Celebrating the Arts in Times of Uncertainty

Jennifer A. Cunningham
Innovation Showcase

Students are drawn to the arts through their desire to create, perform, express, and interact with other people. In March 2020, the give and take, central to creating art, was gone. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many students in the visual and performing arts to create in boxes on computer screens with spotty picture resolutions and sound distortions, depending on Internet speed, the weather, devices, and countless other factors.

Kirkwood Community College, like numerous other institutions, scrambled to figure out how to get art materials, microphones, speakers, and Internet access to students as they isolated at home. The fall focus shifted to safely engaging in high aerosol producing activities like glass blowing, singing with masks, and using apps to record individual pieces of music and splicing them together. Theatre auditions were done through video submission and the concert hall became a glorified recording studio, where concerts and productions were recorded and then streamed to the public. The thrill of the live audience was gone.

In December 2020, faculty and staff representatives from Kirkwood’s Arts and Humanities, Admissions, and Marketing departments and KCCK—Iowa’s Jazz Radio Station, which is housed at Kirkwood—came together to discuss how to safely bring the audience back to our students, and, at the same time, engage with the larger Cedar Rapids, Iowa, community to demonstrate that the arts continued to thrive despite the pandemic. The group decided, at the peak of rising COVID-19 numbers in the community, to take the risk and begin planning a late spring outdoor event in the New Bohemia (NewBo) district of Cedar Rapids. This location, a community cultural treasure, features an outdoor stage and is surrounded by several large, well-ventilated gallery venues that could be utilized to display student work.

In a time of uncertainty, while faculty and staff had once again moved to remote work, the Kirkwood Celebration of the Arts was born. A cross-departmental team representing the arts and humanities areas began engaging in bi-weekly conversations to plan the event. Central to the plan was securing the NewBo venues. The NewBo City Market, which rents the outdoor Banker’s Trust Stage, was immediately enthusiastic about the idea and suggested that Kirkwood use the evening of April 30, 2021, to kick off the NewBo Outdoor Concert Series. Friday nights in the spring are particularly busy for the district, which meant high visibility in the community. After securing the stage, the team worked with district businesses and decided to use gallery space in the Raygun Building and the Cherry Building, an artist colony located near the stage.

The pandemic not only resulted in a loss of audiences and live events, but many of our students also lost significant percentages of their income. The Raygun Building, which was a perfectly located gallery space, also housed a notable t-shirt company known across the Midwest. The Arts and Humanities department worked with Raygun to create a shirt that would both help advertise Kirkwood and the event and raise money for the student emergency fund associated with the Kirkwood Foundation. The slogan for the t-shirt was voted on by the visual and performing arts students, Arts and Humanities department faculty, and key leaders from across the college. This engagement served as a “save the date” for the Celebration of the Arts event. The winning t-shirt design, featuring the phrase “The Arts Are Essential,” was available for purchase by any member of the community and worn by students, faculty, and staff at the event. The shirt helped the team raise approximately $800 at the time of the event, which went toward helping Kirkwood students in need.

Once the venues were secured, the team had to tackle the challenge of gathering student artwork, rehearsing students remotely in preparation for live performances, and thinking creatively about masked theatre productions. The faculty at Kirkwood rose to the challenge. Photography instructor Christine Flavin felt that despite the challenges of planning during a pandemic, the event would serve to “build confidence within Kirkwood students and highlight their accomplishments during their time [at Kirkwood].”

The call for student work in the visual arts was received with excitement, and students began submitting work to Flavin in early March. Faculty selected students’ works of art for the show as well as for inclusion in the League for Innovation’s International Student Art Awards competition. The Raygun gallery showcased the Kirkwood student artwork in the gallery space, where optimal lighting and wall space existed, for three weeks leading up to the Celebration of the Arts.

Student artwork in glass, ceramics, photography, drawing, and painting on display in the
Raygun Building Gallery during the Celebration of the Arts on April, 30, 2021.
Credit: Kirkwood Marketing

Masks, costumes, and set designs on display in the Cherry Building Gallery during the
Celebration of the Arts on April, 30, 2021. Credit: Kirkwood Marketing

The rustic industrial charm of the Cherry Building provided the perfect backdrop to showcase the creative theatrical solutions that the directing team used over the course of the year to safely allow students to interact on stage. One of the most innovative ideas was the full staging of Antigone by Sophocles. The director, Emily Ganfield, chose to use the original play from public domain so that the department did not run into issues with rights for streaming. The technical designer, Patrick Reading, then constructed masks that replicated Greek busts for the students to wear as part of the costume design. The masks were constructed so that students could follow the mask mandate, with black face masks under the busts, and, at the same time, not distract from the staging vision. Additionally, Ganfield and Reading decided to display the costumes designed for the productions, as streamed productions made details difficult to discern onscreen.

The logistics of the performing arts were perhaps the greatest challenge. The event would be the first time since March 2020 that the students and faculty had performed for a live audience. Faculty and staff had to consider transportation of equipment from the college to the NewBo venue, length of time for each performance, order of performers, and group transitions, all while keeping COVID-19 protocols in place. The final line-up showcased students from vocal and instrumental jazz ensembles, concert choir, and steel drums and the cast from the musical Ordinary Days.

While the visual and performing arts faculty worked on the presentation and performance logistics of the event, the department staff partnered with KCCK, the Kirkwood Foundation, Admissions, and Marketing to design a plan to get the word out to the community. Admissions promoted the event as one of the first in-person admissions events since the March 2020 shutdown, sending targeted invitations to students in the Kirkwood region and promoting the opportunity to learn about both Kirkwood and the Cedar Rapids community. The team also worked with the Kirkwood Foundation to send targeted marketing of the event to alumni and donors. KCCK provided radio advertising and interviews with faculty, students, and our master of ceremonies, Dennis Green, leading up to the event. In one of the Culture Crawl interviews for KCCK before the event, Green asked second-year music student Brennan Regan what he was most looking forward to about the event. Regan’s response affirmed what we knew our students wanted most when he passionately replied, “Performing for a live audience again.”

Celebration of the Arts became a reality at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, April 30, 2021. The weather was picture perfect, at 70 degrees and barely a cloud in the sky, and the event attracted hundreds of community members out for the evening in the district. Admissions, KCCK, and department representatives were able to meet face-to-face with the community and discuss the numerous opportunities available at Kirkwood for the first time in over a year. Ceramics faculty member Zachary Wollert set up a pottery wheel in the NewBo lawn to demonstrate throwing techniques and answer questions about visual arts offerings.

Students and faculty experienced a wave of emotions as they finally saw their works in the galleries and took to the stage. Celebration of the Arts provided the first sense of normalcy at the end of a tumultuous year. Upon reflection, Flavin noted the importance of an event like this for the Cedar Rapids community:

Kirkwood should be seen as a valuable first choice for students who are looking for career skills as well as pursuing a four-year degree. Having our talent showcased in a public format is a perfect way to demonstrate the excellence in teaching and in student success.

The planning team met in late May to discuss the event, including challenges, opportunities, and whether or not to host a similar event in the future. Fred Kiser, Director of Vocal Music, noted that the benefits of an event like this far outweighed the logistical challenges. Over 30 students interested in visual and performing arts pre-registered with Admissions prior to the event to receive a VIP “swag bag” and meet the faculty. By June 1, 2021, Kirkwood had received 56 of the 71 total inquires for Visual and Performing Arts scholarships for fall 2021. This number far exceeded the previous five-year average of 26 inquires per year. After discussing the importance of community exposure, and the increase in prospective students, the team decided to hold Celebration of the Arts again in spring 2022.

As Kirkwood plans for the next Celebration of the Arts, changes will include having a collage of shorter sets by more student groups rather than full concerts of each group, adding hands-on demonstrations for families in the lawn area, and showcasing faculty artwork along with student works in gallery spaces. Central to event planning are the goals of facilitating more community connections and supporting student learning; thus, students will be included in the planning process so they can learn this important aspect of being an artist. The 2022 event will also provide an opportunity to decide, based on attendance and engagement, if it is an endeavor worthy of the investment every year or every two years to ensure that most students get the experience at least once during their time at Kirkwood.

Kiser summed it up perfectly, noting, “For many performers and audience members, it was the first ‘live’ arts experience in a long time. . . . I'm excited to see if we can build on that success and have a real impact in the local art scene.” She believes that while nothing is impossible, the thrill of live performances and in-person galleries to express emotions cannot be replaced.

Lead image: Director of Instrumental Music, Joe Perea, leads the Kirkwood Jazz Ensemble on the Bankers Trust Stage in NewBo (Cedar Rapids, IA) during the Celebration of the Arts on April 30, 2021. Credit: Kirkwood Marketing

Jennifer Cunningham, D.M.A., is Dean, Arts and Humanities, at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.