Even though the pandemic shifted us online, The Anton Art Center has thankfully been in a good position to continue running programs, creating content, and paying our staff. We are fortunate not to have needed to decrease staffing and refocused our efforts on doing things differently, looking to engage audiences in new ways with videos, live programming, and virtual art shows and visits.
Our first effort was an online art exhibit for artists worldwide to display their work in a virtual setting when physical galleries were all closed. We were expecting and prepared for a couple of hundred entries but ended up getting over 1,500 entries from around the globe.
This posed challenges, and to accommodate the number of entries received, we had to modify our plan and adjust our approach. We realized that the online exhibit was meeting a need for artists and the broader community, something for people to come back and regularly enjoy, so I think there is value in looking at this type of program again as we move forward.
We have also been creating a lot of videos and streaming live programming for our community. Pre-pandemic, we had a really popular Saturday program, SatARTday presented by First State Bank, which focuses on sharing opportunities for participants to be creative. We have been trying to find ways to retain participation from our regular audiences. It’s been a challenge, but we’ve been able to produce more content and keep it going. At first, we were really trying to reach our usual audience, but over time we saw that we were really building a new, virtual audience.
There were some logistical challenges in producing these types of interactive opportunities online. Still, we have been working it out and have found some creative solutions that meet the needs of an online platform, our production staff, and, most importantly, those who follow along with our content at home.
I’m reluctant to say there is a greater need for the arts due to the pandemic – the need has always been great. They’ve always been important because they support mental and emotional health education, self-esteem, and confidence, and I feel that people are starting to realize that now in ways they may not have before.
In March, we watched as other arts organizations closed their doors, stopped their programming, and had trouble figuring out where to go from there, and we found a way to fill that need.
We have been taking advantage of using our online platform to reach a worldwide audience we have never reached before. As we begin returning to in-person programming, it will be necessary to retain some online programming elements that we’ve begun to establish. Even as we move past this, we can’t abandon what we’ve learned and who we’ve met online.
For example, we had our first in-person program since the pandemic hit in August — an outdoor jazz concert. About 70 folks attend in person and live-streamed it to an online audience of more than 400 people. I see us doing more of this in the future — keeping virtual access to our in-person programming — even after the pandemic.
We have been looking at what other mechanisms we can use and trying new things to see what works. We won’t know unless we recognize that experimentation and investigation of new programming opportunities require some risk-taking and uncertainty. Even if a program doesn’t perform as well as we hope, lessons will be learned that will benefit our knowledge and future programs.
We started having classes in-person later in the summer. We’re hoping to do that throughout the fall with added virtual access and exclusively virtual workshops to round out the schedule. Our gift shop has been moved online, and our annual Holiday Market will be exclusively online.
Getting volunteers has been a little difficult because we respect and understand that they might not be as comfortable with the current situation, and we value their health and wellness. This has helped us decide to move our retail operations online, as volunteers are an integral part of helping operate and maintain our in-person retail experience.
With this, we have seen an opportunity to reconsider our role as a community art center. We’re doing things differently and reaching new audiences, and because of it, we’ve been able to stay relevant. Looking beyond the pandemic, we see that adjusting to this new programming reality will continue to be a challenge. Still, we also see it as an exciting opportunity to continue trying new things.
Phil Gilchrist is the Executive Director of the Anton Community Arts Center in Mount Clemens, Michigan. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19 is impacting the nonprofit sector--and how they are innovating. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.ACT.