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Special COVID Feature: Princeton Arts Scene Struggles to Reinvent, Rejuvenate Itself

By Daniel Farber Huang

June 22, 2020

This article is part of a 5-part series on Princeton, New Jersey's COVID-19 response and recovery from different perspectives, including the arts scene, businesses, charities, government and Princeton University. This article originally appeared on

The Princeton Garden Theater on the corner of Nassau and Washington Streets went dark

the day it was scheduled to launch its “100 Films for 100 Years” anniversary celebration.

(Photo by Daniel Farber Huang)

PRINCETON, N.J. — “Ticket sales are nowhere near what they were when we were open for real. We’re looking at tens of tickets sold instead of hundreds of tickets sold,” Chris Collier, executive director of the non-profit Princeton Garden Theater said in a telephone interview.

Since closing their doors due to COVID-19, Princeton’s only downtown movie theater has worked to engage with audiences virtually by holding screenings online, Collier said. The dramatically reduced ticket sales are not paying the bills but allow the theater to share interesting programming and stay in touch with its audiences.

Princeton’s once-vibrant arts scene, like much of the rest of New Jersey, came to a screeching halt when Gov. Phil Murphy issued a statewide “stay at home” order on March 21, which limited social activities down to family, caretakers and romantic partners. Other social activities – including theaters, museums, and galleries – suddenly found themselves facing a stark new reality of social distancing, economic turmoil and massive uncertainty.

The Princeton Garden Theater had planned to host a “100 Films for 100 Years” to celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, showcasing 100 films from the last century. The 1925 film, The Freshman, starring Harold Lloyd as a naïve college freshman seeking to reinvent himself, was chosen as the first movie to launch the year-long celebration starting on March 12.

Instead, on that day the Princeton Garden Theater announced it was closing due to COVID-19.

“It's been really sad actually canceling every one of those bookings. It took us probably a year and a half to line everything up and then to book everything and get it all together. And now we’re going through and dismantling the whole thing, which is a real bummer,” Collier said.

Another local institution, the Arts Council of Princeton, seeks to build community through arts, education programs and cultural events, according to its website. Interim executive director Jim Levine said in a telephone interview that COVID-19 has stopped much of its work.

“We were a hive of activity with classes going on and public events going on. We might have had 100 people in a gallery opening or 80 people for a Friday night dance,” Levine said.

Things are different now. “There are fewer people engaged with what we do. We are working really hard to think of ways to stay engaged. It's just a lot harder,” he said.

In March, the Arts Council had to halt its art classes that were in progress. According to its website, the Arts Council made the decision to pay its instructors through the end of that term despite classes ending prematurely.

To adapt to the changing landscape, the Arts Council launched apART Together, a “virtual movement to stay creative and connected.” New initiatives include virtual visits to artist studios, still life challenges, a daily sketch club, and other distance programs to engage with their community.

One of their new projects is Sew Many Masks, which encourages people to craft and donate protective face masks for those in need.

Levine said he estimates Sew Many Masks has distributed 1,500 masks to the local community so far, going to individuals who might need just a few for their families to larger groups such as senior centers and community housing.

Even with all the hardship and turmoil in recent months, Levine said COVID-19 has made certain things apparent about its mission.

“You can't underestimate the extent to which people need to connect. And art can be a bridge for people to make connections, even if they're not able to come to a location to view it or participate in it, but it can still serve that role to give people meaning and allow them to connect with each other,” Levine said.

The Arts Council of Princeton’s Sew Many Masks project encourages the public to craft face masks. Completed masks are made available for those who need them, free of charge.

(Photo courtesy of Arts Council of Princeton)

It is unclear when or how New Jersey will return to a sense of normalcy in everyday life. On April 27, Gov. Murphy announced a three-stage statewide reopening plan called “The Road Back: Restoring Economic Health Through Public Health.”

Shortly thereafter, Murphy issued an Executive Order as part of Stage 1, opening state parks effective May 2, for limited, distanced activities such as hiking but keeping playgrounds and bathrooms closed.

According to The Road Back, Stage 2 would allow for more “moderate risk activities” to restart. Museums and libraries are listed as acceptable social activities in Stage 2, but will requiring proper safeguards, capacity limits and sanitation procedures. Stage 3 would permit “higher-contact activities” such as limited entertainment to restart with significant safeguards.

In reality, it will likely take much more than an executive order to revive many arts organizations.

Marc Uys, executive director of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO), has been working to reshape the orchestra’s role in the community since the quarantines started.

“The hardest thing is no one knows what’s coming next and for how long are we going to be doing what. That pretty much sums up the challenge we are facing,” Uys said in a telephone interview.

The PSO offers orchestral, pops, and chamber music concerts, plus lecture events, children’s programs, and collaborative programming with other artists. According to its website, the orchestra is Princeton’s hub for classical music knowledge and a gateway to the exploration of new music and performance practices.

Regardless of when and how the government may permit the public to attend social gatherings, Uys said a major unknown is whether audiences will feel comfortable participating once venues reopen.

“Going to a live concert should be an enjoyable experience and we don’t want people being fearful. Experiencing music live is about having yourself open to emotions and so people need to be free. And we don’t know when that will happen again,” Uys said.

Stages 2 and 3 openings present different physical challenges for the Arts Council, which hosts a variety of activities inside its Witherspoon Street building.

Princeton Arts Council’s Levine said, “We can segregate the front gallery of the building, which would just be for people to walk in and see art on the wall but then classes is a whole other story and we're not really close to that yet.”

Capacity restrictions are likely to change the organization’s programming, he said.

“If our theater can hold 80 people but with distancing we can fit 40 or 30 or 20, is that a viable thing to do?” Levine said.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) estimated that 47 percent of all New Jerseyans attended at least one performing arts event in 2017 and 25 percent attended at least one art exhibit. Thirty percent of New Jerseyans personally perform or create some form of art ranging from music to visual arts to writing.

In addition to the aesthetic benefits, the arts are an important contributor to New Jersey’s larger economy. According to the NEA, arts and cultural production contributed $21.5 billion in gross domestic product to the state in 2018.

Interest in the arts creates a ripple effect as other businesses such as retail and dining benefit as well. The New Jersey State Council on the Arts reported that the arts are a vital and growing sector of the travel and tourism industry, New Jersey's second largest industry. The expenditures of arts institutions support other fields such as advertising, printing, food and design.

Similar to many other workers across the country, artists and art staff are severely impacted by closures and reductions in employment.

Elizabeth Mattson, Chair of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts wrote in an April 14 statement, “The innovation we've seen these last few weeks speaks volumes about the resiliency to come. And while creativity knows no limits, we know the financial and operational struggles faced by our industry are significant and far-reaching.”

Speaking about the Princeton Symphony Orchestra’s musicians, executive director Uys said, “Almost overnight all their work dried up for the foreseeable future.”

When the PSO had to cancel the remainder of its concert season, it gave ticketholders the options to receive a full refund or they could donate the price of their tickets as a contribution to the organization.

Uys said, “The moment concerts were cancelled we had an overwhelming majority of ticket income converted into donations by individual ticket holders that enabled us to make some initial partial payments to musicians.”

Uys said the PSO secured a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides incentives for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll. The funding allowed musicians to be paid for the concerts that were cancelled in May, the orchestra’s busiest month for performances. Many of the PSO’s musicians are freelancers who perform with multiple groups, all of which are likely experiencing financial hardship. PSO comprises only a portion of most performers’ income.

“For musicians for at least a year, probably longer, it is going to be tough for them,” Uys said.

Morven Museum & Garden is keeping its garden open for visitors to enjoy,

while practicing safe distancing.

(Photo by Daniel Farber Huang)

Jill Barry is the executive director of Morven Museum & Garden, a National Historic Landmark on five acres in Princeton. Morven was the home of Richard Stockton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and served as the New Jersey governor’s mansion before becoming a history museum.

Although Morven’s museum is closed due to COVID-19, the gardens have stayed open for people to visit, provided they practice safe distancing. The garden is imbued with history, including the original greenhouse, brick walls and fragrant wisteria dating back to the mid-1800s.

Barry said Morven is working to reshape its museum experience to an outdoor experience focused on the garden and exterior architecture. Tours would be limited to about 10 people at a time.

Barry said she recognizes that economic pressure and uncertainty makes Morven’s mission challenging but she remains hopeful.

“We've stood for over 260 years. We have been through fires. We've been through a British encampment. We've gone through highs and lows, you know. This is just a chapter and this chapter will end and we will move forward. And sort of having that long view of history can be comforting.

“This is a moment in a very long time,” Barry said.


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