John F. Kennedy has been quoted as saying, “In a crisis, be aware of the danger, but recognize the opportunity.” That certainly applies to what the Ontario arts community has done since March. It has taken traditionally in-person experiences and adapted them for online enjoyment.
“Nothing beats the live, but the virtual is here to stay,” says Amirali Alibhai, head of performing arts for Aga Khan Museum.
The museum, near Eglinton Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway, focuses on education and building relationships with Canadian institutions and communities via an understanding of the artistic, intellectual and scientific heritage of Muslim civilizations.
Like all artistic organizations around the Toronto region, Aga Khan faced a fork in the road in the spring when everything shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, like many organizations, many of its programs, collections and exhibitions soon went virtual, a process Alibhai says was natural for them. The museum had become adept at archiving and recording material such as lectures, exhibitions and performances before the pandemic hit.
Aga Khan’s Museum Without Walls program is an example of that, utilizing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to let audiences enjoy a variety of exclusive arts and cultural experiences digitally.
Alibhai says audiences had a real need for social and intellectual stimulation during the shutdown.
Some of Aga Khan’s talent recorded performances from home and, now that the museum is open again, performances are being recorded at the museum.
Digital and virtual platforms are not new to art museums, galleries and companies, says Marshall Pynkoski, artistic co-director of Opera Atelier in Toronto. However, the company did have to reimagine its 35th anniversary season and the season’s lineup is being livestreamed.
Something Rich & Strange delves into the realms of dreams, sleep, visions and the supernatural. It stars soprano Measha Brueggergosman and Colin Ainsworth and will be livestreamed from Koerner Hall on Bloor Street West on Oct. 28. Handel’s The Resurrection, which had to be cancelled last spring, will be livestreamed next April 1.
“It’s a first for us, our first livestream event,” Pynkoski says. "We have created a number of videos supporting the [virtual] idea, and have presented that to our public.
“These are permanent changes, in how we engage with people. It enriches and expands our audiences. It’s an exploration of something new and different,” he adds.
During the height of the pandemic, talent performed for audiences virtually, wherever they were self-isolating. In May, baritone Laird Mackintosh performed in Together/Apart, a virtual showcase of music and dance from around the globe. All 14 artists personally curated their performances.
Opera Atelier is now working with filmmakers, videographers and photographers to take performances into different visual directions for the audiences and to explore material in a variety of creative ways.
“We are a very visually oriented opera and ballet company,” Pynkoski says. “We would be foolish to let this drop once we are in the live theatre again, and we’re back to normal.”
Going the virtual route is an opportunity to attract international audiences. That’s exciting and represents a “silver lining” during the pandemic, says Steven Schipper, executive artistic director at The Rose Brampton.
The Rose has a variety of virtual platforms, including online concerts, on Facebook and Instagram, as well as education workshops via Zoom, that feature writing, music, dance, film, podcasting, theatre and comedy, and engage participants of all ages.
“We not only connected to our loyal audience, but we developed and connected to a wider audience, which never would have a happened,” Schipper says.
When the pandemic struck and the country shut down in March, The Rose zeroed in on three priorities, Schipper says: Keep the staff safe, keep the audiences connected and support the local artists.
“Everything we have done since has been in service of those three priorities,” he says. Over the past six months, The Rose has presented 23 concerts online, featuring 43 local artists, and garnered more than 256,000 views from audiences around the world."
McMichael Canadian Art Collection has been aggressive in building learning programs and virtual tours. The tours guide the audience through various artworks in the gallery’s permanent collection, via Zoom or other digital platforms.
The McMichael Virtual Classroom lets people of all age groups stay connected with the gallery’s collections, educators and artists from the comfort and safety of their homes.
In May, more than 3,700 people from 18 countries attended a Group of Seven centenary, a virtual curatorial talk that included a special musical performance by Bruce Cockburn. Nearly 1,000 people attended a Maud Lewis webinar in August, a virtual presentation that celebrated the life and works of the Canadian folk artist.
“It has opened new doors,” says Anna Stanisz, director or creative learning and programs. “When we put our visual tours online, we received such an overwhelming response we had to increase the number of tours. There was a huge need for this kind of interaction. It’s the ability to join in and have a conversation, connecting with other people, in an easy way, around a subject matter that is close to their heart.”
The McMichael Virtual Classroom lets younger people stay connected with the gallery’s collections, educators and artists through art activities, videos, all from home.
Virtual platforms also allow arts organizations to involve international participants. Gardiner Museum in Toronto launched a free online series called 3 Works, in which artists discuss three of their artworks in connection to a specific theme.
Hosted by chief curator Sequoia Miller, the popular series has involved local and international artists in a way that would not have been possible with an onsite program. The museum intends to do more digitally to grow its audience.
In August, it held an online fund-raising event called Clay Date. Participants received a gift bag with clay and clay tools, which they could pick up or have delivered directly to their homes. They were also sent a link to a live Zoom event where artist Habiba El-Sayed led a raw clay demonstration. Gardiner Museum very much sees online exhibitions as complements to physical experiences, a way to build interest before a visit or just add to the experience.
Aga Khan Museum is now exploring new business models, new lines of revenue, including from international sources, to help propel it into exciting creative directions.
Still, nothing will ever fully replace the live experience.
“Live theatre has an integrity all its own,” Pynkoski says. “I think more than ever this whole situation has changed how people evaluate the importance of live theatre in their lives. Talking with our audience members, everyone is saying how much they miss the live theatre experience. They are now more aware of how important that relationship between performers and the audience really is.”
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