What the arts have taught us during the COVID-19 pandemic: Lessons shared by arts organizations in Kalamazoo

While striving to make their organizations work during the COVID-19 pandemic, arts organizations in Kalamazoo have uncovered valuable lessons on the role of the arts in our social distance world.  

The lives of Michigan residents were greatly altered when an executive order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer requested that people stop congregating in public places. Since then, Kalamazoo, a city known for its thriving arts community, has cancelled concerts and closed the doors to its theatres and galleries. Despite these obvious setbacks, organizations in Kalamazoo have found creative solutions for keeping the arts a central part of the community. While striving to make their organizations work during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have uncovered valuable lessons on the role of art in our social distance world.  

Wellspring: “There is an intimacy to online classes. Even though everything is through a screen, you are deepening relationships.” - Kate Yancho


Katherine O’Donnell, dance academy assistant at the Wellspring Theatre, said that arts organizations need to be radically creative to keep providing services during quarantine. Part of being radically creative for many arts organizations is finding a way to make their services work in an online format. 

Wellspring has online dance classes available for kindergarteners to adults. Entire families can attend classes for $25 a month. So far, upwards of 35 families have taken advantage of these classes in the Kalamazoo Community. Kate Yancho, executive director of Wellspring, said this online format allows for opportunities that were not possible with in-person classes. Online classes allow parents to get more involved in their child’s dance class.

“Before, parents said goodbye at the door,” Yancho said. “Now they can watch and participate.”

Online classes also allow for a greater level or intimacy, Yancho said, because attending class from home gives everyone a sneak-peak into each other’s lives.  

“Some teachers have been teaching some of these children for years and never had any sense of what home looked like for them,” Yancho said. “Now, we are getting to meet their pets and see their baby sister, and they are dressing up in princess dresses for classes.”

Apart from classes, Wellspring has also brought their dance company online. Wellspring premiered their first screen dance at the May Virtual Art Hop. A screen dance records each dancer separately and compiles the footage together in the editing process. The Virtual Art Hop showed Yancho how valuable an online presence could be for Wellspring.

“At the Virtual Art hop we had a much bigger audience than we could ever imagine for an in-person Art Hop,” Yancho said. “It got us much more exposure, and it made us realize that this is a medium we will need to keep working in to stay relevant.” 

Wellspring is currently planning to release another screen dance through a partnership with the Kalamazoo Nature Center, and another at the Virtual Art Hop in June.


Virtually Gilmore

The Gilmore Keyboard Festival: “We have all this technology but it’s still the human connection that makes things special.” - Mindy MacInnis


It is usually around this time of year that pianists from across the globe flock to Kalamazoo to perform in the biennial Gilmore Keyboard Festival. However, COVID-19 kept those pianists home, and this year over 100 Gilmore Keyboard events were cancelled. 

Even though we can no longer crowd together in concert halls, not even a pandemic can stop the keyboard festival. Virtually Gilmore, an online replacement to the festival, was launched on April 22 until May 5. 

“We wanted to have something to mark the time when the festival was,” said Marketing Director Mindy MacInnis.

Virtually Gilmore posted a collection of their favorite past Gilmore performances, along with new content recorded and streamed live by their artists. Igor Levit, a Gilmore artist based in Berlin, performed a live concert that received a tremendous response. MacInnis said that people tuned in from all around the globe to watch. While Levit played, people would introduce themselves in the live chat. In some ways, the online concert provided more intimacy than an in-person performance. 

“If we were in an auditorium together we would be isolated to the people you came with, but this online performance brought a bunch of strangers together,” MacInnis said.

Bringing people together is not new to The Gilmore. During a typical festival year, the organization brings artists and patrons to Kalamazoo from all around the world. Even during this period of isolation, The Gilmore continues to live up to that reputation with the aid of technology.

“We have all this technology,” MacInnis said, “but it’s still the human connection that makes things special.”


The Civic Theatre: “Anytime you are faced with something like this, you have to think outside the box to keep your mission moving forward.” - Steve Carver


The inability to gather in groups hit the brakes on live performances at the Civic Theatre. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the theater has closed its doors to the public, and cancelled its live shows. Luckily, The Civic Theatre has 92-years of history under its belt, and is used to thinking-outside-the-box to serve its patrons. 

When the Civic announced they were offering free online classes, they were all full by the end of the day. With 10 to 16 people per class, the Civic’s course offerings span from monologue prep to tap dance. 

Even with classes to keep the Civic connected to the community, the theater wants to begin performing again. Executive Director Steve Carver says that the Civic is currently in contact with the Public Media Network to discuss the possibility of streaming live performances in the fall. 

“We would use three cameras in the house and one camera backstage to give the whole 360 experience,” Carver said. “This would let people see all aspects in the performances.”

This option seems the most promising, Carver said, because it eliminates the large audience and doesn’t pose a health risk to patrons.

This is not the only time that the Civic has needed to think-outside-the-box in its long 92-year history. During World War II, when gas rationing kept people from traveling, the Civic traveled to different communities to put on performances. 

“Anytime you are faced with something like this,” Carver said. “you have to think outside the box to keep your mission moving forward.”


The Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo: “Art has a very healing component to it, and I think helps us in the processing of what is happening to us.” - Kristen Chesak


Flower art by Anna Barnhart
An acrylic painting by Anna Barnhart, displayed at May's Virtual Art Hop


Art Hop takes place on the first Friday of every month and allows local artists to showcase their work around downtown Kalamazoo. The event, coordinated by the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, is a staple in the community, so Executive Director Kristen Chesak was unwilling to let it end because of COVID-19. 

In April, the Arts Council tentatively released a virtual version of Art Hop on their Facebook page. Community response to Virtual Art Hop proved that there was a need for the arts, even during quarantine. The Arts Council hosted another Art Hop on their Facebook page in May. This virtual event reached around 10,000 people, close to the number of attendees expected at an in-person Art Hop. Thirty artists participated in May, with a total of 120 posts throughout the day. Another Virtual Art Hop is planned for June, Chesak said. 

The virtual Art Hop format allows participants to view art in ways they haven’t before. Chesak says that more artists are posting videos showing their artistic process.

“You don't usually get to see how people produce their work,” Chesak said. “This is something we want to hang on to when we get back to the live art hops.”

The arts have always been important in Kalamazoo, but due to the current health pandemic the arts have taken a backseat to public safety, Chesak said. Though most people are probably anxious to get back into movie theaters, art galleries and live performances, there is a greater good that is more important. However, Chesak says that the arts can be used to help us understand what we are feeling during these uncertain times. 

“I'm kinda excited about what this moment in time means for how we express ourselves moving forward artistically,” Chesak said. “What kind of creative expression is going to come out of the fears and the emotions and the happiness and the sadness; everything that is happening to us right now in the extreme.”

Chesak said that she hopes this experience will give residents a new appreciation for the fact that we have so much culture in Kalamazoo.