CORONAVIRUS

Many anticipated arts, cultural events delayed or canceled

Indian Creek Nature Center on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. This year's plant sale was restructured as an online order and sch
Indian Creek Nature Center on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. This year’s plant sale was restructured as an online order and scheduled pickup due to coronavirus-related event cancellations. The nature center already had postponed its popular annual Maple Syrup Festival. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Summer is going to look a bit different in the Corridor this year as many, long-cherished events are being canceled or postponed. And the organizations that run those events want you to know they aren’t any more happy about it than you are.

The organizers of these events are having to make unprecedented, tough decisions.

“Cancellation is not a good word in our business,” said Chuck Swanson, Building a Legacy executive director of Hancher. “It is something that we really don’t want to do and it takes a lot for us to come to that.

“We live for the live performance and bringing the artists and audiences together. That’s the happiest time for me, so none of these decisions have been easy.”

Hancher has had to cancel numerous upcoming events in the past few months that would have brought to Iowa City in artists from all over the country and the world. It also is holding off announcing its upcoming season — which it typically would be doing at this time of year.

this isn’t something the staff has faced since the floods of 2008 and because they book events so far in advance they are confronting additional challenges.

“You know there’s so much that goes into a show before it happens,” Swanson said. “I just think of all the anticipation, booking the artists, advancing the show, setting ticket prices, advertising and then ticket sales.

“It’s like a farmer who does all this work to get his crops ready and then at the end of the season ends up with nothing to harvest.”

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He noted Hancher has been reaching out to its booked performers and, in some cases, have had performers reach out to them to cancel upcoming shows.

The significant time and resources that go into planning large-scale events is the main factor in necessitating cancellation discussions and decisions at many organizations.

“Many logistical items have to be coordinated, from renting shuttles to scheduling volunteers and staff. Initial planning for some events begins as early as 12 to 18 months in advance and proceeds all the way up to the day of the event,” said John Myers, Indian Creek Nature Center executive director.

Citing the center’s annual Maple Syrup Festival, he noted food represents a significant cost and often cannot be saved or reused.

“We have had to be mindful of the financial resources available to us and ensure that we wisely manage those to ensure (the center) can emerge from this pandemic as a functioning and healthy organization,” he said.

“None of the decisions to cancel events or how to handle subsequent financial losses are easy and they challenge everyone,” Myers added. “As our whole lives have been upended, it makes even the simplest of decisions harder and that takes an impact on morale.”

He acknowledged staff members aren’t the only ones feeling the strain.

“We have a significant core of volunteers who are no longer able to give their time, which also creates a strain on morale and increases the amount of work that needs to be done when we return,” he pointed out.

Another primary factor is what is allowed and considered safe by the city, state and Iowa Department of Public Health.

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“At this point, only allowing groups of 10 or less is a far cry from the thousands or people we usually see at the Iowa Arts Festival,” said Lisa Barnes, executive director of Summer of the Arts in Iowa City, which produces the Iowa Arts Festival.

“The governor has announced that reopening the state will be done in stages, and based on what we’ve found from other events around the country, concerts and large festivals will be the last to open,” he noted.

Summer of the Arts announced just last week that the Iowa Arts Festival would not take place this year, a month in advance of the event.

“We needed to make a decision so that we can move forward with alternative plans,” Barnes said, noting the organization has had questions about the Iowa City Jazz Festival, scheduled for July 3 through 5 and added a decision regarding that festival and July programming will be made by mid-late May.

“We also needed to make the decision far enough out to be able to work with our performers and cancel the agreements,” she said.

On Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds loosened some but not all of the social-distancing restrictions for the remaining 22 counties she had put in place.

Heartbroken

Discussions about the future of these events have been happening for weeks for many organizations, highlighting they are not taken lightly.

Carissa Johnson, executive director of the Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival, said conversations about the future of this year’s event started in mid-March, right around the time the Cedar Rapids SaPaDaPaSo Parade announced its cancellation for 2020.

“We plan year ’round for the two- to three-week festival,” Johnson explained.

“Our planning really ramps up in April and May, and we have many more costs associated with producing the festival the closer we get to the start. In order to protect our time and resources, we elected to cancel before we had more costs and variables to consider.”

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As for who is making the final decision, organizations said many stakeholders are involved. Barnes said the decision on the Iowa City Arts Festival, for example, included staff, the board of directors, festival planning committees, the city of Iowa City and Johnson County Public Health, along with input from some of the vendors, artists and performers.

Tapping into experts in those public health field has been key as well.

“We have these assets, people, at the University (of Iowa), that have been really helpful as we make these decisions about canceling and as we prepare to think about reopening,” Hancher’s Swanson said.

The Freedom Festival include staff and board members in discussions, with recommendations from Linn County Public Health and the city of Cedar Rapids, factoring in the health, safety and well-being of the community.

“We are just as heartbroken as the rest of the community, but this decision was to protect our community as much as possible,” Swanson said.

“This community is a family and we will all get through this together and come back stronger next year.”

Myers noted organizations such as the Indian Creek Nature Center are also rely on advice from national associations, such as the American Alliance of Museums, and discussions among the leadership of many local cultural groups.

“For many events, we have also reached out to participants to gather their input and comfort level of attending once we are able to reopen,” Myers said.

The financial effects of having to cancel is stressful for organizations, too.

“Financially, this has been a hard time for the Nature Center to endure,” Myers pointed out. “We’ve had over 100 different programs, events and facility rentals canceled between March 15 and April 30, and our losses are currently over $250,000. As we approach the summer, there are a number of other events we continue to review, including our popular summer camps.”

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The Nature Center has postponed a national conference to be held there in September — due to indications of low participation — for peers from around the nation who run not-for-profit and government nature centers.

“We are losing thousands of dollars in vendor fees and sales receipts because we had to cancel,” said Barnes, of Summer of the Arts.

“We have sponsors tied to certain events, like the Iowa Arts Festival, that in some cases want to carry over their support to next year, which impacts our fundraising for this year and next.”

She noted her group already has been made aware of funding that won’t be coming in from some sponsors next year due to the financial impact those organizations are facing as well.

And that can be tough.

“When we cancel, our whole staff is involved — from the box audience and public engagement folks to the technical production team and our front-of-house staff,” Swanson said.

“Our communication is key in talking through it all and then sharing clear messages with our audiences, especially in terms of refunds. But we’ve been encouraged by so many generous friends of Hancher donating their ticket purchase price back to us.”

While disappointment still is thick in the air, organizations don’t plan to abandon their missions and is keeping an eye on serving the public.

“This is a challenging time for everyone, and our board and staff is committed to finding creative and non-traditional solutions to ensure the Freedom Festival’s return,” Johnson said. “The community and our stakeholders have been tremendous supports of the Freedom Festival and we believe they will continue to do so in the future.

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“We ask for understanding and patience as we try to navigate this crisis and what we can still provide for our community.”

Freedom Festival buttons will be sold this year as they’ve already been made, and “It’s a way the community can show their support,” Johnson said.

Barnes agreed and noted the Iowa Arts Festival committee is working on ways to support the performers, artists and vendors they had scheduled by trying to develop some virtual opportunities for engagement.

While the show, or events, might not go on, organizers said they very much want to remain connected to their audiences and attendees.

“I want to make sure everybody knows we care about them and that we’re trying to find ways to stay connected because I think we’re all in this together and the arts are one of the best ways for people to get through difficult times,” Swanson said.

Myers agreed.

“Indian Creek Nature Center will be ready to welcome guests and visitors back to our events as soon as we are able to do so safely,” he said.

“In the meantime, we hope everyone finds peace in nature by taking a hike or bike ride, having a picnic or just enjoying time outside.”

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