Temporary Closure of Arts West Concerns Athens Arts Community< < Back to
ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Arts West is not offering programming for the first time in its 15-year history due to budget concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though COVID-19 closed Arts West’s doors in mid-March, its programming was still available until program specialist and Athens’ lone arts administrator Emily Beveridge was temporarily laid off August 6. Athens Mayor Steve Patterson and Athens Arts, Parks, and Recreation Director Terri Moore said the layoff was due to Beveridge’s “lack of work” paired with budgetary distress caused by the pandemic.
January 4, 2021 is the planned reopening date for Arts West and the reinstatement of Beveridge’s position.
Community members and regional arts advocates voiced concerns over the nature of the layoff and how it could impact the future of the arts in Athens.
The closure is personal and poignant for lifelong Athens resident Darian Knapp.
Knapp, who entered Ohio University’s Commercial Photography program this fall, was the last artist to have work displayed at Arts West before the closure. Their photography exhibition “What Are You Looking At?” was one of multiple art exhibitions Beveridge opened to the public on a by appointment basis throughout the summer. Knapp and their family were called into Arts West to tear down the exhibition several weeks early, immediately after Beveridge’s layoff.
“I feel like [the closure] was very fast and very kind of under the public’s nose,” Knapp said. “And that’s a shame for everything that that space does for the community. It’s upsetting to see something like that go without a plan of reopening.”
Beveridge’s temporary layoff and the simultaneous temporary layoff of Laura Sowers, child program administrator for the Athens City Community Center’s childcare program, were the first personnel layoffs Athens made since Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s declared state of emergency March 9.
“Without having face-to-face programming going on, there was just a lack of work to be done,” Patterson said.
He added that the health and safety guidelines put in place for mass gatherings render meaningful revenue-generating programming at Arts West impossible.
Also, a major planned function for Arts West was providing afterschool programming for Athens City School District elementary schools. Those programs were disrupted when the district announced their plan to start the school year virtually.
The temporary layoff disrupted planned programming and scheduled events at Arts West, including poetry events with both the Ohio Poet Laureate Kari Gunter-Seymour and a gallery showcasing the work of Hocking College students.
Beveridge said she was also planning for programs that could generate revenue for Arts West during the pandemic before she was laid off, such as:
• Virtual or in-person ceramics classes
• Theater livestreams from the Lost Flamingo and Vibrance Theater troupes
• Musical performances streamed from the Arts West stage
“While these types of activities couldn’t necessarily happen at the scale that they used to pre-COVID, this type of programming would have made up that loss [of revenue] potentially,” she said.
Beveridge believes Arts West has the ability to host by-appointment gallery shows, host arts classes of 10 people or less, provide youth programming for Athens City School District students, and reopen the Arts West branch of the Southeast Ohio Musical Lending Library.
Moore said she developed a task force since Beveridge’s layoff to investigate reopening opportunities for the Arts West branch of the library. Branches of the library remain open at Stuart’s Opera House and the Federal Valley Resource Center.
The first public discussion of the layoffs took place during the August 12 virtual meeting of the Athens Municipal Arts Commission (AMAC). The commission was not consulted about Beveridge’s temporary layoff and the subsequent closure of Arts West.
During that meeting, Moore said making the decision to temporarily lay off Arts West’s only full-time staff person was “extremely difficult.”
There had been some discussion about reopening Arts West under Ohio’s banquet guidelines, according to Moore, which allows for up to 300 people to congregate for events like weddings.
“The Health Department, especially with the recent spike, took a hard position on any activities that encouraged gatherings…That included our shelters and it included Arts West,” Moore said.
July brought a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases for Athens County with 285 confirmed cases. This led to the decision to close the 2020 Athens Community Center Summer camp for children ages 6-14 two weeks early. The City subsequently had to issue $36,000 in refunds, taking a $6,000 loss on camp, according to Moore.
The financial blow caused the city to be cautious about taking risks on arts programming moving forward.
“[I’m] open to do what we can do responsibly and safely and with the limited budget. We’re going to have to get creative with the limited budget that we have,” Moore said.
Mayor Patterson emphasized that he is appreciative of the work Arts West does in the community, as well as the importance of the arts in the context of the region.
“We’re really hopeful that, as the situation continues to change, it seems like it’s in flux all the time, that we’ll be able to bring these valued employees back into their positions again.”
Athens Recreation Advisory Board member Brandon Thompson voiced similar concerns during the Board’s August 20 virtual meeting.
He believes having a program specialist in place at Arts West is crucial to ensuring the survival of the facility.
“My concern is that we are going to continue to spiral and then Arts West is going to just be a hollow space that you can come in and rent for a birthday party,” he said. “That’s not arts.”
Thompson, a local DJ and executive director of Ohio Brew week, said he believes more revenue for the City could be generated during the pandemic by embracing arts programming.
“Everyone in Athens loves the arts, we have a great art community, but as far as art being supported financially through the city… I just think it hasn’t been set up great. We don’t have a lot of programming that helps the arts in that way. I don’t think a lot of people realize that.”
He hopes that the city might be able to create a “highly visible” fundraising event similar to how Stuart’s Opera House utilizes the Nelsonville Music Festival to help fund its programs.
Moore assured the Recreation Advisory Board that she is not going to let arts programming “fall off the radar.” She hopes some federal funding from the CARES Act can be put toward that effort.
“Everyone in Athens loves the arts, we have a great art community, but as far as art being supported financially through the city… I just think it hasn’t been set up great. We don’t have a lot of programming that helps the arts in that way. I don’t think a lot of people realize that.” – Brandon Thompson
Regional arts activists and concerned citizens have voiced relief at the city’s multiple reassurances that Arts West’s closure is temporary, and that reopening the facility prior to the targeted date of January 4 is a possibility.
They also have evidence the arts provide an avenue for increased revenues around the region.
An Arts and Economic Prosperity IV (A&EP4) National Research project published in 2012 focused on Athens County by Americans for the Arts found that nonprofit arts organizations contribute to Athens’ economy in a significant way.
The study found that in 2010, 40 Arts and Culture organizations expended $24,349,791, provided 739 full-time equivalent jobs and paid government revenue (such as taxes, licenses, etc.) of $1,108,000 to local government and $1,065,000 to state government.
Additionally, those nonprofits hosted 295,090 audience members. A third of those were non-residents who brought their business to Athens County.
Other arts organizations in Athens County are working to navigate the pandemic and stay open.
The Dairy Barn Arts Center allows up to 10 people at a time in their gallery, which is currently hosting the Art of Our Appalachian Woods exhibition. Visitors schedule their visit online and the gallery space has been rearranged to allow for social distancing.
“The thing that’s been really important for the Dairy Barn has been a planning strategy that’s multifaceted because the changes are coming very quickly,” Executive Director Leah Magyary said. “We’re planning how each department and each focus group portion of our mission can be accomplished digitally, remotely without a digital component and onsite when it’s safe and an option.”
Stuart’s Opera House continues to operate, providing virtual arts education.
The organization is also using its resources for monthly blood drives and space for Nelsonville Thursday Night Community Dinner volunteers to stage their food deliveries.
Emily Prince, Stuart’s Opera House’s education director and grants coordinator, served as Arts West events coordinator 2005-2007 and program specialist from 2007-2012.
She said Stuart’s had more flexibility than municipal organizations like Arts West because of their nonprofit status as a 501(c)(3). This designation allows them to restructure their budget quickly in times of economic downturn.
Stuart’s also received funds through the Paycheck Protection Program afforded by the CARES Act. Prince said that funding and an anonymous grant allowed them to continue paying their employees throughout the crisis.
The organization also moved its biggest fundraiser of the year, the Nelsonville Music Festival, online. Stuart’s typically expects $150,000 in annual revenue generated by the festival. The Virtual Nelsonville Music Festival, held online August 21-22 and made available for streaming through September 20, generated $20,000 in revenue for Stuart’s.
That total could go up as donations are still being accepted.
Prince has been advocating for Arts West because of what the organization means to her, personally.
She’s worked with other concerned advocates to write grants that could possibly assist the organization, and encourages anyone who might want to help to email her at email@example.com.
“I think that the community is going to be called upon to make some donations and really support Arts West,” Prince said. “I’m confident that the community is going to rally together and save this thing, as a community resource.”
Prince ultimately expressed hope for Arts West and urged those with concerns about the situation to be “be positive and to be respectful.”
“People need to keep advocating for supporting the arts. It can go away. Now we’re seeing it. If people don’t know that it’s valued, which we take for granted, because, of course, it is.”