The Anton Art Center works to engage audiences online and in-person as COVID-19 continuesThe Nonprofit Journal Project

I never imagined I'd be in charge of an organization and responsible for people's livelihoods when the entire world got turned on its head. That's been a really tough place to be. Nobody anticipated the pandemic would stretch this long, and it wears on you. But that doesn't make my job any less meaningful; it's just more challenging. I love the work I do, and I love the organization I work with. 

I think it’s critical the arts be available for people to engage with and use as a tool to understand, to converse about, and to interpret what's happening in the world.

In late January, we reopened in-person exhibits at the Anton Art Center, with the Michigan Annual XLVIII. It’s one of our a larger exhibits, and highly sought after by artists who send entries from across the state. This year was a bit tough because we had to adjudicate the entire show online, which we’ve never done before, and make a last-minute change to find a judge comfortable with that process. But it worked out, and we got it installed on time for the public.

Since then, the center has been open again five days a week, but with limited hours. This shortened schedule is helpful for us right now because we're a small staff who relies heavily on volunteers to help operate things like our art market. 

Many of our volunteers weren’t ready to return until they could be vaccinated. They’re trickling back now, looking for something to do after being at home so long, but we’re still not up to our full volunteer capacity. I don't blame folks who don’t want to come around yet, especially given the way the pandemic is currently unfolding.

We’ve been holding in-person programming at the center for the last couple of months, which is helpful because we've had to cancel so much over the last year. In this transition, we don’t want to lose the audiences we’ve built online. It’s become very clear these are not the same people who come to see us, and that we’ve expanded our reach in great ways throughout the pandemic. 

Now the challenge is, how do we do a good job keeping those folks engaged while also engaging people with in-person programs?  Managing both has been a stretch, and we have to figure out how to do it without overextending ourselves. We’ll definitely continue documenting our in-person exhibits and sharing them online. People who live hours away are interacting with us through social media, email, etc. as a result of that.

Our range of virtual programming has largely been possible because of our board's willingness to let us just try what we need to try. That's enabled us to have a more entrepreneurial attitude, experimenting and carrying what we've learned forward. 

One thing we've learned is that virtual program production is much easier when you have good equipment. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were filming everything on our iPhones and using free software to create videos. We were lucky to have someone on staff with knowledge and experience in editing and producing. It's the reason we were able to pivot online even as things were shutting down.

Since then, we’ve obtained better equipment, thanks to a grant through the Macomb County government and their CARES Act funding. That’s helped with our production quality which matters a lot in today’s online society. We also had a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs that allowed us to train more staff on virtual program production. Both things have been valuable to helping our organization keep ahead of the curve. 

That being said, there's a host of reasons why we want people to be able to engage with the art center in person. This back and forth with the virus weighs heavy, and low vaccination rate here has been a thorn in my side. We were finally able to loosen our admissions a bit to let people in the door without doing health checks, but now we've had to reinstate our mask policy.

Our big fundraising event is scheduled for the end of September. It's always been an outdoor event, but if the virus keeps increasing, I'll be under some pressure to modify our plans or change them entirely. Last year we started planning a virtual fundraiser six months out. We have much less time now to change direction.  

I am concerned about our budget for the upcoming year. We don’t anticipate that same type of emergency funds that have helped us remain stable. We're grateful to have a pretty solid donor base, they're not donating enough money to sustain us over a long term. So we’re trying to wrap our minds around how we’ll make it without cutting into programs and staffing.

We've gotten a lot of feedback in the last year about how valuable some of our art experiences have been for people who've been feeling depressed, isolated or just downtrodden. Not just in the context of the pandemic, but in the context of social and racial justice, I think there’s always been an ability for the arts to help us work through some of these conversations. 

Phil Gilchrist is the Executive Director of the Anton Community Arts Center in Mount Clemens, Michigan. This story is part of the Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Southeast Michigan to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, vaccinations, a heightened sense of racial justice and equity, issues of climate change and more are impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.