Concerns for Concord’s arts scene as pandemic continues

  • Capitol Center for the Arts Director Nicki Clarke welcomes the crowd to an outdoor music series July 18. Clarke said her organization will need significant help. GEOFF FORESTERMonitor staff

  • Kimayo plays at the first Music in the Park series from the parkside stage at Concord Community Music School off of Fayette Street in Concord on Saturday evening, July 18, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kimayo performs at the first Music in the Park series from the parkside stage at Concord Community Music School off of Fayette Street in Concord on Saturday evening, July 18, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • LEFT: A socially distanced crowd enjoys the first Music in the Park series at Concord Community Music School off Fayette Streetin Concord on July 18. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • The Bank of New Hampshire Stage has been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic this spring. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • ABOVE: The Bank of New Hampshire Stage in downtown Concord has been closed since the start of the pandemic.

  • Angie Lane, executive director of the Red River theater on South Main Street, in one of the three theatres on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 8/1/2020 9:32:16 PM

Not long ago, Concord had an unflattering nickname in the arts community: a city in a coma.

For decades, the city had the Capitol Theatre on South Main Street, and little else for residents and tourists. It wasn’t until that venue was renovated and reintroduced as the Capitol Center for the Arts that that end of the street first saw signs of new life.

Then came the Red River Theatres in 2007, an independent cinema with an eclectic mixture of offbeat, artistic, sometimes subtitled films. It attracted a loyal following, which continued to grow to the point where the theater gained more than 3,000 members and donors.

More recently, a smaller performing arts venue, the Bank of New Hampshire Stage opened with bright neon lights on Main Street. Opened in 2019, it’s a more toned down venue than the Capitol Center, with a more intimate audience experience showcasing up-and-coming artists. It’s the kind of place that only a city confident in a robust local appreciation for live music and arts can support.

All three venues attracted visitors to downtown – and new customers for surrounding businesses. The plan worked and Concord awoke to emerge as one of the state’s art-destination cities.

Now, Concord’s art scene, a success story that blossomed in recent decades, is under threat, city leaders say.

Dozens of shows have been canceled or postponed over the last few months as a result of the coronavirus. Patrons, once eager for a night out alongside crowds of other appreciative fans, are now staying home. Revenue for those organizations has been reduced to an inadequate trickle.

“Those cultural organizations are hanging by a thread,” said Tim Sink, president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce.

When business leaders like Sink see the shuttered marquees during COVID-19, they see more than just canceled shows; they see a halt to citywide growth.

Now, everyone is fighting to keep that halt temporary.

Long odds

Adversity isn’t a new experience for Red River Theaters. It’s built into the name.

In 2007, after seven years of agonizing planning and $1.8 million in fundraising, the movie theater finally opened its doors, its launch a bold gamble that Concord was ready for an independent cinema that focused on non-mainstream fare.

They called it “Red River,” after the 1948 Western romance in which a cattle rancher conquers long odds and rapid challenges as he heads west with his herd. And eventually, the theater thrived, driving up blockbuster interest with titles as unlikely as the Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor and the Ruth Bader Ginsberg biography RBG.

Now, Red River Executive Director Angie Lane is hoping that the sly name is a roadmap, not a curse.

“It’s based on a John Wayne movie of basically overcoming insurmountable odds,” she said. “And I laugh because I hate, hate, hate that that’s now (us) – are we just going to have to keep fighting and overcoming things?”

Adversity is an inadequate word for what’s happening today. The coronavirus pandemic has brought Red River’s traditional business model to a standstill with no clear end in sight. But the experience of one beloved cinema is indicative of a broader, grimmer reality, say city leaders.

The reality facing arts non-profits like the Capitol Center for the Arts and the Hatbox Theater is challenging the entire nature of Concord’s economic success story.

Internal surveys from both Red River and the Capitol Center have shown that those who spend money at the downtown cinema or concert and performance venues spend even more money on restaurants, hotels and local retail, especially if they’re from out of town.

Meanwhile, organization leaders say the mere existence of diverse, artistic institutions attracts younger families to the city, giving Concord an even bigger long-term economic boost.

To Sink, the arts venues have been more than just an addition to the city’s revitalization in recent years. They’ve also been the engine powering it. They’ve lifted the city’s brand and filled its parking lots just as the multi-year Main Street revitalizing has started paying rewards.

“It’s changed the whole atmosphere of Concord over the past 15 years. It’s really become much more vibrant as a cultural center,” he said.

COVID-19 is testing all of that, and the solutions are less straightforward than for retail stores and restaurants.

In recent weeks, local politicians and leaders of the organizations themselves have been scrambling to improve that outlook.

Concord Mayor Jim Bouley has appealed to New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan to emphasize adding an emergency funding stream to arts programs in the next round of Congressional stimulus. Heads of the organizations themselves are echoing that call to the state’s federal delegation. And the organizations have jumped in line for a piece of a statewide $60 million assistance fund for all non-profits, though none are expecting a silver bullet.

“We are going to need additional assistance to get through this year,” said Nicki Clarke, executive director at Capitol Center for the Arts. “There’s just no other way about it.”

Sound of music

The Concord Community Music School hasn’t stopped its core teaching mission, even in the time of the virus. But doing so has taken a lot of creativity.

Back in March, as the spread of the virus was just taking shape, the higher ranks of the school took a three-week breather to hammer out how they could retain the 1,500 students that they normally instruct each week. To keep the students, remote learning sessions would have to be just as effective.

Teachers held “R&D” meetings to figure out techniques. They consulted with affiliates in other areas of the country. And they flexed the talents of the staff they already had. One French horn teacher happened to already hold a day job teaching corporations how to communicate online. The experience was instantly useful.

“Each piece of what we do has had kind of a different reinvention,” said Peggy Senter, president of the school.

Instructors worked painstakingly to find approaches that would work with instruments from afar – Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and even a distanced phone call.

That kind of multi-front approach requires constant trial and error. But it worked, Senter said. Of the 400 students paying private tuition, only 20 have requested a refund, she said.

“There were a number of instances where the third “let met talk you into it” communication gave people the encouragement to try it.

Then there were bigger logistics. Group rehearsals had to be completely reinvented. Video conferencing doesn’t lend itself well to harmonizing; small time delays that are barely noticed in other work settings make a big difference to an ensemble or chorus. To rehearse, some group members would jump onto a video conference call and mute all lines but the instructor’s. Each would be playing their part to the beat of the instructor – only later when the recordings were merged could they hear the final product.

Finding a way to showcase the students’ work took even more effort. With a traditional concert off the table, the school held virtual recitals. Students recorded their pieces before hand. Later, a school technician edited the recordings and created a live, invite-only Friday evening event on YouTube.

Other arts venues have tried other means of shaking things up. The Hatbox Theater in the Steeplegate Mall – already known for small-audience black box shows – returned with its first show this month, opening with only a third of its 100 seats in use.

And the Capitol Center of the Arts has held Saturday evening outdoor concerts in conjunction with the Concord Community Music School, as it works to ramp up its own hopes to reopen next month.

“I am hoping that people and our government will step up and allow us to get to the other side where we really can truly bounce back and get back to full operations,” Clarke said. “It is going to mean finding that vaccine and the solutions so that people will feel comfortable going out together. But I truly believe in my heart of hearts that people really want to come out together in person and enjoy something in person.”

Funding runs dry

Arts organizations have received some money in New Hampshire. But directors and leaders want the federal government to make that support more robust.

The CARES Act passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in March included some money for New Hampshire to allocate to arts organizations: about $950,000 total.

Around $400,000 went toward humanities, arts programs and libraries. But after overwhelming demand in April, that pot of money vanished by mid-May, according to New Hampshire Humanities, the nonprofit that distributed the funds. The funds were swallowed by 64 applicants in 13 days.

An additional $427,000 was passed out by the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, which doled out in allotments from $1,000 to $7,500. Those grants applications were due in June, with grants expected in July.

Then there’s the New Hampshire Nonprofit Emergency Relief Fund, filled with about $60 million in federal money. That fund stopped accepting application June 25, but it applies to all state nonprofits.

On a call in July with Hassan and other New Hampshire mayors, Bouley went out of his way to ask for additional aid for arts organizations in the next funding package.

“Sometimes they’re overlooked because we’re dealing with the imminent crisis of people in their homes and such. But I am really concerned that we are going to lose a significant part of our culture if we don’t pay attention to what could happen to our arts and culture as well.”

Hassan agreed. “We’re hearing loudly and clearly, especially from those that have big venues that depend on lots of crowd attendance, of what a precarious position they are all in,” she said.

But with the heftier political battles centered on the unemployment insurance fund and Trump’s requested payroll tax cut, the likelihood of significant arts funding coming out of the final package from Washington is not one that many are banking on.

For now, those in the arts industry know one truth to rely on: Arts will likely be changed by COVID-19, no matter how or whether the organizations bounce back.

To Lane, there’s still hope for Concord to retain its arts scene.

“I’m going to be optimistic,” she said. “We’re going to lose some stores. We’re going to lose some organizations. It’s going to be horrible. But I believe that Concord is going to come back. And the arts are going to come back.

“There was a glimpse,” she said. “People saw it. And I don’t think people are going to let that go.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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