA Championships, there are these seminal events that happen annually and this was ours.” To combat the loss of the festival and to continue delivering quality content to viewers nationwide, Fleming’s team created Actors Theatre Direct: an on-demand, multi-channel streaming platform to deliver world-class theater directly to viewers’ home screens. Fleming commented, “We want to focus on the possibilities and what resilience looks like and what possibility looks like. Out of this national and global tragedy has come an opportunity to continue to fulfill our mission, to unlock human potential, to build community and to enrich lives through Actors Theatre Direct.” They found that having these performances available to stream virtually for the first time has created far more accessibility globally than ever before and actually expanded their audience. “There’s always a silver lining,” says Fleming.

The Louisville Ballet had a similar experience to that of the Humana Festival with the postponement of the premier of “Kentucky! Volume One,” what was supposed to be the final performance of the Season of Imagination. We asked Brienne Keehner, both the program manager of the Louisville Youth Ensemble and a dancer in “Kentucky! Volume One” what it felt like to not be able to perform a dance that she devoted so much time and effort into rehearsing. Keehner said, “I had a hard time at the beginning. Rehearsing is so much of my being and my happiness, and I’m so used to that being my whole day. It was a little frightening to think about not getting to do that every day.”

Brienne Keehner performing “Serenade.” Choreography by George Balanchine. ©The George Balanchine Trust Photo by Sam English.

In an effort to bring some normalcy back to the dancers’ daily routines, they began dancing virtually together via various methods. Artistic & Executive Director of the Louisville Ballet Robert Curran currently teaches a barre and conditioning class for the company every morning, and other dancers offer online classes including yoga and cross-training. Keehner commented, “We at the Ballet love being together and feed off of that good energy of being in the studio together. It became apparent very quickly that that is a big hole in our lives when we can’t be in the same place. We tried to think about how we fill that gap and how we can still feel like we’re together without actually being together.” The way social media has enabled the company to stay connected, like all other arts and culture organizations have expressed, is perhaps the thread holding us all together, even while we’re apart. Keehner said, “It’s really inspiring to see the way people are finding a way to create art together around the world. It may be unconventional or in an irregular way, but creating music together, dancing together, taking classes together. To me, as an artist, I’ve always felt like my art is my life, but it’s been inspiring to see that everyone else in the world has been turning to art to get through and to have something to look forward to.” V