Art in the plague year

pandemic created havoc, but local artists persevered

SCREENSHOT/COURTESY OF ROSSITZA TODOROVA: Rossitza Todorova meets with her Truckee Meadows Community College students on Zoom. She said suddenly re-tooling a drawing class to be effective online was a challenge and a huge time investment. “I have to tell you we turned around on a dime," she said. "We’re resourceful. We’re resilient. We’re not the sort to give up.”

From this Reno arts’ writer’s perspective, the words of the year for 2020 were “catastrophe” and “resilience.”

To put it mildly, the pandemic wrought havoc on the arts industry. At this point, the impact is hard to quantify. The national advocacy group Americans For the Arts reports that the arts in Nevada lost $16 million, but that number is just the tip of the iceberg. It only accounts for the amount that 257 organizations self-reported in lost revenue. It doesn’t account for the damages incurred by countless individuals — the permanently shuttered music venues, the massive wave of unemployment, the loss of service jobs that many artists relied on for their bread and butter.

I’ve been reporting on the arts all year for Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. I’ve heard hundreds of stories about the financial strain the pandemic brought to Reno’s creative community — and just as many stories of resilience and generosity.

Here are a few of them:

Teachers learned fast

When shutdown orders came in March 2020, teachers raced to bring their classes online. Some told me their workloads doubled overnight. Art instructors know that making art or music can be a lifeline in difficult times. They looked for ways to teach art virtually—to first-graders who needed a hug but would have to settle for a friendly face on a laptop monitor, special education students who suddenly couldn’t gather onscreen in groups due to ultra-tight educational privacy laws, college students who knew they were graduating into a job market with no pulse. 

Groups like the Sierra Arts Foundation and Arts for All Nevada came through, producing video lessons for schools to use.

Late in March, Reno artist Pan Pantoja’s Squaw Valley Academy high schoolers had suddenly scattered home to assorted time zones. One student Zoomed into class from China at 4 a.m. Pantoja quickly devised some strategies to MacGyver art supplies out of household objects. (Did you know it’s possible to juice a magic marker for ink that makes a passable watercolor paint?) 

When finals week rolled around in May, art school graduates, whose college careers typically culminate in solo exhibitions, looked for ways to virtually mount their shows. One Sierra Nevada University student used software to “hang” paintings on virtual gallery walls. Professor Chris Lanier, missing the camaraderie of the classroom and settling for the tiny dopamine bolt of mashing the “like” button as students delivered their final presentations online, applauded the student’s work but wrote that trying to connect with artwork this way was like trying to “make tofu taste like meat.”

IMAGE/HOLLAND PROJECT: A coloring page for kids from the Holland Project.

Creative problem solving 

In April, as the world scrambled to disinfect its door handles, cover its mouth and nose, and not go crazy isolated at home, people in the arts rushed to help. 

The Nevada Museum of Art, the Lilley Museum at the University of Nevada, Reno, and other groups released free coloring pages for families that were about to forgo summer camp. 

Long before Banana Republic started selling face masks in 3-packs, local textile artists sewed piles of them to sell or donate. Makerspaces like UNR’s Fabrication Lab, Innevation Center, and DeLaMare Library got to work mass-producing hospital gowns, masks, and face shield parts for medical workers.


Nicole Miller, UNR Fabrication Lab manager, models a face shield with an inexpensive visor band that the lab was able to crank out fast and efficiently.

Technology expanded their reach

For anyone who needed to keep in touch with colleagues, the sudden ubiquity of Zoom was both a godsend and an annoyance. (The emotional drain of not-really-kinda-sorta looking people in the eye is real, am I right?) 

But some arts groups milked technology for all it was worth. One of the biggest success stories comes from the Nevada Museum of Art. Monthly Educator Evenings there were previously limited by geography, which left teachers in rural areas with few options for learning how to integrate art into academics or rack up continuing education credits. In May, the sessions went virtual. Attendance increased from around 100 to 200 teachers, including many from Clark, Nye, Elko, and White Pine Counties. The museum plans to continue offering remote teacher training indefinitely.

Milestones

The art community lost a few of its own during (and just before) the pandemic. Former art history professor Joanna Freuh — retired in Tucson, still beloved by generations of art history students — died in February 2020. So did Gold Hill ceramicist Mimi Patrick. In the early months of 2021, Nevada bade farewell to Rita Deanin Abbey from Las Vegas and Dennis Parks from Tuscarora.

There was a celebratory milestone, too. The Latimer Club, a painting group that began holding instructional outings in Reno and Tahoe in 1921, marked its 100th year. An anniversary exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art begins July 10. 

PHOTO/KRIS VAGNER: Photographer Frances Melhop opened Melhop Gallery º7077 in Zephyr Cove in December.
 

Open for business

While many businesses closed during the pandemic, a surprising number of art businesses opened. Art Gallery@Prism came onto the scene in June in Minden’s historic wool and flour warehouse, showcasing landscape painters and others from around Northern Nevada and the Sierra. 

Frances Melhop, formerly a photographer for international fashion magazines and more recently a local MFA graduate and independent curator, opened Melhop Gallery º7077 in Zephyr Cove. Even though it’s in a strip mall an hour’s drive from town, it has the vibe of a small, urban-feeling museum. 

A new organization, Reno Fine Arts Collective, started in 2020 to promote and represent Reno artists. The project has been gaining steam online for several months, and the group rented a second-floor space where they plan to open a gallery in July at 101 N. Virginia St. (If you’re older than me, that’s the former Woolworth building. If you’re younger than me, it’s the non-descript, seven-story block across the street from City Hall.)

Kris Vagner is a freelance arts and culture journalist and the editor of Double Scoop, the news site that covers visual arts in Nevada.

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