Art in the time of coronavirus: How artists and performers are getting by

Vie Boheme's multidisciplinary one-woman show at the Guthrie was postponed in the wake of COVID-19.

Vie Boheme's multidisciplinary one-woman show at the Guthrie was postponed in the wake of COVID-19. Star Tribune

As the numbers of COVID-19 cases rise in the Twin Cities, social distancing measures increase each day to stop the spread. Meanwhile, Twin Cities artists, makers, and performers are losing work as venues shutter, things get postponed indefinitely, and freelance opportunities dwindle. So what are they doing about it? They’re moving online, re-evaluating approaches, and getting creative as they figure out how to survive in this time of crisis.

Riding through a pandemic as a contract worker

“I feel small and really big at the same time,” says Vie Boheme, whose multidisciplinary piece Centerplay was set to open at the Guthrie Theater this month. “It’s disappointing, but the entire world is getting canceled. It’s not personal... I just have to sit still.”

For now, all Boheme can do is wait.

Like many artists, Boheme’s freelance-based work means that her schedule has ups and downs. This month, she doesn’t have much else to do because she had planned to prepare for her Guthrie show. While she has upcoming contracts and performances scheduled for the summer, she doesn’t know if anything will actually happen.

Still, she’s grateful for people who have reached out to her and donated to her fundraiser. “I feel completely human right now,” Boheme says. “I feel very much a part of a community.”

Theo Langason says he has lost thousands of dollars. His solo Red Eye Theater show, Welcome Home/Home Edition, was postponed, and many of his other teaching and contract work has been canceled.

He’s trying to keep positive. “The best thing about [the cancellations] is that it can happen later without much trouble,” he says of his production.

In addition to performing, Langason is a teaching artist for K-12 schools and higher ed, and often takes on corporate acting gigs out of town. In some cases, Langason says he has received a portion of the contracted income. But sometimes there isn’t an actual contract in place; instead a loose agreement is established over email. “That’s the thing about being a contractor,” he says. “Often the contracts themselves are mostly a gesture. It’s like, sometimes we have them, sometimes we don’t.”

Still, Langason is trying to enjoy his break from work. “I could use a week off,” he admits. “I know I’m not the only one. Financial risk notwithstanding, the rest will be good for me. So I’m actually sort of thankful—not thankful for the cause, but I’m definitely trying to reap the rewards in that regard.”

Rachel Breen's exhibit at Mia was set to open this month.

Rachel Breen's exhibit at Mia was set to open this month. Renee Yamada

Museum and galleries close

“It’s a huge disappointment,” says Rachel Breen, whose show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s MAEP Galleries was postponed. “But oh my god, everybody is experiencing disappointment right now.”

Breen is also trying to stay optimistic. She’s especially encouraged by how the arts community continues to find ways to support each other, such as paying artists and workers for a show—even if it gets canceled—and experimenting online. “Everything I’m seeing online is people asking, ‘How do we navigate this as a community?’” she says.

The Water Bar’s Shannai Matteson believes that artists are uniquely equipped to help lead the way in a crisis like COVID-19. “As community organizers and as artists that are working to prepare for climate change, we’ve been doing good prep work,” Matteson says. “Our arts community is very creative and caring and resourceful; I think that we will figure some things out.”

Local choreographer and visual artist Terry Hempfling also expects creative responses from artists in dire these dire times, and even has a practical example.

Hempfling is currently in Ohio, where she had not planned to be this month. She was supposed to head to New York for an event, and then stop in Philadelphia to take down her gallery exhibition. When the coronavirus numbers started to tick up, she went to stay with her mom in Ohio.

Hempfling’s mom is a 67-year-old nurse who works part time in a hospice facility and part time in an inner-city hospital. “They get one mask to re-use indefinitely,” she says. “They have to put it in a Ziplock bag between uses.” The lack of supplies and safety resources has caused a lot of anxiety for her mom.

“My mom said, ‘We need to rethink the masks thing. We need washable masks,’” says Hempfling. That got her thinking. “What ways that artists can help healthcare workers, when supplies that this country have are running out?”

Hempfling points out that artists like Leeza Meksin have already been working on artist-designed masks, artist-designed neoprene, and other types of supplies that can be disseminated and reused.

Theo Langason

Theo Langason Mimivan Amerongen

Art classes are morphing and moving online

Photography artist Pao Houa Her has an exhibition opening in Vancouver at the end of March, for which she won’t be able to attend the opening artist talk. Another show featuring Her in Singapore ended up calling off the opening reception in January because of the outbreak.

Her is also an adjunct instructor at Anoka Ramsey Community College and the University of Minnesota, both of which have moved classes online. That’s tough for Her’s photography courses, which require hands-on demonstrations. “We really haven’t had time to plan,” she says.

Her is juggling online teaching with taking care of her two kids (her niece and nephew, who she and her partner are raising) who are staying home from daycare. Still, things carry on. She says she has found a wealth of resources on social media via Facebook groups and Google docs, where artists and educators are sharing tips on modifying art pedagogy.

A new hope

“In Minneapolis, people are really fighting [to find] ways to continue making money through art,” says Hempfling. She points to the many resources that have popped up, including emergency grants, online spreadsheets connecting freelancers to work opportunities, and fundraising platforms like GoFundMe and Kickstarter.

On Hempfling’s own Patreon account, some folks donate just $2 a month. “For those that have resources and want to help, it’s a good time to look at things like that,” she says.

Susana di Palma, artistic director of Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theater, has canceled upcoming performances at the Cowles as well as the school’s classes. Still, she is planning a party for when this is all over. “It’s going to be such a celebration,” she says. “We are going to dance for joy. It will be a glorious celebration of survival.”

For a list of resources, links to Google Docs, guides, and more, check out our roundup of helpful sites for artists at