With shows canceled and venues closed for the foreseeable future, the arts are one of the industries hit hardest by COVID-19. Virtual tip jars, assistance programs and support funds have popped up to help keep performers afloat financially, but even more inspiring than the support artists are receiving from Wisconsin communities is the support they are giving back.
Both professional and amateur artists are summoning Wisconsin’s spirit of innovation to find creative ways to connect and inspire their communities from a distance. “Frontline Heroes,” a mural by Milwaukee artist Mauricio Ramirez, was recently featured in a New York Times roundup of street art inspired by the pandemic. Meanwhile, with its gallery closed, the Central Wisconsin Cultural Center in Wisconsin Rapids put out a call to the community to enter works in its Social Distancing Online Art Exhibit.
The Madison Public Library’s Bubbler arts hub has developed a full schedule of programming titled ‘Bubbler in Your Bubble,’ and has curated a list of at-home creativity resources like writing prompts, drawing lessons, maker kits, streaming concerts, online exhibitions and more.
One of the resources listed is the volunteer-run nonprofit art and music venue Communication Madison. The organization recently released an animated ‘love letter’ to the community, and is raising funds by selling Community Solidarity Kits featuring art by artists whose exhibitions had to be canceled due to the Safer at Home order. The kit includes a window poster to color, postcards to send to friends and family, and a house-shaped yard sign to decorate as a way for people to metaphorically invite their neighbors in.
“It is vital to the survival of the arts community both locally and more broadly in our state that spaces like Communication are still alive after the pandemic eases up. What we are trying to do now, though, is take this crisis as a time to focus on envisioning the art world we want to see in the future,” says Jennie Bastian, Communication Madison’s director and arts manager.
Another organization uniquely positioned to connect people from afar is Radio Milwaukee, which has adopted a guiding philosophy of “physical distancing and social connecting” during the pandemic.
“This work has been, in many ways, easy for our organization. We were founded with the mission to use music and stories to connect Milwaukeeans. All of us at Radio Milwaukee have that intention baked into everything we do. All of the best ideas we’ve been able to execute these past weeks have been in the spirit of connection and positivity,” says Jordan Lee, the station’s program director.
The station’s regular Community Stories feature is now highlighting projects like #TheFrontStepsProject and volunteer efforts to feed health care workers. But its staff is also finding unique ways to foster audience interaction, like throwing themed dance parties every evening as listeners prepare dinner. In addition to on-air programming, station staff are also hosting “Wanna Grab Coffee?” virtual hangouts each week with topics like Whatcha Watchin’ Wednesdays and Family Fridays.
According to the station’s community engagement and events coordinator, Maddy Riordan, “‘Wanna Grab Coffee?’ is a very low-pressure way for people to remain engaged in what Radio Milwaukee is: a place to connect with others through sharing stories, music, tips, resources, a friendly face. It really is just a platform for social interactions to be.”
Communication Madison and Radio Milwaukee are just the tip of the creative iceberg. Photographers throughout the state are documenting life at home through #TheFrontStepsProject on social media. The idea, which originated in Massachusetts but has spread nationwide, gives families a reason to get out of the house, even if just for a quick portrait on their front steps. Photographers aren’t charging for the portraits, instead asking participants to donate to local nonprofits.
In the 7 Rivers region, arts organizations including the La Crosse Symphony Orchestra, Pump House Regional Art Center and Viterbo University’s Fine Arts Center have collaborated on La Crosse Arts Online. For its part, the university is soliciting “isolation inspiration” from staff, faculty, alumni and students, who are sharing on social media how they are continuing to find artistic inspiration even in quarantine. Green Bay’s Art Garage is selling DIY craft kits, holding its art classes online and hosting virtual open mic nights, and the Eau Claire magazine Volume One has been collecting homemade videos from the community and compiling them into weekly Virtual Variety Hours.