Ada Bambino is the founder of the San Antonio Black International Film Festival.
Ada Babino, founder of the San Antonio Black International Film Festival, moved the event online and logged a reported 33,000 views. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

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Friday, March 13, last year was truly unlucky for San Antonio’s arts sector, which would come to suffer similar pandemic-caused economic and creative casualties experienced by the hospitality and food and beverage industries, and businesses large and small.

That day, Mayor Ron Nirenberg declared a public health emergency due to the onrush of the coronavirus pandemic that would eventually shut down theaters; severely limit public gatherings; close galleries, museums, and music clubs; and make all but virtual arts experiences virtually impossible.

The San Antonio Report asked arts leaders to reflect on that day and the subsequent year of inactivity and uncertainty. Click on a person’s name to read their reflections:

Chad Dawkins | Paula Owen | Anthony Dean-Harris | Elyse Gonzales | Jon Hinojosa | Mary Heathcott | Cassandra Parker-Nowicki | René Barilleaux | Alexandra Vandekamp | Kelly Roush | Christopher Rodriguez | Sebastian Lang-Lessing | Elizabeth Ciarfeo | Kim Corbin | Ada Babino | Cristina Ballí | Sheila Black

Chad Dawkins

Chad Dawkins was indefinitely furloughed in June from his position as curator and director of exhibitions at Southwest School of Art, which has endured austerity measures due to the pandemic. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy of art and critical thought in July 2020.

The last year has been incredibly humbling. I felt completely defeated since I have put so much time, energy, and resources into my professional activities and the momentum I had came to a screeching halt.

On one hand, I’ve been actively looking for permanent work and sending out proposals for writing and exhibitions since July and know I’m not alone in this situation. The opportunities are scarce and the demand from those seeking them has only increased. I’m not the only one whose art job in a mid-tier city will probably never return, and I feel that situation is not isolated to [Southwest School of Art] but is symptomatic of a larger trend, the effects of which we will continue to see through this year. I have some prospects that should materialize this fall so I hope to keep teaching, publishing, and making exhibitions. But I have my doubts that any long-term opportunities in art will be available to me in San Antonio, or even Texas for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, I’m grateful I’ve been able to spend more time with my family. I’ve come to realize that too much of my self-worth has been tied to my profession in art and academia. The widespread closures, budget cuts, and layoffs in these industries have emphasized how expendable they are in light of a global health crisis. I mean, seriously, how much does art matter when the potential cost of its experience is human lives?

Paula Owen

Paula Owen is the president of the Southwest School of Art.

We were fairly gob-smacked in March of 2020 when we closed the campus due to the pandemic, but we rallied quickly. Southwest School of Art employs a lot of smart and dedicated people, who care deeply about students and mission. They’re also, of course, creative and analytic, so we began by talking and talking, and itemizing our immediate and near-term needs and objectives. It was my job to put our challenges into a framework that might guide our discussions as well as our view of the future, which was extraordinarily uncertain.

Fortunately, we had completed both the application for NASAD accreditation and the site visit, though the board still needed to authorize a $1.5 million expenditure to upgrade our studio ventilation systems, which they did. This move is indicative of the positive and future-oriented position they took, even while we were forced to restructure operations and revise the budget to keep the institution afloat.

Though it has been painful to combine or eliminate positions, put people on furlough, suspend programs, and reduce salaries, one of the most uplifting facets of the pandemic has been a renewal of commitment for what we do and the difference we make – among the board, faculty, and staff, and among many other stakeholders.

Anthony Dean-Harris

Anthony Dean-Harris is the archivist and “co-conspirator” for FL!GHT gallery in the Blue Star Arts Complex, and a writer, jazz afficianado, and recent muralist for Centro San Antonio’s “Art Everywhere” program.

I was vacationing in New Orleans with friends in the week after Mardi Gras when the city was exhausted, and there weren’t people around to unwittingly spread the virus. We spent the first three days in nearly empty restaurants if we weren’t sitting on patios because we like dining outdoors. We had concerns about COVID as an international problem, but we at the time didn’t think it would make its way to the United States so boldly.

It’s been difficult maintaining moment at FL!GHT since much of the energy of having an exhibition and making sales is in the party of the opening on First Thursday/Friday, something that we have all been very uncomfortable trying to navigate. This has been leaving us feeling like we have been doing a bit of a disservice to the artists whose shows have been great but underseen.

I have always been one to try to elegantly move forward when presented with no other options, something that’s rooted to the Black experience. I do at times feel a little guilty saying 2020 was actually a good year for me, but I realized early on during the lockdown that this was an opportunity for us to make the world we want to have on the other side of this thing, so adapting by trying to become one of the artists I so admire in the community that has embraced me was definitely part of that.

Elyse Gonzales

Elyse Gonzales became director of Ruby City in February 2020, relocating to San Antonio from Los Angeles.

The past year has been incredibly draining, maddening, and frightening but also uplifting, productive, and meaningful.

I started my job and three weeks later closed the museum for what will eventually be at least a year. I continue to feel very fortunate to be working with incredibly dedicated and experienced staff. Knowing we were working through this unprecedented event together, problem-solving as we went along was terrific and also a little strange since everyone was getting to know me and vice versa.

Like a lot of people, I coped by digging into my community, reaching out, and talking regularly to family, friends, and colleagues. I also made an effort to introduce myself to folks here in San Antonio and throughout Texas so I could build a more robust network here. That’s been fun and incredibly rewarding. Everyone has been welcoming and so eager to share their experiences or insights! In fact, being able to exchange ideas or simply vent about the frustrations many of us in the San Antonio cultural arts were experiencing lead to a collaborative initiative to help sustain our sector, including all creative practitioners, now and into the future. Culture and Arts United for San Antonio (CAUSA) came out of this communal gathering to support each other through the pandemic.

I’m so happy such an incredible effort has come out of such a difficult, challenging moment and really proud to be a member of this initiative.

Jon Hinojosa

Jon Hinojosa is director of SAY Sí.

This month has been hard as I relive the moments leading up to the day that we closed our in-person programs. I felt powerless.

Because I love to stay busy and solve problems, I thought to myself, What can I control? The joke with folks that know me is that I said, over and over again, we have to blow shit up and reimagine a new way.

So I worked with my team, colleagues, and partners and we did stuff: At SAY Sí, we bought equipment and connections and transitioned to virtual learning. We gave out tons of arts supplies, and online we created art projects for students and the community.

For artists and the arts, we worked to develop a Facebook page to support local artists and I co-chaired a group of arts leaders who developed ways to share knowledge, advocate, and cope. There is a power to this, and I feel both will grow and expand.

Personally, on social media I worked to remind folks that there is hope and that we can find a way through. In many ways my posts about cooking, gardening, and building were my therapy sessions.

In the future when we reflect on this time, we will create lists of the bad stuff and the good stuff, we had some serious, bad stuff happen, but I also feel the good stuff will be powerful. At SAY Sí, our footprint on the westside will open this summer, we will welcome back our students, we will stretch and grow, and I will have even more things to keep me busy.

I am excited about what we have all learned and what the future can hold. There is power in that.

Mary Heathcott

Mary Heathcott is executive director of Blue Star Contemporary.

This year has been a rollercoaster of a year to say the least – one previously unimaginable before March 2020. I think back to challenges pre-pandemic, and they almost seem naive in comparison. There have been so many surprising turns and dips at an unbelievable pace.

In the early months, I didn’t have a chance to reflect on how I was feeling about it all. We were just trying to survive, trying to support our art community, and trying to keep it together. I was worried and anxious about the future of Blue Star Contemporary, the health and safety of our staff and artist community, and what the long-term impact on San Antonio would be.

Anxiety propelled me into action. I tried not to wallow in despair or stall out, resolving to seek out all the emergency support we needed, forge new partnerships, and personally try to participate and show up more for peer organizations by indulging in new online content and meeting regularly with CAUSA and a Zoom group of Texas curator peers. On the personal front, my days were extremely full balancing my work-from-home responsibilities while trying to help my first-grader log on to Zoom and receive formative instruction as a new computer user. 

The state of arts funding in our community is grim, as it’s so interconnected to the health of other industries. There have been some glimmers of hope and positive steps: City of San Antonio authorized additional general funding to augment the disastrous state of the [hotel occupancy tax] fund and the SA Cares 4 Art program provided some needed emergency support for orgs and artists. But what we still need is a revolution in thinking about arts and culture as vital for the health of our City, not as a byproduct of a City’s success. Arts and culture need to be more of a funding priority. 

I’m optimistic that whenever we arrive at the post-pandemic era, what we will all need and what we will turn to are the things in life that give us hope. Hopefully, we’ll emerge in a reality where art has greater value.

Cassandra Parker-Nowicki

Cassandra Parker-Nowicki is director of the Carver Community Cultural Center.

This year has been both incredibly challenging and immensely inspiring at the same time. There are so many factors to consider. It can feel overwhelming at times with so many considerations to balance amidst such uncertainty. But at the same time, it has been inspiring to see how the arts community has rallied together to not only support one another, but for the well-being of our larger community during this time.  

While we miss live experiences, we have also seen a lot of possibilities open up through use of technology and virtual platforms. We have been able to engage with audiences and artists that we might not have otherwise in ways we had not envisioned before. I think many of these practices will continue beyond the pandemic, but what we do is rooted in community and connection. We have heard from our patrons, artists, and staff how much they want to be together in person. Live performances at arts experiences are not going away.

René Barilleaux

René Barilleaux is head of curatorial operations at the McNay Art Museum, and is entering the second year of his first term as San Antonio Arts Commission chair.

I have not traveled since the pandemic started. I’ve been to Austin to see the Deborah Roberts show at The Contemporary Austin. That’s it.

We so take for granted – especially those of us who are deeply in the art world – art in person, having that in-person experience. You don’t have it, then you have it again, and you realize how much you’ve missed it. The contact with a physical object is so strong, and you forget that.

Everything online is pretty much the same at a certain point because it starts to flatten out, and the scale is the same. You start to get used to that for a while, but then you don’t appreciate seeing something where you see the texture, you can see the scale. That was a personal revelation to me.

Not being able to travel has been hugely hampering. Because we can’t explore new things. Talking to artists, there’s only so much you can do on Zoom. There’s only so much you can do on a phone. So that has created some limitations. I think we’ve done remarkably well in retrospect, thinking about the things we’ve been able to accomplish.

Sometimes the limitations create opportunity. Because we’re limited, we have to find other ways of doing things. And I know that when we come out of this, we’ll be doing things very differently in the future. We’ve already started doing it differently. [When we come out of this, visitors] will see a McNay that balances are our core, our history, our legacy, but also brings in innovative exhibition techniques. There’s a nice equity between where we come from and where we’re going.

Regarding his role as chair of the San Antonio Arts Commission:

The city’s done an amazing job of staying and staying in touch with the artist community, focusing energy where it could be doing good, and moving things forward.

The public art program continued all through this time, so projects were getting done for the public good. That’s certainly making an optimistic moment, the fact that you still can see new public art happening throughout the city is very much thinking about what’s going to happen when we get out of this whole pandemic.

Alexandra Vandekamp

Alexandra Vandekamp is executive director of the Gemini Ink writing arts center.

The last year has been a whirring bundle of challenges, silver-linings, discoveries, downright fear, and varying forms of dread. As a writer overseeing a nonprofit, I did not have the time to write a poetic series on the pandemic, but did find myself writing poems that seemed obsessed with the new atmosphere we were all living in. I never thought I would find the squirrels in my backyard so enthralling, take drives around the block to see a new series of trees, or that I would be reading a nightly toll of the hospitalized, sick, and dead in the news like some kind of medieval bulletin nailed to a church door. Mortality took on a new fierceness this year for all of us, no doubt.

I was lucky enough to be able to work remotely and realize that was such a gift. Gemini Ink staff has been working remotely for a year, and, while we miss our day-to-day in-office rapport a great deal, we have been able to be productive. We were able to pivot all of our adult public workshops to virtual formats. It was much harder pivoting our outreach programs – the partner classes we offer to economically disadvantaged youth and adult communities in SA that would not otherwise have access to our creative writing classes. My program director, Florinda Flores-Brown, worked diligently with our partners, and we were able to pivot many of our in-person classes to online experiences.

We feel we have the virtual world of possibilities more in our back pocket than before, and this can run alongside our in-person programs to offer the best of both worlds in the future.

Kelly Roush

Kelly Roush is executive director of The Classic Theatre of San Antonio.

Over the past year, The Classic has undergone postponements, cancellations, and wholesale programming changes to account for the pandemic. I have learned, in spades, that I do not have control over so many things and often the best thing I can do when asked about something is acknowledge ”I don’t know“ and start from there in assessing a situation, knowing things can change at any moment. It has been both liberating and exhausting.

2020 was a roller coaster ride of unexpected challenges. The extraordinary generous support of our individual donors and private philanthropy, as well as the City, County, and federal government during a worldwide pandemic, was a blessing for our organization, our artists, and our patrons – both for short-term needs and long-term viability. This support gave us time to rethink and pivot our “normal” operations and figure out how to safely move forward in a new and unique way. We could not have made it through this year without this support.

The Classic Theatre of San Antonio has continued to create excellent theater that is relevant, diverse, entertaining, and transformative; continued to employ staff, provide jobs for working artists at every step in the complex process of delivering excellent theatre; find new ways to educate and engage audiences for theater, and provide internships for future theater professionals.

We anticipate 2021 to be equally challenging, yet we remain committed to our mission and our community. It is even more important during this pandemic that we provide audiences with the opportunity to escape what is happening in the world by offering them safe venues where they can continue to experience artistic culture, empathize with our fellow human beings, and refresh mentally.

Thank you, San Antonio! We could not have done this without YOU!

Christopher Rodriguez

Christopher Rodriguez is executive director of Woodlawn Theatre.

Any executive director of a nonprofit should be very proud of themselves and their teams if they have survived the last year. It has not been easy both literally and emotionally. Many people in the nonprofit arts have lost jobs or taken major pay cuts through all this. It’s not only a struggle to keep your organization alive, but it’s double work when you yourself are trying to survive in a pandemic. I owe our success to my staff and board of directors; it truly has been a group effort.

Even though our City funding was cut, we applaud the city for doing everything possible to get us any funds they could. We are desperately waiting for the federal government to release info about the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (Save our Stages).

I feel like the arts were really on an upward trend in SA before the pandemic. There were so many great things going on, but now many of us are going to be starting over. It’s going to take time and us supporting each other to succeed.  

This weekend we have a private Zoom reunion with the cast of On Your Feet (The show that closed five days before opening due to the pandemic). We are doing this so we can all reconnect and catch up, but also to get a pulse on how our actors feel returning to performing and what that may look like.
 
I’m excited about us getting back to what we love, but we are going to do so with extreme caution.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing

Sebastian Lang-Lessing is music director emeritus of the San Antonio Symphony.

The beginning of the crisis was for me a wake-up call to rethink a lot of things. In some way, all of a sudden we had the time to take new approaches, as our busy lives became very quiet and still. That in itself is actually a very refreshing moment, if we blend out the tragic circumstances of this pandemic.

We were all forced to deal with us and discover the “Schopenhauer” in us. “A [person] can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.” No other philosopher has the ability to put so much multi-layered wisdom in one aphorism.

While COVID-19 hit the whole world, the arts sector was affected quite differently in all continents. In Europe I’ve seen on-and-off activity. Asia has basically stayed active, with some restrictions and short periods of closures. Australia is back on, and Africa is getting there.

Here in the States, we see the most dramatic effects for the performing arts. One reason is of course the extremely high case numbers. Another one is the funding model. It’s very different from the rest of the world, where we deal with a mostly government-funded arts sector. The lack of revenue, meaning ticket sales, had a huge impact. The decision to close and in some cases to furlough the musicians, singers, dancers, etc., was driven from a business perspective. It seemed “inefficient” to play for smaller audiences, etc.

This is a very dangerous development, as art lives and thrives through the continuity of working together. It’s very hard to make up for lost time. The exchange with our audiences needs to stay alive and remain fresh and inspiring. 

Problems that were lingering before the pandemic are now magnified. If we’re not proactive now, we will see a downscaling on all levels. It’s imperative to rethink a lot of aspects without taboos. 

Elizabeth Ciarfeo

Elizabeth Ciarfeo is director of the Brick event space in the Blue Star Arts Complex, and recently launched the nonprofit Cube Projects, along with a micro-entrepreneurial online marketplace.

As an event-based arts space, the Brick has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic – first shut down, then limited to low capacity, shut down again – all complicated by health risks of gathering and hesitancy to socialize among potential audiences. 

Beginning in May we started applying for any and all relief funding we could get. We were very fortunate to receive help from LiftFund, the Small Business Administration, and Bexar County. The funds helped us keep our six employees on payroll from May to present, as well as covering various other business-related expenses, but at this time we have pretty much exhausted our funds and are looking for innovative ways to raise money.

Our emotions are up and down, hopeful, imaginative, and ranging along the entire scale of loss and recovery.

Kim Corbin

Kim Corbin is a member of the artistic company, the curatorial committee, and the board of directors of Jump-Start Performance Co.

March 15, 2020, marked the close of Model Talks by Pamela Dean Kenny. We knew that would be our last show in the theater for a while. The audiences that weekend had been small, with a few people canceling reservations out of caution. One audience member arrived with a mask on. People already were selecting seats with some room around them. As the final audience exited our front door that day, the live, in-theater experience came to a halt.

While our situation was sinking in, I feel we went into a sort of suspended animation for a couple of months while we tried to imagine how to proceed and gingerly explored possibilities. To our delight, our first Zoom theater presentation was well-attended and appreciated by a large audience of people from around the country. We thought, Hey, this might work after all.

One good that has come out of all this is lots of reworking and back-to-the-drawing-board. We artists who create original performance are used to that, it’s part of the process of making something new. So, while there are difficulties, no one’s said, “I can’t do this.” There have been some punches to roll with. We have.

Overall, while our technology costs have risen, our ticket income has been good. Before this time, we had gone to a pay-what-you-choose model for ticketing, abandoning categories for discounts and offering a simple choice of prices, $5 to $25. With the financial hardship many are struggling with, we added the choice of $0. I think we will keep that. We trust people to pay what feels right for them, no questions asked, and we are glad to have them!

Ada Babino

Ada Babino is director of the San Antonio Black International Film Festival (SABIFF).

As a filmmaker and director of SABIFF, I relate to the onset of COVID-19 from last year’s experience as flashback scenes from a personal and professional [point of view]. Dysfunctional dis-leadership with handling an unprecedented pandemic. Dislocated, unmasked normalcy sent everyone’s lives spiraling into a state of confusion. Anticipated plans, physical personalization, and comforting socialization turned into uncertainty and disbelief.

Take I: Personally, my only daughter/child’s plans for a beautiful San Antonio garden wedding in April were shifted to October, then settled to an uneventful Zoom wedding in their [Washington], D.C., living room. Matrimonial bliss was lost, but I gained a son-in-law, and the priceless experience of being present for the home birth delivery of my new healthy granddaughter. The stillness of COVID allowed me to be a front-seat witness to depressing daily corona[virus] victims, the unjustified murder of a Black man, an ignited social justice movement, and the gift of my Ava’s new precious life.

Outside of keeping company with my elder mother, we ate well off of her healthy garden and downhome cooking.

Take II: Professionally, I remained on the front line with my part-time airline gig. My only public interaction witnessed dismal travel at the airport.

Directing SABIFF 2020, I made the decision to transition our festival totally online. It was unprecedented, and a success, with 33,000 views!
  
As I move away from ACT III of this corona drama, I move to Take III with the hope and faith for returned normalcy to move me and the rest of the world forward.

Cristina Ballí

Cristina Ballí is executive director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.

The Guadalupe began 2020 having just won an unsolicited $10,000 Stand for the Arts award, and in February was $20,000 above budget in earned income projections. When [South by Southwest] in Austin was canceled in early March, we realized things were about to change.

It was difficult to determine how long to postpone ongoing classes in our Traditional Dance and Music Academy, but the most difficult decision of all was canceling the 39th annual Tejano Conjunto Festival in May [2020]. 

Our instructors quickly learned how to Zoom classes; staff scrambled to gather their laptops, organize documents, and log-in IDs to work remotely. Gradually we acquired more equipment and skills, transmitting live programs to the public. Organizational capacity was strengthened with various technological tools. 

GCAC was losing almost a third of its annual income due to this pandemic; fortunately, the philanthropic community provided emergency grants and with funding sources, such as the federal stimulus package, we were able to make up the difference in funds and completed the fiscal year with a small surplus and without laying off any staff.

Sheila Black

Sheila Black is director of development for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).

Last year, around this time, I was rushing around frantically trying to manage the AWP20 conference in San Antonio, which had abruptly lost about 50% of its participants due to the onset of the pandemic. We didn’t know then what we were facing, but despite the reduced numbers everyone who went seemed to have a wonderful time – almost as if they knew this would be the last collective experience any of us would have for a long time.

I left the conference and went home – and except for trips to H-E-B and to meet a few friends for a few carefully curated outdoor and masked social occasions – I stayed in my house, where I still am. 

This week I’m wrapping up AWP’s first all-virtual writing conference – 250 events entirely conducted online. It feels like a good time to reflect on what we’ve gone through and what we’ve learned. My hope is that the pandemic has perhaps taught us lessons we can use in the future. For instance, the way we are so connected that at times it can feel as if we really are one giant set of lungs. I hope COVID has shown us how false the idea of the totally self-sufficient person really is, as we miss each other, need each other, and struggle with our desire to connect.

AWP has just finished a successful virtual conference that demonstrated that this human desire to connect can overcome so much – distance, difficulty, loss, uncertainty. Over the past week, 6,000 people from all over the country and across the world came together to exchange stories which felt at times almost as important as breath.

The event gave me, at least, cause for hope that having passed through this time of loss and change, we will grasp with renewed vigor how important our communities are to us and how we share them – through arts, through civic engagement, and just by being better at attending to and being open to each other’s experiences. 

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...