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After COVID-19, Is It Back To Square One With The Arts?

The closed and boarded up Majestic Repertory Theater in downtown Las Vegas.
Chris Smith/Desert Companion

The closed and boarded up Majestic Repertory Theater in downtown Las Vegas.

It’s widely accepted that one of the key ingredients in the recipe for a vibrant city and a strong economy is the arts.

And after decades of talks about how it could be in southern Nevada, it actually seemed to be happening here.

Then COVID-19 struck.

Everything artsy where people might have gathered to ponder, laugh or just be entertained—they’re all shut down.

Ryan Pardey is the entertainment director for the Bunkhouse Saloon downtown. He said all of the bands he had booked for the next couple of months have been canceled and the venue may not see them back until September of this year -- or maybe into next year.

Pardey said closing down the Bunkhouse is a huge blow to the music scene. 

"Bands depend on the Bunkhouse as one of the few venues, already in a very tough business, where they can come and play," he said, "So bands, they're spinning their wheels right now. They depend on us quite a bit."

One of the largest venues for music and theater in Southern Nevada is the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Myron Martin is the center's president and CEO.

He said so far none of the center's full-time employees have been laid off. Most are working from home, but part-time employees or employees that worked at the center through a third-party have been sent home.

Besides employees, there are the musicians who play at the center's venues like Myron's Cabaret Jazz who can no longer play.

"Those folks and Smith Center employees that are being asked to work from home, or bartenders and valet parking attendants who are just asked to stay home, I worry about those people a lot," Martin said.

He is hopeful that a new loan program by the Small Business Administration designed for nonprofits will help cover payroll, but mostly he's hopeful that the shutdown will only last a few months and demand to see live entertainment will bounce back.

"We know at some point -- I don't know if it's two months from now or three months or this fall when we bring  Hamilton back for a month -- [that] the Smith Center's going to open," Martin said "We also know that the arts have the ability to inspire people. That the arts have a way of bringing heart to our everyday lives. I think there's going to be big demand for what we do."

A lot of people are waiting to see what will happen next, Sarah O'Connell has created a petition asking Governor Steve Sisolak and city of Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman to do more for the production and arts community. 

O'Connell is the artistic director for Asylum Theater, but that is just one of the many hats she wears in the artistic community of Southern Nevada. She is also the executive director of  Eat More Art Vegas, but she is also adjunct faculty at UNLV and she runs a lighting business.

She pointed out that the theater industry in Las Vegas does a lot more than just provide an entertaining play to go to. 

"It is also the profession pipeline for the production industry," she said, "And the production industry is our event industry, just like it's our cultural sector. You're talking about stagehands, lighting designers, programmers, stage management, all production management, all of the people who we have working at the convention center or at the casino shows or the rock 'n' roll touring industry -- they are a real large percentage of the high earning population of valley," she said. 

O'Connell said many of those people started to lose their income weeks ago. 

So far, she hasn't heard from the governor's or the mayor's office about her petition, but she has talked to staff from members of Nevada's congressional delegation who told her they would pass along the information to lawmakers.

The literary arts are in a different situation than performing arts but that doesn't mean there isn't an impact. 

Joshua Shenk is the artistic and executive director of the Black Mountain Institute and editor-in-chief of The Believer magazine. 

Shenk said because of their business model they are not seeing the financial impact that other arts organizations are going through, but The Believer did have to cancel its annual festival.

Shenk said they are still using the, the BMI mailing list and Witness magazine to keep their conversation with the community going.

"We have turned our energy and attention to those channels to do what we do best which is to connect, inspire, uplift, and bring the arts to the center of people's lives," he said.

One of the ways the institute is working on connecting people is through an online dance. The institute had commissioned choreographer Annie-B Parson to create a performance for the Believer Festival, but when that was canceled, Parson created a dance for people to do at home.

"She calls it 'Six Verbs Dance in the Age of Corona'," he said, "We're asking people to do this very simple dance, follow her beautiful instructions and to make a video and share it with us so we can be connected even while we're isolated."

For those in the visual arts, there may not be a public venue open now where they can display their work but artist and Desert Companion graphic designer Brent Holmes said he's found at least one blessing in the shutdown.

"If you get a setback, if you get an extra minute, if you get an extra week, that means you get to throw more into what you're doing," he said.

While that might be one advantage, Holmes knows a lot of fellow artists are struggling.

"If you have the opportunity right now to support an artist on some level, on any level, do it," he said. 

Holmes said a lot of artists make a living using very precarious means, to begin with, and the near shutdown of society is making things considerably worse.

While it may seem like a bad time to support arts and culture when people's lives are on the line, Shenk thinks it goes deeper than that.

"We need to support our health care workers because they're taking care of bodies, but the arts take care of souls," he said, "We need to recognize that we need to bring it into our lives in any form." 

Brent Holmes, graphic designer and artist, Desert Companion;  Myron Martin, president/CEO, Smith Center for the Performing Arts;  Joshua Shenk, artistic and executive director, the Black Mountain Institute;  Ryan Pardey, entertainment director, Bunkhouse Saloon;  Sarah O’Connell, artistic director, Asylum Theater

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.