Artists' Exchange director reflects on COVID-19, looks ahead


COVID-19 forced all of us to adapt. Since the pandemic’s local onset in March of last year, institutions from grocery store and restaurants to schools and offices have had to find new ways forward.

It was no different for The Artists’ Exchange, located at 50 Rolfe Square in Cranston.

The nonprofit arts collaborative has been a vital part of the community, allowing visitors to explore the arts through classes, summer camps, school programs, birthday parties and events in art, theater, music and ceramics.

With the pandemic beginning to turn a corner toward normalcy, Artists’ Exchange Director Shannon Casey and I recently had a talk about how things changed in an instant when the pandemic hit; her thoughts on virtual events; a festival that’s happening later this month; and a busy looking summer ahead.

ROB DUGUAY:  Going back to March of last year when the pandemic hit, did you have to cancel a bunch of planned events and workshops? Did it feel like the rug was being pulled out from under you?

SHANNON CASEY:  Yes, we closed our doors mid-March and we canceled all of our programming. We spent a lot of our time trying to figure out if parents wanted to keep their children enrolled in classes or if they wanted to cancel their registrations and get their money back. For a while when I came into work I was issuing refunds, which is just the saddest, most depressing thing you could possibly imagine. We were giving money back with money we didn’t have, so that was hard. We opened our camp registration a few weeks before on Feb. 1, so we had a lot of registrations that had come in during that month already.

Parents were calling, worried and whatnot, so there were three of us who stayed in the office and worked, but everybody else was reallocated. Luckily, we didn’t have to lay off any of our full-time staff because we had work for them in other programs from our parent company, but we did lay off our independently contracted teachers.

RD: That must have been really tough.

SC: Yeah.

RD: Going from that time until now, how has the Artists’ Exchange been able to adapt to COVID-19? What have you learned over the past 15 months that has helped the organization thrive and have sort of a restart?

SC: All you can do is be flexible, especially when you get excited that things are reopening and then things are not reopening and they’re closing back down. You just have to be flexible and adaptable. You have to pivot from in-person classes to virtual workshops. You have to change your session capacities. You have to change your staffing patterns to make sure they match up with the tuition income you have coming in.

You have to learn how to write grants. There’s a lot of things that came into play that wouldn’t have been an issue had it not been for the global pandemic.

RD: The Artists’ Exchange has done a bunch of virtual events during the pandemic as well. What are your opinions on virtual events as a whole? Do you think they can be sustainable in a post-pandemic world or do you think they’re only applicable for the current times we’re in?

SC: As far as arts programming goes, people don’t really want to pay for virtual events. It’s not sustainable for us to run a virtual theater festival on a regular basis because it’s not something that people want to pay for as far as enrichment programming goes. In a sea of things that are free, you can’t really monetize anything that’s virtual, especially when Trinity Rep decides to make “A Christmas Carol” free. We can’t monetize our version of the play because they’re doing it for free. Virtual programming definitely is not the way to go moving forward.

That being said, there are some benefits that come with it. One thing we had a lot of luck with was pre-recorded workshops, so we did a handful of virtual workshops and recorded them all. We can sell those recorded lessons, which is a great activity for parents, they seem to really like that. Being able to build that into our curriculum of offerings is really nice, especially with both an in-person option and the virtual workshop option. As far as other virtual events go, I don’t see them as a sustainable thing that we want to continue doing.

We definitely saw success in the workshops, which could be beneficial moving forward. Especially for home school groups or even a virtual field trip where we can go into a school and build some clay pots, take them all back to the Artists’ Exchange and do an actual live kiln firing so the kids can see that without being exposed to all the smoke and safety issues. That type of program has a very wide reach and we can also pursue that post-pandemic. It has pieces that are beneficial and there are also pieces that I don’t see making sense for us.

RD: It’s cool that you’ve been able to dissect it that way where you’ve seen what you can use going forward while also knowing what isn’t useful. You have your 16th annual One Act Play Festival happening on June 24 and it’s going to be an outdoor event. What can people expect from it when they go? Do you plan on having socially distant seating everywhere?

SC: We have an outdoor stage set up. We’ll have seating areas both for groups and for individuals. The area will be roped off due to getting permits from the city so we can sell tickets. It’s not outside the realm of possibility for someone to sit on the sidewalk over by the bank and watch the festival, but we’re going to try and do our best to see if we can make the ticket sales as successful as they would be if it were an indoor event.

RD: People better buy a stinkin’ ticket and not be a freeloader.

SC:  We do have press passes. (laughs)

RD: That definitely helps. Other than the festival, what else does the Artists’ Exchange have planned for the summer? I know you recently did a summer camp open house, so do you plan on concentrating on that?

SC:  Yeah, all of our summer camps are basically filled. I think we have three or four camps that have space left in them and they each have only a couple spots open. When push comes to shove, when we’re thinking about what the camps look like with maintaining social distance or not at full capacity but if we keep those guidelines in place and the state does also then we are basically right at capacity. We’ll maybe have room for a few more kids, which is awesome and definitely better than last summer, so that’s all I can ask for.

To learn more about The Artists’ Exchange, visit www.artists-exchange.org.


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