The National Museum of Jewish American History filed for bankruptcy last month — then things got worse, not just there, but for everyone.
All of Philadelphia’s Jewish arts and culture community screeched to a halt in the wake of the social distancing measures implemented to combat COVID-19. And with Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order expanded to encompass the entire state, all museums, galleries, theaters, musicians and dance studios have taken a financial hit.
NMJAH had to close its building and postpone the opening of its latest traveling exhibit, “The Evidence Room.” Chief Curator Josh Perelman said while they haven’t resorted to layoffs or furloughs, all staff has taken pay cuts.
Meantime, Jewish organizations like Theatre Ariel have postponed or canceled all events planned for March, April and potentially beyond.
“The virus coming at this time is a big loss because we had a really wonderfully busy spring setup,” Artistic Director Deborah Baer Mozes said. “It hurts the theater financially. It hurts our artists. And to be honest, we’re a theater. We want to perform. We want to be with our audiences. So I have to say, I miss my audience.”
Mozes hopes to reschedule her programs, including Jesse Bernstein’s one-man show “The Scribe,” for sometime in June or the fall, if possible.
Along with institutions, individual Jewish performers are in a bind. Musicians who rely on live performances at bars, restaurants and event halls are now scrambling to supplement lost income.
“We are part of a phenomenon of musicians who are wondering how the heck they’re going to make a living,” said Joey Weisenberg, a musician and founder/co-director of Hadar’s Rising Song Institute. “It’s quite a worry, quite a source of anxiety for musicians and for everybody. That seems to be the case around the whole arts community.”
But out of adversity comes innovation, with many performers and institutions turning to the web to continue reaching their audiences.
The Old City Jewish Arts Center created a virtual walkthrough of its gallery in the vein of Google Street View, giving a 360-degree view of the current exhibition. Galley Executive Director Rabbi Zalman Wircberg said the center plans to use Instagram Live and Zoom to stream classes and provide other services. In addition, all proceeds for any artwork sold will go toward supporting the health care system and people in need of food and other necessities.
“So we are still servicing them in the spiritual, physical way, just with the disabilities of not coming together under the same roof,” Wircberg said. “It’s very tough, very challenging, but with every challenge comes new opportunities.”
Other institutions have followed suit.
The National Liberty Museum’s website now features a video discussing “Forbidden Art,” a traveling exhibit on loan from Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. And NMJAH is offering virtual tours on its website of two previous traveling exhibits: “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American” and “Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music.”
“This is a challenging time for everyone and the impact of coronavirus has been that we all had to reinvent how we operate,” Perelman said. “I’m optimistic about our present and our future, given all of the challenges that the cultural community is facing, and we look forward to many more months to come of excellent new content.”
On March 30, Theatre Ariel streamed a live performance of Bernstein’s one-man show“Ethics of The Fathers (aka The Gangster and The Grandpa).” Mozes said the stream was well received and allowed the theater to reach “audiences from coast to coast.” The theater is looking at doing another livestream geared toward families and potentially streaming a short excerpt from Bernstein’s “The Scribe” as a show teaser.
“This is totally new territory for us. And it’s a little weird for theater because it’s such a collaborative art form,” Mozes said. “It’s a hardship, but we tried to turn lemons into lemonade.”
A number of artists, both big names and small, have begun livestreaming performances on social media.
Philadelphia-based musician Hadar McNeill livestreamed her most recent performance on April 8, raising funds for the Philadelphia Musicians Relief Fund. Musician Dot Levine took social distancing to a new level, performing for audiences a good distance from their front doors across the city. Levine’s shows were covered in a video by WHYY.
Also hopping on the livestream trend is Project Moshen, an all-female professional jazz dance company based in Philadelphia. The group has begun streaming free dance classes on social media, Artistic Director Kelli Moshen said.
“We are actually getting a lot of new followers throughout this,” Moshen said. “It’s kind of funny, it’s kind of a blessing in disguise in a way, even though it’s like this awful thing happening. Everyone’s really tuning in and seeing what is out there, especially in the dance world. People are fixated on what’s happening now. And this is giving a great opportunity for people to just do some research and see what else is out there.”
And a local dance group run by Asya Zlatina has also started to stream free dance classes.
ARTIST HOUSE’s bimonthly HashtagTMI series moved online, with the next diary reading to be streamed on April 11 via Zoom.
On April 2, Zlatina released “Carry On,” a video consisting of nine dancers each filming from their homes.
“I’m so grateful that my dancers didn’t just lay down and say, ‘No, this is too different. Or what’s the point?’” Zlatina said. “It’s important to use our gift to uplift the world at this time.”