arts response to coronavirus

Corona corona, where you been so long?

Dispatch from the social distance: The great shutdown begins. What’s next?

Well, what a week it’s been. It began ordinarily enough, although of course we all knew the coronavirus was lurking somewhere back there, not quite out of sight. Italy was looking nasty, and things were picking up steam in Seattle, a little too close to home. But here in Oregon, life was going on pretty normally.

For me, business as usual meant jumping from this to that to the other thing, trying to find connections and tie them together. A little over a week ago I went to see Blood Brothers, the revival of Willy Russell’s 1981 musical, at Triangle Productions. Marty Hughley, ArtsWatch’s theater editor, and I talked about it and decided it’d make a good pairing with the newest version in town of The Odd Couple, Neil Simon’s evergreen comedy, at Lakewood Theatre: How would this pair of nostalgic shows hold up in a time when theatrical eyes have largely moved on to other styles and concerns? I caught the Simon play last Sunday afternoon, then let the two shows simmer in my mind overnight.

Meanwhile, I was juggling a lot of other things for ArtsWatch. I edited a few stories and conferred with some writers on a few others. I created some posts for our Facebook page. I made some phone calls and exchanged a lot of emails. I tracked what was opening and closing, spent some time talking with other editors and writers (some virtually and some in person) about a long-range statewide project we’re keen to do. I okayed a couple of story pitches, and gathered information for my next ArtsWatch Weekly column. I forwarded a lot of emails and press releases to writers or editors who I thought might be interested in them. I talked a bit with Laura Grimes, our executive director, and Barry Johnson, our executive editor, about budgets.

On Tuesday afternoon I went downtown to the Portland Art Museum for my second walkthrough of the expansive and fascinating exhibition Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art, this time in the company of Dawson Carr, its curator and the museum’s curator of European art. It’s Carr’s final large show at the museum before he retires at the end of the year, and a labor of love, and we spent a long time touring it and talking about it. On my first visit, on a previous Saturday, the galleries had been packed. This time a smaller crowd was ambling loosely through the show; Carr mentioned that things had been busier that morning with a lot of school tours going through. When we greeted each other we laughed a bit about what decorum we should adopt considering the COVID-19 threat, and decided to elbow-bump rather than shake hands.

In the meantime I’d been slowly putting together my essay on Blood Brothers and The Odd Couple. Then, late Wednesday of last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a statewide shutdown of all public gatherings of more than 250 people. A day later, Brown also ordered all public K-12 schools shut down. No more school tours of the art museum, and no more Volcano! to see, anyway, at least for a while: The museum also decided to close its doors.

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Nora el Samahy in “9 Parts of Desire,” one of many shows canceled because of the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy Portland Center Stage at The Armory

SUDDENLY EVERYTHING CHANGED. For the Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, touring Broadway shows, all sorts of concerts in any hall of size, dance concerts and plays in moderate-to-bigger-sized halls like The Armory, Lincoln Performance Hall, and the Newmark Theatre, things came to an immediate halt. As the days swiftly ticked down more and more closures were announced, many by companies that performed in spaces smaller than 250 seats but decided the health risks were too great to go on. Art galleries called off a slew of artists’ talks and other events; some shifted to appointment-only status. Museums assessed the meaning of the state order and what “250” actually meant: If they spaced out their crowds and limited the number of people admitted at any one time, could they keep their doors open? Soon most decided “no”: In addition to the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Historical Society, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Eugene’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, the Maryhill Museum of Art in the Columbia River Gorge, and the High Desert Museum in Bend all decided to close their doors. In Portland, some independent movie houses – Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre – elected to close down. A little later the live-music venue Aladdin Theatre went on hiatus.

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