COVID-19: Restrictions or Opportunities?

     Gagnon said that the pivot to change strategy guided the center’s decisions. No one could be sure when restrictions would change again.

     COVID forced Lewis to online teaching and technology at the college. She said, “I had to come face to face with what I thought I knew to be true about being a learner. I realized I really learned … because I didn’t know how to do any of this tech stuff.” Lewis talked about the way she asks students to forget what they learned before their first class with her.  She asks them to begin with a blank canvas. “I realized it’s really hard. These students are really brave and courageous when they choose to learn….  I had to do that too. I had to be a learner and it was really life changing.” When Gagnon offered her the opportunity to teach in-person, she said, “It was party time for me.”

     River Tree had challenges to make these in-person classes possible. Gagnon recalled afternoons when school buses dropped off 150 children all at once. It was chaos as they descended on reception. Now parents, not busses, bring students to River Tree. Fifteen minutes between classes allows for sanitizing. Staff walks children to the door to ensure that a parent is there to pick them up. Classes still fill but are smaller because of social distancing. 

     Ventilation concerns paused metalsmithing. For Lewis’ classes, the post-holiday spike caused fear and cancellations. River Tree saw a 20 percent decrease in revenue from classes.

     River Tree created safe and virtual events to boost funds. The Small Works Show, with over 80 pieces of donated art, raised $10,000. The center tried a hybrid model for the show. Potential buyers made reservations to view art in the gallery. Others purchased online. River Tree’s online auction raised another $7,500.

     Lewis serves on the gallery committee. She said, “There is a complete paradigm shift about how we present and sell art….  It has revolutionized income streaming for artists and artwork organizations.” 

     River Tree had not done an annual appeal for many years but, in 2020, it reached out to donors. River Tree was honest about the need, and the appeal was successful. It increased its agility and funders moved to support.

     River Tree is tapping into grant writers, but social and welfare grants are the priority. Gagnon said, “I don’t ever want to compete with foundations that support essential services and human needs.” 

     New opportunities have presented themselves. The town allowed River Tree Arts dance classes to use the town field. The students loved it, pleading to stay outside even in rain, and the town appreciated the use of the field. Art instructors taught along the bend of the river at The Nonantum Resort. Gagnon imagines outdoor music lessons to promote awareness in the community.

     Many changes caused by COVID are better than what existed before. The plexiglass will stay in place to define workspace from public space. The absence of so many students arriving at the same time has reduced chaos. Gagnon said, “We look like an art gallery now.” The annual appeal was not only successful, but it also improved donor tracking. Funders are moving to support. 

     The hybrid art show was a good model. Gagnon expects that model to continue and expand. Having small groups of six move through the gallery avoids rushing. She envisions the group moving through the gallery to a wine reception. Buyers may use their smartphones to complete a sale.

     Gagnon talked about River Tree’s “new normal.” She said, “Much like after 9/11, we know that air travel was never the same. After the pandemic, I think there are things culturally that will never be the same again….  A pandemic never has an upside. But all the things we changed were things that drove us crazy.”

     COVID has paused some events. Gagnon misses the elegant events such as the all-women art exhibit. It is representative of the non-chaotic events she prefers. 

     Gagnon is optimistic. “River Tree will survive because of the quality of the people–our artists, staff, parents who care about River Tree Arts and the passion they have for River Tree Arts. They don’t want to see us close.”