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News & Notes: Singin’ the Covid blues again

A surge in cases causes cancellations and postponements of events. Plus: The NEA looks at artists in the workplace; summer concerts in a barn; at museums, free is a very good price.

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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Once on This Island,” featuring Hannah Rose Honoré, Ciera Dawn, and Dominique Lawson (foreground), with Camille Robinson. While performances of some other shows at OSF have been cancelled because of Covid, so far this one continues to play. Photo: Jenny Graham

PRESIDENT BIDEN’S GOT IT. Bennie Thompson, chair of the House January 6 committee, has it. Quite possibly your neighbor down the street, or your cousin, or you have it, too. Covid-19, in the form of its swarm of variants, some of which seem all too adept at sneaking around the roadblocks of vaccinations, boosters, and previous infections, is making a major comeback — and like it or not, it’s having an effect on what you do and see.

Yes, we’re back to big gatherings, from ballgames to the World Athletics Championships in Eugene to summer celebrations as varied as the Waterfront Blues Festival, the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival, and Hillsboro’s La Strada Dei Pastelli Chalk Art Festival. But the sailing’s far from smooth, as a number of cancellations and postponements make clear. And as infection rates climb again, even as fatality rates drop and severity of sickness is far lower for most people than during the pandemic’s peak, we can expect more shakeups in the calendar.

In Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival — which in ordinary times operates on a tightly orchestrated schedule of 11 plays in rotating repertory over a season running about eight months — is down to a season of seven plays onstage (Confederates doesn’t open until late August) and several digital offerings, and even its truncated season has been disrupted.

“This week, OSF’s Safety Team alerted us to an unprecedented number of COVID cases amongst our casts and crew, attributed to the BA.5 Omicron variant,” Artistic Director Nataki Garrett and Executive Director David Schmitz wrote in a letter this week. “Our priority is, as always, to keep our artists, crews, and audiences safe. We immediately moved into action to ensure their health and safety through planning, replanning, testing and retesting for our artists and staff.”

About 15 percent of the performing and understudy company had tested positive, they said, necessitating cancellations of all performances for the week of The Tempest, Revenge Song, Unseen, and Dr. G’s Bingo Extravaganza, in addition to the festival’s Green Show in the plaza outside the theaters, all campus tours and education events, and ALS interpretation of performances. Only Once On This Island and How I Learned What I Learned remained onstage as scheduled. And the season gets thinner: How I Learned is scheduled to close July 30; Unseen on the 31st.

Other cancellations or postponements have happened, too, including the Portland dance performances of Linda Austin’s 3 Miles of Possible (The Second Mile) and Muffie Delgado Connelly and Tahni Holt’s duet Pulse Mountain; as well as the visual arts world’s Bonnie Bronson Fellowship Awards celebration. Expect more of the same, often with short notice.

Some organizations have been able to juggle their offerings and keep the shows running, including Chamber Music Northwest — which, as James Bash wrote for ArtsWatch in Violinists to the rescue! Chamber Music Northwest kicks Covid to the curb – has been able to substitute good performers when others had to drop out because of positive Covid tests. Will the festival be able to keep playing the substitution game successfully? Fingers crossed.

In the meantime, as The Oregonian/Oregon Live reports, hospitals in Oregon are filling up all too rapidly with patients, putting a fresh strain on the health-care system, and the state is urging (but not requiring) people to mask up in indoor public spaces — and even to reconsider summer trips.

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THERE ARE LIES, DAMNED LIES, AND STATISTICS, as Mark Twain was fond of remarking, but the saying isn’t entirely fair to the “statistics” leg of the stool. Often the statistics are “right” but the interpretation is wrong. What’s necessary before leaping to conclusions is to understand what data are being collected and what they’re actually measuring. (On a side note: Those “polls” urging you to vote for someone or some thing so they can win something else aren’t polls; they’re popularity contests.)

All of this crossed my mind the other day when the Oregon Arts Commission forwarded a new study from the National Endowment for the Arts measuring the numbers and rates of workers in the arts across the fifty states and the District of Columbia. The data are for the years 2015-2019, so they are measuring a reality from before the pandemic, but they still make up a fascinating snapshot.

Oregon fared quite well on the results, with a count of 37,905 artists in the state workforce and a “location quotient” of 1.24, or 24 percent higher than in the nation’s workforce at large. A few states you’d expect scored even higher: California, for instance, at a 1.53 quotient; New York at 1.66. Our neighbor Washington stood a little lower but still healthily above average at 1.09. The District of Columbia outstripped all of the states with a 2.08 ratio, goosed by an astonishing 5.60 in the “writers and authors” category — all of those journalists, I’ll speculate, and all of those politicians and staffers snagging inside-the-Beltway book contracts. And although Nevada’s overall rate was a good but more modest 1.08, with its casino and tourism culture it killed it in the “entertainers and performers” category with a 5.81. (Oregon’s rate in the same category was 0.82.)

The study breaks arts workers into eleven broad categories, most with several subcategories: architects, including landscape architects; visual arts and related, among them fine artists, crafters, animators; designers, from graphic to fashion to floral and more; actors; producers and directors; dancers and choreographers; musicians; entertainers and performers, among them jugglers, comedians, circus and ice-skating performers; announcers; writers and authors; and photographers.

How, I wondered, did the NEA determine what constitutes a working artist? For an architect, for instance, the answer seems fairly simple: Are you working as an architect? But for so many visual artists, actors, dancers, writers, musicians and others, the definition seems murkier. Many live freelance lives, moving from project to project. Many hold down side jobs to keep a steady income in an uncertain arts market. Many have full-time “other” jobs and do their art outside of those work hours. So, for instance, does the “musician” category include full-time employees who are members of symphonic or ballet or opera orchestras, but not people who play club gigs on Friday and Saturday nights?

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In an email exchange, Carolyn Coons of the National Endowment’s public affairs office spelled out some of the details. The eleven artist categories “are determined from occupational codes made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” she explained, and the survey captures people who worked in one of the categories “as their ‘primary’ job — that is, measured by the greatest number of hours they worked in a given week. Both full-time and part-time workers may be counted.”

She also pointed me to another NEA report, from April 2019, that dug a little more into the part time/full time question. It reported that more than 5 million people in the U.S. workforce, regardless of their jobs, were employed in arts and cultural industries, and nearly half of them were artists. For about 330,000 of them, their arts jobs were secondary rather than primary jobs. In the latter category were 34.8 percent of musicians, 30.3 percent of actors, 16.4 percent of photographers, 12.7 percent of writers and authors, and 9 percent of dancers — in other words, a large number of the artists whose work you’re accustomed to seeing. In the covered years of 2012-2016, roughly 34 percent of arts workers were self-employed, compared to about 9 percent in the total workforce – and the majority of those artists say they like it that way. The pandemic, of course, might have radically skewed those percentages for artists and other workers alike.

Back to those figures from the new report: Oregon dancers and choreographers scored a robust 1.77 location quotient, or 77 percent higher than the national average. Writers and authors scored 1.69; art directors, fine artists and animators 1.61; architects 1.34; designers at the state overall average of 1.24; photographers a shade under at 1.23. Lagging behind were musicians (0.93); entertainers (0.82); and actors (0.81).

It’s not a complete picture — for one thing, it doesn’t measure how high or low wages for arts workers are — but it’s an interesting and sometimes illuminating one. And, the great Mr. Clemens notwithstanding, that’s no lie.

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The Oregon Symphony’s Zach Galatis and friends kick off the second season of Concerts at the Barn.

HEY, KIDS, LET’S PUT ON A SHOW — in a barn! If it’s good enough for Mickey Rooney, it’s good enough for Oregon music lovers. And, just to be clear, these aren’t kids fooling around: They’re a gathering of a bunch of the state’s finest professional musicians.

The Concerts at the Barn, post-“retirement” brainchild of the longtime Oregon Symphony principal percussionist Niel DePonte, kicks off its second season on Wednesday, July 27, with a concert by Oregon Symphony flutist and piccolo player Zach Galatis. He’ll be joined by pianist Maria Garcia and vocalist Audrey Sackett (who’ll join Galatis singing some Broadway tunes) at the Butler Barn at Hoffman Farms, 22242 S.W. Scholls Ferry Road, Beaverton, where the four-concert season will continue through Aug. 31.

Look for performers including cellist Nancy Ives, pianist Susan DeWitt Smith, violinist Inés Voglar Belgique, pianist Ben Kim, vocalist Susannah Mars, DePonte, the Arcturus Wind Quintet, and others.

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FREE IS A VERY GOOD PRICE — and if you’re a teacher or educator, Portland’s museums have a deal for you. Seven of the city’s museums — the Portland Chinatown Museum, Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, Pittock Mansion, Oregon Historical Society, Lan Su Chinese Garden, Japanese American Museum of Oregon, and Portland Art Museum — have joined to offer free admission to educators the weeks of July 25-31 and Aug. 8-14. They’ll also be hosting free educator-focused tours. KEX radio’s website has a good roundup with the details, including contacts at each museum and information on times and dates for the special tours.

Senior Editor

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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