A creative hub for the close-knit art community in Ashland’s picturesque downtown for more than a decade, Ashland Art Center was almost an immediate casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lingering debt and sudden lack of revenue, coupled with a halt on public gatherings, found the board of directors making the tough decision in early May to announce that the center would permanently close its doors.
Raising the proverbial Phoenix from its ashes, however, those who most love the art center rushed to its aid, rallying to find ways to save their beloved space. In a series of serendipitous events, board members announced a newfound hope by midsummer.
Not only would the art center reopen, but it would return stronger than before.
Brandon Goldman, board president, says the voluntary period of dormancy was both short-lived and productive. The threat of losing the art center, it turned out, was like a call to action to those who valued its presence in the downtown and local art communities.
“The COVID crisis has hit arts organizations particularly hard. For most arts organizations, like ours, a big part of the business model is social interaction,” says Goldman. “So cutting social interaction out, from classes for kids, expeditions, gallery space and our studio artists that occupied the second floor in close proximity to one another — it all had to cease in response to the Governor’s mandate — didn’t leave us with many options.
“We had to really take a step back and see how to help the organization continue to move forward,” he says. “In the end, looking at the silver linings, that voluntary period of dormancy provided us an opportunity to decide how we could respond to changing conditions for, not only the pandemic, but how to really recreate the art center in a more sustainable way.”
Goldman says board members got to work on some new ideas for the art center including finding ways to retire old debt, thanks to community members who offered generous support. An added boost, property owner Greg Provost offered a waiver for months during which the center could not be open due to the coronavirus.
“Going forward, we were able to negotiate a new lease agreement to secure the building for a full year, through July 2021, so we’re in a good position now that we don’t have any old debt and have a building for the next year,” says Goldman.
“We’re looking at a capital campaign to bring back staff, re-add an operations manager and potentially an artistic director.”
Artist JoAnn Manzone says the local art community was hopeful to see the art center reopen better than ever. Manzone says she and fellow artists were “like a family” and sorely missed the community feel of the studio space and gallery.
“I started off in the gallery there, and eventually I took a studio upstairs. To have a working studio, for me personally, and the whole experience of being there with other working artists, was so eye opening for me and helped me to grow so much as an artist,” says Manzone.
“I was used to creating in solitude, so to be able to connect with other artists while you’re creating, and share ideas, and interact with the public — because the public could come in at any time and get to interact with artists while they were at work — was just such an amazing experience.”
Manzone, a felter, dyer, printer and garment maker, says she was relieved to see the art center find a plan for staying open. Aside from her own work as an artist, Manzone says the center provided her and others the opportunity to sell their work, network with customers, provide or attend educational courses in various forms of art and to give back to the community in myriad ways.
“Not only did I get to grow personally and professionally through the art center but my creativity really blossomed when I was there,” says Manzone.” It also gave me a chance to meet customers and sell more of my work. A tourist or local would come in and see me again and say, ‘Oh, I bought a scarf from you last summer, and I’d love to see what you have this time.’
“The art center means a lot of different things to different people. When we lost the Art Center, or thought that we might lose it, we lost that connection,” says Manzone. “All the artists now will occasionally have a Zoom meeting to check in with one another, and that’s good, but that in-person connection and the experience of the art center was — and is — so strong.”
Goldman says restrictions of the pandemic provided insight for how the center could continue its mission both in person and otherwise. Modes of engagement that previously did not seem feasible, he notes, became commonplace.
“We will be looking at having a much broader offering and to look at other types of art and creative expression that appeal to a more diverse population of artists,” says Goldman. “We’re looking at re-engaging the gallery space to both promote local artists and promote art education for community by bringing in outside artists on occasion.”
With no time line in place, and likely a phased reopening that could start — on a small scale — by September, Goldman says hope is the common theme.
“We’ll be looking at a phase-in approach in terms of time line, possibly opening on some level by late winter or spring 2021.
“Leading up to that, we’ll be considering some virtual experiences and finding ways to engage the community in ways that we have not done before,” he adds. “Until Jackson County gets into phase 3 of the reopening plan, it’s premature for us to figure out how to reengage the space and have people in there, but we can dream up new ideas.”
If anyone’s up to the task, says Goldman, it’s community artists who will document and capture different perspectives about the current and “new normal” under COVID-19, finding ways to express their hopes and fears and even find beauty amid the uncertainty.
“I have no doubt artists are out there taking these strange times we’re living in and putting it through their filters and developing it into art that will help us all better understand what we all are going through,” he says.
“With all that has happened, one kind of has to wonder if sometimes things don’t have to get to that final breaking point before they can be put back together.”
For more information, or to donate, see ashlandartcenter.org