In an effort to reconnect with audience members who drifted away during the COVID-19 pandemic, three Baltimore arts groups are quite literally getting their acts together and taking them on the road.
The programs — which include sending the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to conduct free performances statewide and expanding the Baltimore Museum of Art’s storefront at Lexington Market to include artworks from the permanent collection — reflect a renewed emphasis on community outreach by arts groups in Maryland and across the country.
It’s a new variation on an old philosophy that devotes fewer resources toward enticing customers to visit concert halls, theaters and traditional museums, and more on meeting patrons where they live and work.
“During the pandemic, a lot of people’s habits changed and what matters to them changed,” said Teresa Eyring, executive director of the New York-based Theatre Communications Group, a trade organization for nonprofit troupes.
“More people are working virtually now, and fewer are working in urban centers so it’s more difficult to go to work and then go and see a show. People seem to want to stay closer to home,” Eyring said. “I believe they are more likely to attend a performance if it’s just a five-minute drive or 20-minute walk away.”
The most recent example is the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, which announced plans earlier this month to outfit two trucks to mount free public performances in the summer. “Shakespeare’s Wagons” will visit every neighborhood in Baltimore and all 24 Maryland counties over the next five years.
Like a supersized children’s pop-up book, a fully functional stage will unfold from a truck equipped with scenery, costumes and stage lights. There will even be a “big top” of sorts — a white tent providing covered seating for 300 audience members.
“I’m telling everybody, ‘The art circus is coming to town,’” said Lesley Malin, the troupe’s producing executive director. “We think this initiative will allow us to truly become Maryland’s classical theater.”
A traveling show
The 18-month shutdown induced by the pandemic “gave us a lot of time to marinate on what we were doing and what was important and to look at the climate in the world,” Malin said.
“There are a lot of people who live within two miles of us who are never going to come inside our beautiful theater. But if we went into their neighborhoods, perhaps they would see a show.”
Shakespeare’s Wagons will remain in each community for a week or longer, she said. There will be workshops in theater skills such as stage combat, along with partnerships with neighborhood arts groups from pottery making to bookmobiles.
“A mistake that some existing programs make is that they don’t spend much time connecting to the communities in advance,” said Ian Gallanar, the company’s founding artistic director. “We want to incorporate local arts groups into everything we do, so it’s not just us coming into town and saying, ‘Look how we great we are.’”
The 20-year-old theater company isn’t the only arts group in the area preparing to hit the road.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra recently completed the well-received first summer of its “Music for Maryland” tour, in which the orchestra performed free or low-cost concerts for about 4,000 audience members in four counties. Each site visit consisted of two events: a traditional performance by the full symphony and a shorter community concert for families with young children.
“Music for Maryland” supplements an annual program consisting of three free community concerts in Baltimore known as the BSO’s “Symphony in the City” series.
These initiatives were in the works long before COVID-19 descended on Maryland. But Hanson said that fallout from the crisis has given these outreach efforts added urgency.
“There’s no denying that since the pandemic, the BSO is thinking more seriously than ever about our community performances,” he said.
“Very many of these audience members have told us this was the first time they have heard the BSO perform. We intend to continue these concerts on a rotating basis for the rest of time.”
In the market for art
In the first half of 2023, the BMA will reopen an expanded version of its satellite museum in the newly renovated Lexington Market.
Touring live shows presents formidable logistical challenges. But attempting to move a priceless work of art — especially to a food mall — would be a security nightmare.
Dave Eassa, the BMA’s director of public engagement, devised a workaround. While he can’t bring a painting by Henri Matisse or a pre-Columbian sculpture to Lexington Market, he figured he could showcase a rotating selection of videos and films from the museum’s permanent collection.
The videos will run on a continuous loop and be available for viewing even on the four days a week that the satellite museum is closed.
“When your mandate is to grow and strengthen your organization’s ties with the community, you have to expand your thought process into not only how you’re doing things, but where you’re doing them,” Eassa said. “People have busy lives, and our job as a cultural institution is to fit into those lives in whatever way we can.”
The 350-square-foot Lexington Market storefront adjoins the community room, a large-light filled space that can be used for artist talks and other programs that draw larger crowds. And the storefront overlooks an outdoor plaza that will be filled with public art, from murals created by the Baltimore artist Ernest Shaw to outdoor sculptures built by local creators from Jon Struse (aka Reed Bmore) to Oletha DeVane. There’s also a large outdoor screen on which the Maryland Film Festival plans to hold regular movie nights.
While the murals, sculptures and movies will not be overseen by the BMA, that corner of Lexington Market seems poised to become Baltimore’s newest arts hub — potentially benefiting such nearby cultural organizations as the Everyman and Hippodrome theaters.
Organizers say these outreach efforts have the potential to remove barriers that have bedeviled arts groups over the past several decades: they are informal enough to attract younger and more diverse audiences, and they demystify the experience of attending a museum or concert. They’re also pandemic friendly.
“One of the lessons we learned is that out audiences strongly prefer to experience a BSO concert outdoors,” Hanson said. “Not everyone is ready to return to the concert hall yet.”
The catch is that these initiatives aren’t cheap.
Both the BSO and the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company estimate that the touring programs will cost about $1 million each summer. Both organizations are attempting to raise those funds through a combination of public grants and private donations.
The BMA initiatives are structured somewhat differently. The satellite museum operates year-round, includes three staff members and is funded by donations from private foundations, a museum spokeswoman said.
“Adopting this model will mean coming up with a new income strategy,” Eyring said.
She cited one perhaps extreme solution: earlier this year, Connecticut’s venerable Long Wharf Theatre announced plans to vacate its home for the past 57 years. Instead, the theater troupe will use the money it previously spent on rent to stage productions at multiple New Haven neighborhoods.
As arts groups double down on community outreach efforts, they will have to re-imagine their business models, Eyring said.
“How to do that is an interesting question,” she said.
“Will funders pay for it, or someone else? It’s going to take some time, but the theater community will figure it out.”