By Lisa Mackay
2020 is a strange year, no question. The early anxiety and bewilderment of March and April has transitioned into a summer of planning for a complicated and uncertain future, which is an immensely challenging task. For us at the Rozsa Foundation, the end of summer and start of autumn is usually a busy time of year as we jump into our Arts Leadership programs and gear up for the annual Rozsa Awards in October. 2019 felt especially exciting as we launched the inaugural Board Leadership Award with an eye towards many more years of celebrating the best in board and arts management practices and leaders. While our Arts Leadership offerings are proceeding online, we made the difficult decision back in April to cancel this year’s Rozsa Awards.
In 2021, no doubt the Rozsa Awards will feature a lot of conversation around how arts organizations have navigated their way through these challenging times, and we hope to celebrate the innovative solutions that 2021’s recipients have introduced as a way to steer their organizations forward. Our Rozsa Award alumni are faced with a similar challenge too, attempting to find new directions and opportunities amid the ongoing challenges facing the sector.
2017 Arts Management Award recipient David Chantler of Trickster Theatre has managed to lead his team through a dramatic evolution of the company’s deliverables and programs, and done so at a breakneck pace, while still keeping an eye on quality, viability, and impact.
“We started by looking at our core mission- to help schools and communities tell their stories through theatre and technology. We met with teachers, principals, parent councils, and artists and decided to pivot to telling video-based stories instead of theatre-based stories.
This decision was finalized early June. In May, as soon as we saw that pathway opening, we created the “Tricksters at Home” program, with the support of the Rozsa Foundation. It enables our 30-person artist team to create short videos with support over a 4-month period, because we need to enable those artists to become digital producers. Next, we started raising funds to make the technology investments that would be required to have up to 15 artists at a time shooting and editing video. We also hired a videographer full time to develop a specific multi- week training course for the artists, as well as resource libraries of video assets. Our Covid-19 adaption also has a second part - online content and services. These focus on zoom and web-based content delivery related to teaching curriculum through theatre, mostly focused on science, global issues, and storytelling.
Making these kinds of shifts so quickly has its dangers. To alleviate some of those we put together an advisory board of educators, video experts, team building, indigenous relations, and online content professionals. Working with this group helps us make better decisions in this changing environment.
To make these kinds of shifts and move quickly enough to save the 2020/21 season required administrative and development changes. Using the CEWS program we were able to leverage our operating dollars and add videographers, project managers, web developers, and content developers to our staff. We knew that if we moved fast, before that funding window was closed, we could get a lot of work done. Most of the new positions were filled by our former artist team.
The coming season still has enormous uncertainty about it, due to changing school policies on guests in the school and social distancing adaptations. But we are positioned to be able to deliver programming in ways that can accommodate virtually any guideline that allows us into the buildings. Our adaptations will hopefully become permanent program additions.”
Tara Owen, the inaugural recipient of the Board Leadership Award in 2019, tells us that the Alberta Craft Council (ACC) also re-examined their activities vis-à-vis their mandate and mission. “We had to come to a screeching halt and really take a good hard look at our priorities. What had to be delayed, or interrupted? What did we have to completely let fall to the wayside? What were the pieces that HAD to keep going? What were our partners, and counterparts in other organizations, doing? What were our members saying, and experiencing?”
Some of the critical decisions that came out of this discovery period were on a larger scale. “We found ways to be leaner and more effective. We leant our voice, along with other craft organizations across Canada, to call for streamlining of the endlessly repetitive demands of writing grants and reporting to funders, in order to allow more time and capacity for the actual deliverables that are codified in our work plans. We also worked closely with our partners at the national level, the Canadian Crafts Federation, in their work to bring the voice of craft to federal discussions on culture, heritage, innovation, and economic development, especially in terms of delivering emergency relief programs and advising on investment into recovery programs.”
Other new directions were more immediately tangible. “The ACC had been talking about launching an online store for a number of years, but it never seemed like the right time to jump into the fray. But jump we did, out of necessity, in spring of 2020. It has been quite successful, even with a relatively small launch and minimal promotion. Our online store will be expanded in the fall to represent work from all our shop artists, and we have begun to make exhibition work available as well. By the end of the year, with a strategized marketing plan, we would like to see national and international sales for Alberta artists, in markets that we previously could not reach.”
“As well, over the summer, we paired 23 members, who connected and collaborated to create one of a kind artwork. The results of these exceptional artist collaborations will be displayed at the ACC’s Feature gallery for the Month of the Artist this September, and then will appear in an online auction held during Alberta Culture Days. This will replace our planned 40th anniversary fall fundraiser.”
For these leaders, framing the challenge constructively was crucial to moving forward. Both sought to find the opportunity in the challenge. For David, this meant addressing his role as a company founder. “For me personally, this meant letting go of many of the things that I have traditionally managed for Trickster. That is always hard for founders, but it was necessary, timely, and it is working. COVID-19 has widened the development process and enabled it to move faster.”
Tara observed that “it is not that often that an organization gets a chance to truly stop everything and think about their core fundamental deliverables. We took stock – literally and figuratively. We dug deeper into the strong relationships that we already had, and also developed new relationships – at times in unexpected places – in order to truly come together as a united community.”
The most striking message in both these award recipients’ messages was a profound sense of optimism for their organizations and for the greater arts community. Tara wrote that “It was not lost on us - the makers - that at a time of national introspection, huge value was placed on being creative at home, using our time to make things with the supplies we had available, and showing off our handmade objects (or loaves of bread). We noted that, in hard times, people turned to the arts as one of their pillars of strength and resiliency – something which the Alberta Craft Council already embodies and strives to expand. We turned our attention to the positive impacts that a new normal could bring and worked towards bringing them to fruition. It has been a hard year (and it’s not over yet) but in many ways it has made us stronger, more united and more resolute than ever.”
“Going forward, the Alberta Arts Community will hopefully look back at Covid as a time of great creative inspiration (painful as it is),” said David. “In theatre, we often talk about the “walls we bounce off of”. This is the set of creative limitations that define the parameters of the work. None of us expected to have this huge set of limitations and challenges placed upon us, but as artists our work is to invent, adapt and create solutions as we interact with those walls. Who knows, maybe hiding in a spot on the wall is the faint outline of a doorway waiting to be discovered.”