Artists across the country adapt to their new normal, turn to online platforms to connect with audiences

Shruti Shekar
·Telecom & Tech Reporter
·11 min read
Five ballerinas en pointe on stage, arms around each other, rear view

As performers, artists, and musicians grapple with their new normal during the COVID-19 pandemic, senior executives in the arts industry are trying to figure out how to connect with audiences the only way possible right now: online.

Heather Gibson, executive producer of popular music and variety at the National Arts Centre, said in an interview that for the vast majority of musicians, going digital won’t fundamentally change their art. Instead, they’re taking the internet and trying to “use it as a new stage.”

“Finding that place in the digital realm where a musician can figure out how to maintain that engagement piece is going to be key to [the continued] success with digital,” she said.

In an effort to help musicians, the NAC and Facebook Canada started the Canada Performs fund, a $700,000 short-term relief fund that offers artists $1,000 and a platform to showcase their work to Canadians.

Since its launch, Gibson said 78 per cent of website visitors are now coming from around the world, compared to the 75 per cent of website visitors that were from Ottawa only.

But in a post-pandemic period, Gibson said incorporating the digital space doesn’t mean recording a live performance and putting it online. That could mean interviews of artists and short clips of work that engages with the audience online.

Art institutions embracing digital strategies at a quicker pace

Alexandra Badzak, director and CEO of the Ottawa Art Gallery, said shifting online means allowing users to see a different perspective on a piece of art that viewers might not see in real life.

She said that museums across the country have been working on their digital and online presence for years, but the pandemic expedited the process.

“We always knew we had to shift, to some degree, to more digital oriented content, but it’s harder for an organization to do that,” she said. COVID-19 has forced them to focus on digital content.

Badzak said that much of their content is formatted in quick, short bites because people tend to have a short attention span.

“[But] no matter how good of a virtual tour of an exhibition that you might have, or even a curated selection of artwork, you’re still not having the bodily experience of being in the space,” she said.

“The beauty of what an art gallery can do is make connections between works of art. And somewhere in that space between, the meaning is made and you’re making a connection.”

Badzak added that the pandemic has made them rejig their budgets to ensure artists are getting paid fairly.

“I think [COVID-19] has forced us all to embrace our digital strategies much sooner than we probably thought we were going to, which is good. We need to be doing that, I think it’s addressing really critical aspects of things like copyrights and artists’ moral rights to do the artwork and paying for that.”

Going online may allow users to see artwork from a different angle

Michelle Gewurtz, senior curator at the Ottawa Art Gallery, said that the museum has been showcasing online exhibits that incorporate 360-degree tours, similar to what many real estate companies do when showcasing homes online.

“It’s a different way of navigating around the space because you’re being led by your fingers or your mouse,” she said, adding that online exhibits might allow a viewer to examine artwork closely compared when doing it in person.

In an effort to help new and upcoming artists, the art gallery put out a call for artists and will have a virtual studio visit to help curate pieces. These artists will be able to work with a curator in a virtual session to discuss recently completed work and their overall practice.

While shifting to a more digital approach has been beneficial for many artists, it has required theatre performers to rethink how their future performances will look.

Antoni Cimolino, artistic director of the Stratford Festival, said the first impact of the virus was that the festival’s actors were not able to rehearse safely together.

“The government made it so that we couldn’t work and eventually we couldn’t perform in front of groups, and I don’t know when that will be lifted,” he said, adding he wasn’t sure when people would be comfortable to return to a theatre to watch performances again.

The Stratford Festival is North America's largest classical theatre company, and Cimolino said there are 1,000 people who work the festival that no longer have jobs. At the end of April, the company announced it was cancelling its 2020 season, which would result in a $40 million loss in its budget.

The company announced a 12-week film festival, called the Stratford Festival On Film, that have been directed and put together over the six years. The company has also been releasing interviews and discussions online.

“We want to take a careful approach to performance on digital because it feels to me like there’s a lot of stuff that’s just being slapped up there and it reflects the lack of care that has been taken,” Cimolino said.

“Whatever we put up should be appropriate, it should be really well done. Because ultimately we are an artistic institution and whatever we do, the art needs to reflex the quality of the work.”

Like the OAG, Cimolino said that the virus has made the company rethink its digital strategy.

“I do think that there’s more that we can do online,” he said. “There is more we could have done, and should have done and will do because of this... but the fact is it’s about standing in front of a real person or sitting in front of a real person and getting lost in that magic.”

He said that the company has struggled for the past 20 years to integrate the digital space with live performances, but now it’s about taking advantage of the strength of the medium.

Some artists who are adapting to their new normal

Nic Cooper, painter

Image of Nic Cooper and their work
Image credit: Nic Cooper

Nic Cooper is a student about to showcase their final project as part of their masters degree in fine arts.

Because of COVID-19 they’ve had to refocus their work entirely to try and use digital tools as their new medium.

“I feel a little bit lost because of being a student and a graduating student... there’s a sense of precariousness around studio access as well,” they said.

“I’m trying to figure out what is possible to make at home, and how does that fit into my vision for what I wanted to be doing because the scale of my work is usually quite large.”

Cooper said that artists aren’t going to change their practice or their medium, but will make minor adjustments.

“I’m a painter, it’s about the experiments in painting and what painting does and it’s my chosen medium. I’ve spent my entire time doing that, I don’t want to neglect that just because I need to adapt to something that’s on a screen,” they said.

Adding to their creative practice will probably be how Cooper adapts to their new situation. That could mean adding supplementary aspects like incorporating photography that goes along with bigger paintings.

“As artists, we always try to stick to our vision and hope it will be received well. We try to honour our own vision and our own impulses and desires and what we’re interested in,” Cooper said.

Because Cooper’s work is larger than most paintings, their ideal vision is to be present during a virtual tour to explain the paintings so viewers understand the depth of the artwork.

Cooper is one of the artists part of the OAG’s virtual studio tour and said that they were grateful to have an online space to be able to showcase their work.

Catriona Sturton, musician

Sturton performing
Image credit: Catriona Sturton

Catriona Sturton says the biggest change the pandemic brought was a halt to touring, which she was doing a lot of before.

“I had really focused on live performance. I was doing that for six years, and now that’s kind of stopped all of sudden,” she said. “I’m not used to being stationary.”

Sturton performs her music online as part of Canada Performs and since the pandemic has also been putting on live performances every morning. She plays various instruments including the guitar, fiddle, banjo, accordion, and harmonica.

“I wake up at 5:30 am to set up my live streaming. I then [perform] at 8:30 am,” she said. She used to do live streams in the past, but now she’s been consistent with her performances.

In a week, Sturton said she puts on one to three shows on top of her daily morning live stream.

“With my daily live stream, my idea was people who might be waking up alone... can start their day in a space with other people,” she said, adding that the number of viewers varies between 20 to 70 people daily.

Despite the quick move to going online, Sturton said there was a learning curve to ensure the quality of work she was putting out was good.

She said the music community has been helpful in renting out high-quality microphones to conduct at-home performances and offering tips on how to improve sound quality online.

Mark Gagnon, DJ Starting From Scratch

Image Credit: Mark Gagnon
Image Credit: Mark Gagnon

Mark Gagnon says that the pandemic has been “financially stifling” and said that most DJs make their money touring or in clubs.

Gagnon said a DJ signed with a big label could earn millions, but a semi-established DJ who plays at clubs and might go on the road might earn around $800 per event.

“On the flip side you can broaden your audience so much [by going online],” he said.

“My approach is I’m trying to have as much fun with it as I can. I am not concerned about the viewership and I’m not concerned about the followers. I’m more concerned about playing music that I couldn’t normally play in a club.”

Since the country went into quarantine, Gagnon has been live streaming on Saturdays from 7 pm onwards. Every hour has a theme: 7 pm is for 70s music; 8 pm is for 80s hits; 9 pm for songs from the 90s; and 10 pm onwards is party time.

“This has given me an opportunity to expand my musical horizons and there are people out there that do love all types of music,” he said.

Gagnon said he plans to continue doing his Saturday show once things go back to normal, but may move it to a different night.

“The reality is when the doors do open, we still don’t know the laws on how big we are allowed to have parties, how much we will be able to travel. The fear factor is still going to be there for patrons,” he said.

Like Sturton, Gagnon said there has been a big learning curve to live streaming. He said that many artists have had to learn about more video and audio setups to ensure that live streaming goes smoothly.

“And I’m a real stickler for visuals and audio, and my surroundings weren’t the most appealing,” he said. “That’s why I tried to incorporate wearing different costumes and T-shirts.”

For Gagnon, the other challenge was going on camera. He said because he suffered from anxiety he wasn’t fully comfortable standing in front of a camera to DJ for several hours.

“For me, it was just a comfort level and really getting over that. I never liked being on camera, but I decided to really change my mindset and thrust myself into the spotlight and force myself to do it,” he said.

The father of three said that some days can be very challenging trying to balance his career working from home and making sure he’s present with his family.

Michael Blake, actor

Image Credit: John Bregar
Image Credit: John Bregar

Michael Blake says it has been challenging for many of the artists at the Stratford Festival to connect with their audience and continue doing what they love.

In an effort to keep performing safely, Blake created a group called the Stratford Pirate Transmissions that puts on Shakespeare Zoom readings.

“I found this to be so rewarding that we were all separate, but still working together… One actor even put on his reading from his fireplace so he can move around,” he said. The group is looking into using virtual backgrounds to create different settings.

Image credit: Screenshot YouTube
Image credit: Screenshot YouTube

Blake said that they’ve had 500-600 people watching their videos. Blake said the challenge with an online performance is maintaining the production or a full reading with everyone being in a different room.

“That was one of the challenges we definitely had to work on all of a sudden. We found that we couldn’t just sit there and read the play, it’s so boring.”

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