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ARTISTS UNITE: Local leaders ponder the future of ILM’s arts community

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Members of Wilmington’s arts community discuss steps being taken to recover from COVID-19 during a Zoom meeting on April 23. Screenshot courtesy of Rhonda Bellamy


For years Wilmington has been a haven for artists, hosting local film festivals from Cucalorus to Azalea Festival, not to mention numerous theatrical, dance and musical performances held at the Wilson Center and Thalian Hall, as well as a multitude of street artists and musicians across town playing weekly. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, arts events and the public platforms artists use to showcase their work have begun to dissipate. Total losses for the arts community in North Carolina alone are reported at over $20 million. Now more than ever, there is a need for support for our local arts community, as artists’ livelihoods and their ability to continue to create are in jeopardy.

Last Thursday, April 23, Rhonda Bellamy hosted a virtual lunch through Zoom, on behalf of The Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County to provide updates on the art scene and resources available during the pandemic. Topics discussed during the nearly two-hour meeting included precautionary measures organizations are taking with regards to reopening, artist relief funds, and vigilance within the community as a whole. Guest speakers included Arts Council director Rhonda Bellamy; Mayor Bill Saffo; New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple; Nate McGaha, director of Arts North Carolina; Margaret Haynes, Mayor Pro-Tem and member of NC Arts Council Board; Diane Durance, director of UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship; and Jerry Coleman, directory of CFCC’s Small Business Center.

Along with official guest speakers, over 50 members of the public were present to ask questions and share information about their own experiences in transitioning their events to online platforms. Among local artists on the call were Cordelia Norris, who recently transferred her “Wild Cape Fear” painting series to Etsy after the opening was canceled at ACES Gallery. Also,  Cucalorus Film Festival director Dan Brawley discussed transition of the Lumbee Film Festival to an online platform. Wilson Center executive and artistic director Shane Fernando talked about hosting Wilson Center’s new Ghostlight Series, too. Their collective voices seemed to be asking the same question: “What’s next?”

While there’s a communal desire to return to a normal way of life, Zapple clarified, “I’m not sure what normal looks like in New Hanover County or across our nation at this point.” In fact, no one is entirely sure what the future holds, as we navigate unfamiliar terrain. One thing was made clear from the meeting: Wilmington and the greater community will not leave artists to struggle.

Each speaker touched on areas of funding opportunities available for artist relief. Along with the second wave of the Paycheck Protection Program, funds are available through the Small Business Administration (SBA), the NC Artist’s Relief Fund, Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EDIL), as well as individual relief funds, like those hosted currently through the Wilson Center. While great effort has gone into making monies available, obstacles lie in the sheer number of those in need. The longer this pandemic persists, the harder it will be to recover financially.

Arts NC, the statewide arts advocacy organization, reports $1,807,361 in losses from 1,239 artists across NC. As of April 25 the organization’s relief fund has sent $60,590 to 310 artists residing in 87 cities and towns across North Carolina. The NC Artist Relief Fund is ongoing throughout the pandemic, focusing on providing fast relief.

“If you’re a small business owner, a sole proprietor, it’s tough during the good times,” said Jerry Coleman from CFCC’s Small Business Center. “So, if we drag this thing out for eight weeks or even longer, it will be devastating.”

Arts NC has put together a formal request of $3 million to the NC General Assembly’s Joint Caucus on Arts and Arts Education. If allotted the sum would be distributed quickly to nonprofits and struggling art organizations across the state. A call-to-action for the request is ongoing as council urges members of the community to contribute insight as to why funding for the arts is crucial.

Amidst widespread closure, the NC community has shown unity. There is now a plethora of community stories, engagement opportunities and education tools available to artists and the public in general. Nate McGaha shares Silver Lining Stories through the Arts NC web page, which demonstrates the power of the arts to build communities and economies. Each story highlights the innovation efforts of an artist or arts organization within North Carolina as they combat the effects of COVID-19.One such story features a collective community mask-making project in Brunswick County after a call from the county’s art council for fabric artists. These stories are meant to inspire others to reclaim their craft during COVID-19.

“The impact has been immediate and devastating for the arts community, especially for artists who are subject to the vagaries of our gig economy in the best of times,” Bellamy said. “Much will depend on when venues can safely open and have the wherewithal to return to prepandemic programming.”

Fernando says the Wilson Center is already planning up to two years in the future with social-distancing tactics in mind. These tactics include distant seating arrangement plans, temperature sensing of guests upon arrival, improved cleaning methods for high-touch surfaces, and various precautionary front-of-house and backstage measures. However, one of the largest obstacles will be overcoming public trepidation.

Tourism is an essential part of Wilmington’s economy, bringing in over $500 million and indirectly supporting hundreds of independent artists and businesses that fall in its path. These revenue sources have largely disappeared since COVID-19’s outbreak, but the need for income has not. The community’s support of local artists and organizations during this time will directly affect the future of our community as a whole, from the artist’s survival to their craft’s appreciation.

The community already has shown countless ways of fighting back: online Zoom meetings and artistic workspaces, educational videos and uplifting virtual performances, even festivals. Until things are back to normal, the arts community will continue to do what it does best: innovate.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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