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Pandemic creates a shockwave for arts and culture in Madison (updated)

The Wisconsin Film Festival and dozens of concerts and other events have already been canceled.

The Wisconsin Film Festival and dozens of concerts and other events have already been canceled.

Photo: Detail from Fred Stonehouse’s “Death Enters The Golden City,” a multimedia installation currently on display at the Chazen Museum of Art.

Editor’s note: This story was initially published on Thursday, March 12. We are updating it as we receive more information and comments. If you have something to share, please reach out to [email protected].

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The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic hit home for Madison on Wednesday, as UW-Madison announced that it would switch all its classes to online instruction from at least March 23 through April 10. Social distancing has become a public health and moral imperative, and with any significant gathering of people, attendees and organizers have to weigh the risks, and especially the possibility of spreading the virus to immunocompromised people. In the arts, the pandemic has prompted unequivocal calls around the country to shut down concert halls and other large performance spaces for the time being. On Thursday, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers declared a public health emergency. As of 5 p.m. Friday, Public Health Madison & Dane County has banned “mass gatherings of 250 or more people.”

All of this is looming over the music and arts community in Madison. The ripple effects reach everywhere, from film to live concerts to visual art to burlesque performances, from rock tours to wedding DJ gigs. There’s no arguing with the need to take precautions, keep the virus from harming or killing people, and hopefully keep it from overwhelming the healthcare system. The fallout beyond the immediate health crisis is also much deeper than missing that movie or show you’ve been looking forward to—artists and musicians are bracing for harsh economic impact, and the pandemic underscores the flimsiness of our support systems for arts and culture, on top of the economic precarity that forms most Americans’ daily realities.

The 2020 Wisconsin Film Festival has been canceled, organizers announced Friday. “As soon as the dust settles we will look into some options for rescheduling screenings, particularly for Wisconsin’s Own films and other films that will not have gone into general release or streaming platforms by then,” says Ben Reiser, one of the festival’s programmers. Reiser added that, to his knowledge, this was the first time the entire festival had been canceled.

UW Cinematheque, programmed by basically the same team of film curators as the WFF, has canceled all screenings through at least April 12, the Wisconsin Book Festival is postponing events through mid-April (a reading scheduled for Thursday night with Brandon Taylor will go on), the Wisconsin Union Theater has canceled several concerts and the Chazen Museum of Art has canceled its public programming through April 12, though the museum will stay open for now. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art canceled an art opening and several other events. Café Coda lost shows scheduled from a couple of international artists: Ethiopian musician Girma Bèyènè on March 15 and Danish saxophonist Sonja Labianca on March 22.

Tuareg guitarist Mdou Moctar, who was scheduled to play the High Noon Saloon on April 2, canceled his whole run of tour dates. A planned benefit show for the Social Justice Center on March 28 has been postponed. Thursday night’s Jason Aldean concert at the Dane County-operated Alliant Energy Center was rescheduled for August. The Majestic canceled a St. Patrick’s Day-themed dance party. The Madison Roller Derby league canceled a bout scheduled for Saturday at the Alliant. Non-profit venue Communication (also Tone Madison’s partner organization) has announced that it will close from March 13 through March 30. The annual Line Breaks Festival—a rich showcase of music, dance, and theater pieces from students in UW’s First Wave program—has been canceled too. Punk band The Hussy canceled a European tour that was scheduled to begin next week.

FPC Live, the Madison-based subsidiary of Live Nation that runs venues including The Sylvee, the High Noon Saloon, the Orpheum, and the Majestic, announced on Friday that it would close its venues through March 31. This impacts more than 40 shows, some of which will be canceled and some of which will be rescheduled. Live Nation recommended on Thursday that tours be canceled.

Another non-profit venue, Arts + Literature Laboratory, has yet to move into its new space on East Main Street, but is postponing scheduled events there and off-site through April 10. (Tone Madison partners with ALL on some events, including a scheduled March 29 concert with the band Elder Ones. This will likely be rescheduled.)

Madison Public Library branches will remain open for regularly scheduled hours, but MPL has announced that all events at libraries will be canceled.

Around town, people are getting nervous, wondering about tours falling apart (especially if they tour overseas), and trying to figure out if they can set up online livestreams to at least partially make up for canceled live events. Some people could get hit on two fronts, losing out on Madison’s elusive paying gigs for musicians and artists, and losing out on income from the service-industry jobs and teaching gigs so many creative people work to make ends meet.

“Even if it only goes as far as it’s gone, there will still be repercussions financially,” says Karin Wolf, the City of Madison’s Arts Administrator. On Thursday, Wolf says, Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway granted Wolf the ability to extend deadlines for arts projects the city is funding through Madison Arts Commission grants.

“We’re in this weird zone where we’re seeing writing on the wall from what’s happening across the globe, but here in Madison we’re not seeing a high number of cases—we’re not a hot zone right now, so people are confused on exactly what to react to, yesterday or today,” Wolf says. “We don’t want to encourage people to go forward with events that they don’t feel will be successful or that will actually endanger people.”

The COVID crisis puts a finer point on the need for American society to provide more economic security, not just for artists but for everyone. “I would feel safer going into this if all the artists I knew had guaranteed healthcare,” Wolf says. “There are all kinds of ways that I wish there were more government infrastructure and a safety net in place.”

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The blow to the music industry will be especially tough on people with an international reach, like Madison resident Ankur Malhotra, co-founder of Amarrass Records. The label, split between Madison and New Delhi, manages several acts in addition to its work putting out recordings and running a small vinyl-pressing operation. One group on Amarrass, Barmer Boys, had to cancel a five-date tour in Morocco, and several of its upcoming shows in Europe seem to be on thin ice.

“I have had to cancel my trip to India [for] new artist recordings, Record Store Day and vinyl cutting in India, new releases, etc.,” Malhotra says. “We have had zero booking discussions in the past few weeks, as all conversations around shows are on hold. Our Amarrass Nights concert in New Delhi last week had a drop in ticket sales and attendance by close to 75% (compared to the previous two months).” 

All of this represents thousands of dollars in lost revenue for Amarrass, but, Malhotra says, “Even more painful is the past six months of work—and lots of blood, sweat and tears—that goes up into thin air.”

Avalon Clare, who makes a living primarily from DJing under the name DJ Avalon, already lost one private gig due to virus concerns and is worried about how things will shake out for wedding season, as well as public DJ Avalon gigs at various spots in Madison. 

“As a former bartender and 17-year service industry veteran, I’m really grateful to no longer be part of that industry at a time like this,” Clare says. “I feel for the people who are and what this will mean for their income. I feel conflicted about encouraging people to come see me at Lucille when all the scientific reasoning I’ve encountered stresses extreme social distancing.”

Burlesque performer Mercury Stardust-Topz co-founded a company called Five Star Tease that produces a weekly show at FIVE Nightclub off of Fish Hatchery Road, among other events. She emphasizes that the pandemic’s ripple effect in the arts will be especially tough on marginalized people, including transgender women like herself. “Something like this that will ultimately effect consumer-based businesses is ultimately terrifying,” Stardust-Topz says. “Not just on a health level but also from a social and economic level.”

Like other performers, she’s exploring the possibility of creating web video and streams in lieu of live shows, but doubts that that will make up for lost revenue. “We already announced that we are planning a royalty-free music burlesque show shot off of phones and in our homes, that will go on to Vimeo,” Stardust-Topz says. “The response has been positive, and has made us aware that there are consumers who we haven’t reached in awhile because, to be honest, they are busy.  They can’t leave the house because they are with their family, kids, or they are just too tired. So there may be a revenue stream here that is viable for us. But it’s also tough to really picture….it’s a fun concept, but we are a live event production company. If we pivot in this route, it’s a whole other world we aren’t familiar with.

“I just want folxs to know that I want what’s best for our communities as well,” Stardust-Topz says. “I work with marginalized people every week. We are often trans, POC or persons with disabilities who often get cast aside by society during these moments of crisis.”

Madison-based folk musician Josh Harty is getting nervous about some planned tour dates with his longtime friend and collaborator Blake Thomas, who also lived in Madison for a number of years. “Blake and I have two weeks of dates in the UK starting April 24 and it’s not looking good,” Harty says. “Ireland just banned large public gatherings and of course there’s the EU travel ban. That’ll be nine months of planning down the pipe if this goes south. I’ve spoken too with a number of friends around the country that have international dates and it looks to be a pretty big cancellation rate at the moment.”

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