The Arts in Southern Colorado — what was gained, what was lost, and what’s changed with COVID-19?

After months of economic and cultural turmoil as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown, the arts in Southern Colorado have changed. No longer can individuals attend large scale plays, music concerts, or crowded art galleries. These venues have taken to the internet, allowing audience members and gallery goers to scroll the web from the safety of their homes.

On the other hand, a number of individual artists and musicians have taken the time away from gigs to hone in on their passion as artists, producing more work than they would have under normal circumstances.

Joe Johnson, a former member of Pueblo’s Blank Tape Records and a national touring artist said he has learned to take advantage of the COVID-19 shutdown despite the challenges it poses to the arts and music community.

“My entire career has been built on taking something depressing and making something beautiful out of it,” he said.

Johnson added that the free time left in the wake of gig cancellations has given him an opportunity to be more productive than he would’ve been otherwise.

“I’ve had the time to write close to ten songs during quarantine. I recorded an album, I recorded some singles. I’ve been pretty productive,” said Johnson.

Johnson has also recently taken to the park for mellow live performances, giving people 24 hours of notice before playing. He said the shutdowns have caused him to go back to his roots as a street performer and have prompted him to look for creative outlets to stay productive.

“We’re really in a situation now and this is what we’re dealing with. It’s up to us to save our own asses,” he said.

Johnson thinks performing arts will eventually regain some sort of normalcy but is wary that many artists won’t make it out of the crisis unscathed.

“I do think when this is all over next year there aren’t going to be as many venues, there aren’t going to be as many working musicians, there aren’t going to be as many working artists,” he said. “It is going to take a toll on us and it’s up to each of us to handle that,” he added.

Likewise, Pueblo Musician Inaiah Lujan, is determined to make the best of a bad situation.

“I think that’s just the role of the artist, to be trailblazer and to take whatever situation we have and work with it,” said Lujan.

Lujan said after losing an entire tour he had planned for March, April and May because of the shutdowns, he chose to launch online.

“The challenge was to take the live experience online to a more professional level,” he said.

However, after working online for a month or so, Lujan said he felt the platform was overused by the entire performing arts community, and thinks it does not do live performances justice.

“It felt a little tired and oversaturated after about a month,” he said. “I don’t think the virtual concert is going to replace the live concert because people kind of yearn for gathering in large groups,” he added.

Artists have to work around the clock to be successful, which Lujan said he has been doing since he was practically a teenager. Since May, Lujan said he has finally taken time off from producing music and has fallen back on graphic design to make money.

“I think that this quarantine has allowed a lot of us creators, including myself, an actual break,” he said. “Taking a break is not something that people in our field do often,” he added.

Jim Jackson, the Executive Director of the Millibo Art Theatre in Colorado Springs agrees that quarantine provided performing artists with time to step back and reflect.

“One thing it allowed us to do as artists was to slow down enough and disengage from the work that we had immediately in front of us and really see what was happening, society-wise,” he said.

Normally, Jackson produces 14 shows and 150 performances each year. This summer, he and his wife have already had 50 gigs canceled.

“This is the longest time I’ve gone without doing a live performance since I started 45 years ago,” he said.

As a result, Jackson said he turned to live streaming and video performances, putting up 30 comedy videos on Facebook. Jackson said, though, that online performances do not have the same effect on both audience members and performers as live ones do.

“We need an audience in order to make it work. Unlike Film or TV, people who make a living from live performance absolutely need that audience,” he said.

While he added that the crisis has given the arts community a lot of material to draw from, he personally is still processing everything.

“It hasn’t been that creative mecca that we were all maybe hoping,” he said. “Unlike Shakespear I have not penned the great play during the plague,” he added.

On the other hand, Matte Refic, a prominent muralist in Pueblo, said he has had success producing art during quarantine.

“I’ve worked on my art projects more in the last few months than the last few years,” he said.

He added that he is preparing murals for a show at Blo Back Gallery in Pueblo. He thinks that while quarantine has no doubt tested artists around the community, he has managed to be resilient in the face of adversity.

“If you really want to have an art practice and have that urge within you I think you’re always going to have to find that own personal way to navigate through whatever situation you’re in,” said Refic.

Blo Back Gallery Director, Jeff Madeen, agrees that quarantine has prompted many artists to be productive.

“Some artists, they had no place to go anyway so they just buckled down and created art,” said Madeen.

After struggling to find motivation during the shutdown, Madeen said he, too, had an artistic breakthrough.

“Initially it was weird — time was weird. I wasn’t that motivated to make art,” he said. “And then I was motivated and I was making art about COVID — COVID art,” he added.

Madeen added that he listed a lot of art for sale online but doesn’t feel as though online art carries much weight to audiences or potential buyers.

“I have a lot of work available online on my website. I have not sold a single thing online,” he said.

The Arts Director for the City of Salida, Michael Varnum, said the closures presented both pros and cons to the arts and culture community.

“I’m sure the closing was not a positive thing for arts and culture, especially the culture part because Salida is an active community,” he said.

But many artists, he said, were less distracted and could be more attentive to their passions.

“I know a lot of them just focused 100 percent of their energy on their art,” said Varnum.

Like Varnum, Maria Berger, Director of Walsenburg’s contemporary art museum, Museum of Friends, said she feels the COVID-19 shutdowns produced two different outcomes.

“Basically it’s twofold. It’s a crisis and it’s an opportunity,” she said.

For Berger, the crisis arose after the cancellation of their spring mixer and summer blockbuster show, two prominent economic opportunities for the museum.

However, amidst the shutdown, Berger said the museum had the opportunity to work with Fox Theatre to restructure their website, creating an interactive online art tour.

She added that the museum produced a video to participate in the Colorado Humanities Social Media Challenge, the winner of which receives funding to support their mission.

“I was blown away by our community’s response,” said Berger regarding the museum’s newfound online presence. “We’ve been really active in communicating via the internet,” she added.

Berger said, apart from social media, she knows many artists — her husband, Bredt, included — who have been very productive during the shutdown. As a result, she said Museum of Friends plans to host an event honoring the work produced over the past months.

“That’s the other opportunity. Even if it’s going to be by appointment only, we’re planning to reopen after labor day — Sep. 11th. And the exhibit is called ‘The COVID-19 Crisis or Opportunity — Artists’ Response,’” said Berger.

Gregory Howell, Director of Pueblo’s Watertower Place, said the shutdowns provided the arts community with an unusual situation.

“In some ways I think we’ve gained tremendously. The universe has paused and it’s probably never going to happen again in our lifetime, hopefully,” said Howell. “The manner in which the universe has paused has forced us, whether you want to or not, to reflect on our new shared reality,” he added.

Howell said many artists have had to fall back on their passons — producing art — after losing other forms of income. Though “messy,” Howell said the closures have allowed artists to push themselves, as well as the surrounding culture.

“Messiness,” said Howell regarding the economic and cultural upheaval of the last few months, “is where you’re going to find visual and performing arts really pushing the boundaries.”

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