On April 8, Reid Robinson was having dinner with his wife, Julie, and their 11-year-old son Rowan at Keller's Drive-In on Harry Hines. Dining indoors wasn’t an option. Bars and restaurants were shut down, including the Robinsons', who own Brizo restaurant and the sublimely dive-y Forum Country Club, the oldest bar in Richardson.
For entertainment, they huddled inside their car watching musician Chad Stockslager's first livestreaming variety show on a cell phone.
Stockslager’s performances offer everything from poetry to comedy, and as he watched it at a 55-year-old drive-in diner, Robinson was inspired with an idea about how to help Dallas people suffering live entertainment withdrawal: The CarBaret Drive-In.
“The idea for CarBaret was born out of desperation, as some of the better art is born of, I suppose,” Robinson says. "... That's when it clicked: Why can't we do a live show with musicians, artists and a film, vaudeville and cabaret-style?”
Why not? Dallas' cultural scene is generally welcoming to the new and different, even as long-standing institutions unite us around common experiences. Class trips introduce school kids to the State Fair, The Dallas Museum of Art, the Sixth Floor Museum and the Perot Museum. As those kids grow older, pilgrimages to Deep Ellum are a rite of passage. When the club beats get too loud, the symphony, opera, theaters and galleries are there to feed the tastes of adults. Old and new rub elbows comfortably. The scene is vibrant.
Or so it was until the coronavirus came to pay a visit. According to a survey by The Arts Community Alliance, the Dallas Arts District and the Dallas Area Cultural Advocacy Coalition, which studied the effects of closures on 57 local arts and culture organizations, the city’s cultural institutions have suffered financial losses of $34 million so far.
The destruction unleashed by the pandemic and America's hamfisted response have shaken cultural institutions from high to low. Audiences, money and jobs disappear as we shelter in place, waiting for the loud thump of the next dropped shoe. What next? If the pandemic can close the State Fair of Texas, is anything safe? What will be left when the virus loosens its grip?
Our crystal ball is no clearer than anyone else's, so the only sure prediction about what the city's art scene will look like post-pandemic is that it will be ... different. With the return of variety shows and drive-ins and the rise of virtual concerts and live theater online, maybe the post-pandemic cultural scene will look like a 1970s vision of the 21st century. Or maybe better ideas will come along. One of the sad/wonderful things about creative types is that they're used to scrapping for a living, plus they're — you know — creative.
Robinson repurposed an old-time concept for the modern pandemic, inviting spectators to watch films, variety acts and live music safely from their cars in the parking lot behind Brizo. The film selection has included Night of the Living Dead, The Birds and Labyrinth.
“Our artists and the films shown have done an excellent job reflecting the events around us,” Robinson says, “and while we're certainly having fun, there's a playfully dark mood with performances built around [the films].”
Drive-in performances now seem an obvious way to keep audiences separated and out of range of the coronavirus' spread. Artists like Marc Rebillet announced a multi-city drive-in tour, while the Tribeca film festival programmed a summer series of drive-in films outside Arlington’s AT&T Stadium. Pop-ups have appeared in parking lots from Walmart to the Latino Cultural Center, where Prism Theater’s interpretative dance experience Everything Will Be Fine dazzled crowds watching from their cars.
But Robinson did it first. He had experience producing roadshows for the Alamo Drafthouse and pop-up events for Downtown Dallas Inc. and others.
“No one else was doing anything like CarBaret in the world at the time, that I knew of,” he says.
Tomorrow Looks a Bit Like Yesterday
Variety shows and drive-ins are not the only forms seeing revivals. Art galleries lately had been passed over by younger audiences in favor of pop-up, immersive — and, most important to selfie chasers, highly Instagrammable — galleries like Sweet Tooth Hotel and Rainbow Vomit.
The pandemic flipped the trend. Pop-up galleries require ticket-paying crowds that vanished with the coronavirus' arrival. Traditional galleries, which invite spontaneous walk-ins but rely more on dedicated collectors, have still been able to offer small viewings to select groups and showcase their collections online.
Yet galleries are a flavor of brick-and-mortar retail, and the outlook there has been dire. Coresight Research predicts that 20,000-25,000 retail stores will close in 2020. Artists today can cut out the percentage-taking middleman and get their full cut through online sales. At first glance, in the battle to adapt and survive, galleries seem like a three-legged elk in a herd stalked by wolves.
This isn’t the case, says Justin Clumpner, a painter who works closely with Kettle Art Gallery in Deep Ellum. Galleries, he says, fulfill many purposes, not just to artists in need of connections and who lack negotiating skills, but to buyers, who can filter out the endless offerings of amateurs in favor of a curatorial service for quality art worth the investment.
“I don't think galleries can stay relevant at the local level when they go online,” Clumpner says. “The role of a gallery a lot of times is where they signify that this artist is worthwhile and this artist is worth our collectors’ time or else it wouldn't be presented to them.”
Clumpner knows that most serious art buyers are older and buy the artist's name as much as they buy the art.
Galleries, Clumpner says, also provide a spot for tourists who buy smaller pieces as a memento, and they offer mentorship and guidance,
“The gallery doesn't just serve as a sales hub,” the artist says. “It's a connection space.”
Clumpner believes galleries will do better than survive the pandemic. New spaces will surge, he predicts.
“We actually might be going the opposite way and seeing a blooming of galleries at the end of this,” he says, “because of the fact that you've got a bunch of artists that are probably making up a bunch of stock, and you're gonna have a lot of real estate that is empty — and those two things make for fertile ground for local art spaces.”
Brandy Adams, a pink-haired dynamo and arts matron, also sees galleries coming out of the pandemic stronger. Adams owns WAAS Gallery, a stark white hip corner space on Logan Street where “Women are all stars” (hence the acronym).
The gallery’s model falls comfortably between traditional and immersive, attracting high roller buyers and those looking for a new visual experience.
“I believe the ones that already had the money will continue to find a way to thrive,” Adams says of Dallas galleries. “I don't necessarily want to say myself because I'm very fortunate to own my building, and I think that has a lot to do with how I'm able to continue to manage my space in the way that I do.”
All galleries — traditional and pop-ups — serve a vital function, she says.
“I think that galleries do establish relevance in the contemporary art world,” Adams says. “They definitely still play a huge role in how art will be collected, how it will be shown in future fairs and, you know, I think if anything we’ll get to work collectively with more spaces and we'll see galleries take art off of an empty space model, and it will be in more spaces that more people can frequent and possibly become a purchaser.”
Adams believes the pandemic will ultimately force a shift in how art is presented and to whom.
“Galleries will always be important,” she says. “I don't know if you'll see as many of the blue-chip gallery model, [which] was already taking a questionable turn; what we're seeing is what galleries are going to have to do since [website] Artsy and many platforms developed this online model.”
The Big Guys
For other major cultural institutions, the math is more complex as they juggle large numbers of employees and dollars.
The AT&T Performing Art Center, the 10-acre conglomerate of city-owned venues that includes the Wyly Theater, Winspear Opera House, Strauss Square, two small black box theaters and Sammons Park, sits in the lonely heart of Downtown Dallas, unable to produce the multitude of events and programs it had planned for the year.
The ATTPAC spaces host many independently run resident companies, institutions like the Dallas Opera, Dallas Theater Center, Dallas Black Dance Theater and the Texas Ballet Theater.
Chris Heinbaugh, ATTPAC’s vice president of external affairs, says that close to 58% of its employees were furloughed. In June, KERA reported that 31 full-time employees and 33 part-time employees had been furloughed while those who were still on payroll faced a 20% decrease in salary.
“It's a really challenging time right now,” Heinbaugh tells the Observer. “We have no revenue coming in right now, so we're doing what we can to preserve cash.”
The challenges Heinbaugh describes have to do partly with a series of COVID precautions laid out by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 3 for performing art spaces.
The minimum standard health protocol dictates that venues screen employees for symptoms before they enter their workspace, provide a certain amount of hand sanitizer and see that patrons stay 6 feet apart. Some rules are meticulously specific, like the stipulation that condiments are not to be left unattended at tables.
Redesigning operations to meet the new set of criteria is only one of the hurdles major institutions are having to overcome before reopening, Heinbaugh says.
“Now we kind of at least know what we’re working with,” he says of the safety protocols. “Theaters like this especially are going to be some of the last things to open; the whole art form is based around people coming together usually under a roof for a shared experience, and all of a sudden the social distancing kind of blows that up a bit. ... We need to make sure that when we reopen we get it right, and we want to make sure that our patrons feel safe. We want to make sure that our staff feels safe and our artists feel safe.”
Even if a sense of safety prevailed, Heinbaugh says, there would still be no shows even when they could go on. Most Broadway touring companies have halted productions, and even smaller local troupes need time to rehearse and adjust productions to avoid large gatherings on stage.
ATTPAC is getting by through a government relief loan and private donations, Heinbaugh says. Some of the upkeep is covered by the city, which reimburses up to $2.5 million in maintenance and utilities. That number is sure to change, Heinbaugh says, when budget cuts come around in the next year.
“That’s the other thing so many arts organizations face … the city is looking at huge budget cuts and a lot of arts organizations get a good amount of support from the city, so that's a challenge, too, and that's coming up,” he says.
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra suffered massive losses. Beginning July 6, administrative salaries were cut up to 12.5%, while 17 employees were furloughed. DSO President and CEO Kim Noltemy took a 25% pay cut, and calls the measures a "difficult decision." None of the orchestra musicians were cut, Noltemy says. Instead, they've focused their efforts on the community, with orchestra members performing at pop-up concerts outside of hospitals and recording solo videos for patients.
For Heinbaugh, social distancing requirements dictating that venues remain at 50% capacity aren't feasible.
“The governor's allowing 50%,” he says, “but the reality is when you go out and social-distance your seating you're at about 25% capacity, so for a lot of the smaller groups that doesn't make any economic sense.”
For this reason, the organization is looking at opening its outdoor space, Strauss Square, around Sept. 1. Even then, Heinbaugh says, any revenue will only help them break even. The company is also updating works for the safety of performers. Musical numbers are thus becoming concert-style shows based on solo performances (“Which is good because you can space people out and, you know, people aren’t spitting on each other,” he says), and dance numbers won’t require, say, one dancer lifting another.
“All of us want to be relevant and continue to be relevant in our community to our patrons and our larger community,” Heinbaugh says, “and the longer we sit with the lights out and the longer these groups are not able to get on stage it's always tougher to make the argument to donors to keep funding us, to help us keep our lights on — so this provides a great opportunity for these groups to come back together.”
It’s not just multi-million-dollar enterprises that have taken a colossal hit. Smaller, lower-maintenance collectives like performance art collective Artstillery, lead by theater actress and director Ilknur Ozgur, are community events temporarily without a community.
In early March, the collective shifted their art-sharing revue show Art Cultivation to online audiences. The event received thousands of views, more than it did in person.
“This medium worked very well for us,” Ozgur says. “We took a yearlong program that already had love, community investment and its own unique vibe and transitioned it to a different platform.”
Artstillery’s focus is on stories of Black, indigenous and people of color. The meaning of “safe space” became quite literal after the pandemic hit.
“We still wanted to create safe spaces for healing during this time in the community through events like Spaced Out, a BIPOC and allies event,” the director says.
In the months since the pandemic first altered the group’s plans, they’ve continued holding virtual writing labs and brainstorming sessions for upcoming shows.
“Much like our work, we dismantle the way people see performance art, theater and community engagement,” Ozgur says. “We are writers, artists and researchers, we don't need to stop right now, we can prepare for the future.”
Ozgur says that Artstillery is keeping “the expectations on production and design loose and realistic.” Instead of focusing on opening dates, the group is brainstorming future productions “and adapting like a living organism does.
“For organizations like ours, a struggle to survive is nothing new to us,” Ozgur says. “We understand how to function with no support. We are able to survive this and actually improved as an organization during it.”
Dallas' artists also changed focus in response to Black Lives Matter protests. Street art echoed the months of uninterrupted protests with civil rights iconography, branding city streets with homages to police brutality victims.
Historically, cultural organizations in minority communities have been severely underfunded. The pandemic was a particular blow to entities already struggling to raise funds.
Four Dallas Theaters: Bishop Arts Theatre Center, Cara Mía Theatre, Soul Rep Theatre and Teatro Dallas, announced the creation of The BIPOC Arts Coalition. The organization’s mission, their statement reads, is to provide a platform to support “communities most affected by COVID-19 and systemic racism.”
Other local arts institutions have formed a united front. In May, 18 Dallas theater companies, including Cara Mia Theater and Uptown Players, created an alliance of mutual support with a video message statement reminding patrons that closures are temporary. Dallas Arts District museums also put out a joint statement saying they were remaining closed or postponing their announced reopenings. They include the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas Holocaust Museum and Human Rights Museum, Dallas Museum of Art, Nasher Sculpture Center, Crow Museum of Asian Art and The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza,
On July 16, the Dallas Arts District released a statement saying that 51 local cultural institutions (including ATTPAC) were preparing to reopen after committing to implementing precautionary measures.
“A task force of Dallas arts leaders has developed a series of safety guidelines designed to reopen cultural venues during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 51 organizations across the city adopting the standards,” the statement reads. “The guidelines, which were reviewed by a top infectious disease expert, were created to assure patrons, staff, artists, and volunteers that effective and thoughtful strategies and best practices are being implemented when doors are reopened to the public.”
The Perot announced mid-May that because of shutdowns, it laid off 168 employees. The Dallas Museum of Art continues to be temporarily closed, though their exhibitions are available to be viewed online.
Driving the Drive-Ins
The cliche of the starving artist has been flipped as patrons starve for the arts. Robinson’s CarBaret continues to be the most coveted parking spot in town, so he’s decided to take the show on the road.
The first CarBaret variety show was organized in 24 hours, and the following weekend saw an event with a screening of Little Shop of Horrors, a DJ set by Mr. Rid, Eddie Confetti performing magic, Ben Jousan aka Dollar Ben doing video art and Chris Merlick playing synthesizers through bicycle-shaped Dadaist-inspired Duchampaphones.
“It was a pretty rough first month retooling our bar and kitchen for carhop service while producing a growing show in our generously sized parking lot," Robinson says, "but 14 weeks later here we are still going and selling out every weekend.”
In the last three months, CarBaret Drive-In Theatre has included more than 30 performing acts. At the end of July, the show will become the CarBaret Drive-In Film and Music Festival, first stopping in Hye, Texas, outside of Fredericksburg.
“The overall response from the artists, patrons and staff has been overwhelmingly positive,” Robinson says. “A majority of our patrons haven't been out and seen a live performance or film in over four months, and I've heard the word ‘cathartic’ more than a few times. We've been able to build out and safely keep the show going during a pandemic, social unrest and just about every other thing possible — so why stop now?”
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