When Chicago artists lost their audiences – Crain’s Chicago Business

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when-chicago-artists-lost-their-audiences-–-crain’s-chicago-business

The pandemic stopped live performance in its tracks—the kind of performances that involved audiences, anyway.

“It was cataclysmic,” says poet and comedian Mark James Heath. “You never thought ‘live’ was going to go away. If anything, it was like, ‘Yeah, this internet might fall apart, but they’ll never be able to stop us from meeting and performing in front of each other.’ And then it was the opposite.”

The lockdown had a less obvious but still powerful impact on artists whose mediums don’t depend on public performance. Visual artists and literary types found that while they could still make their art, their business practices and creative processes were upended, forcing them to adapt on the fly. Now, as live concerts, art fairs and studio classes begin to resume, the question facing arts professionals of every stripe is which of their pandemic improvisations should make it into their regular repertoire.

The Evanston-based literary journal Rhino Poetry, for example, managed to produce its annual journal in both 2020 and 2021. Its distribution model—a printed journal that is mailed to most customers—wasn’t disrupted in the same way as live music or theater.

But the experience of selecting poems for inclusion was far different. Traditionally, about a dozen Rhino volunteers would gather every other week in someone’s home and share a pizza while discussing the submitted poems. When those meetings shifted to Zoom, the group remained functional, and even allowed for the inclusion of some out-of-town alumni. But the old sense of relationship, community and fun was hampered—and when you’re running a time-intensive, all-volunteer operation, that’s a big deal.

“There is a magic to the live, spoken word that we did miss. So as pleased as we were that we were able to keep the boat afloat, everyone has been talking for months now about how great it will be when we can finally sit at that table again together,” says Jan Bottiglieri, a Rhino Poetry editor.

Now Bottiglieri is searching for a formula that will balance the group’s new digital capabilities with its old sense of community. Her plan is for Zoom to remain part of the group’s toolkit because it allows for editorial subgroups to vet more poems more quickly. Zoom also diminishes the travel burden for people such as Bottiglieri, who lives in Schaumburg, about an hour from Evanston. But she also plans for in-person gatherings to reclaim their spot as Rhino’s default.

“We can’t afford not to grow and take the good experiences out of this past year or two—but we’re really looking forward to recapturing that live magic,” Bottiglieri says.

Professionals in the visual art world also are re-examining their practices. Before the pandemic, Emanuel Aguilar, co-owner of Patron Gallery in West Town, was a regular traveler on the global art fair circuit. But the pandemic proved profitable for his gallery—in part because of a home decorating boom—and Aguilar realized he didn’t need to be in perpetual motion in order to sustain his business.

“This community is just moving across the world, from city to city, with the same people, the same vendors, the same artists and the same clients, just jumping around the world to different convention centers,” Aguilar says. “Maintaining relationships is important. But do I need to do that 12 times?”

Aguilar is planning to cut back on art fairs, placing greater emphasis on a select few, as well as on events at Patron’s Chicago gallery. He believes that much of the pandemic shift toward digital viewings will recede, but some new elements will remain, such as virtual walk-throughs conducted by the artist.

What will remain is what’s “really effective in terms of being supplemental” to the gallery experience, rather than replacing it, Aguilar says.

The notion of a more selective approach to in-person gatherings is also resonating with performers. When the pandemic first hit, singer-songwriter Heather Styka was already growing tired of the repetitive grind of booking, touring and promotion. After spending years on the road, along with Chicago gigs such as hosting open-mic nights at acoustic staple Uncommon Ground, she realized that she valued her musical community more than commercial success.

“The thing that I realized I missed was the late-night song rounds that happened after the music conference, after the music festival, after the show. I missed those moments big-time, because what was fueling me was the person-to-person connection, not the knowledge of how many streams I got that day,” says Styka.

In response, she has scaled back her performance schedule—in-person concerts as well as electronic ones—and is placing greater emphasis on a handful of key shows, such as a Nov. 30 concert at Space in Evanston. She’s also dialing up her investment in small communities, such as a songwriters group she’s belonged to for the past decade that’s just beginning to resume meeting in person. She’s excited about that not only for the personal connections, but also because it means a chance to refocus on music. The group’s Zoom gatherings, Styka says, “have had a lot more in common with group therapy than songwriting.”

A different sort of therapeutic impulse helped sustain the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative during the pandemic. Revenue for the Lincoln Square-based studio has come primarily from the tuition that students pay to take classes in disciplines such as screen printing and lithography. During the lockdown, when studio classes were canceled, Deborah Maris Lader, the collaborative’s director, began selling collections of printed goods online—and was surprised when they sold well.

“I think people just needed a treat—a visual treat,” Lader says.

Now classes have resumed, but the collaborative’s digital storefront remains, as does another pandemic-era addition, online classes. Lader expects that going forward, those digital offerings will make up a meaningful portion of revenue.

The online store “was a great idea from an operational perspective, and it’s going to stay up forever. It was just a matter of putting the work in to get it going,” Lader says.

Yet for all of the digital enhancements and strategic refinements that Chicago artists are bringing to their post-lockdown endeavors, there’s also plenty of joy at the prospect of returning to the way things were: gathering around a dinner table in someone’s home to discuss poetry, hosting a blowout party to celebrate an art show’s opening, or performing directly before an audience of real people, unbuffered by cameras and screens.

As poet and comedian Heath has returned to the stage, for example—he performed twice last month at the Paper Machete, a weekly literary showcase hosted at the Green Mill in Uptown—he’s been reminded of the unique dynamics that make live performances special and that have been in short supply during the pandemic.

“It’s great to be in the room with people again, and it presents all these new sorts of challenges and ideas. I’m a completely different performer than if I’m just in my house doing it for the camera,” Heath says.