The inability to present live performances during the pandemic posed a challenge for arts organizations and the communities they serve. Although COVID-19 has impacted the entire arts sector, the performing arts have perhaps felt it the most, with a decline in revenue from tax-exempt performing arts companies of nearly 54% in the third quarter of 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Finding a way to keep audiences connected and performers engaged has required a re-imagining of performance. For instance, when the Mount Baker Theatre in Bellingham closed last spring due to the pandemic, the Bellingham Symphony Orchestra was forced to adapt, taking its popular concerts online.

“We weren’t sure how our patrons would take to the online move,” says BSO Music Director Yaniv Attar. “The in-person connection between the audience and orchestra — feeling the music, not just hearing it — is such a large part of the concert experience.”

But BSO audiences are finding that while there are certainly downsides to virtual concerts, one of the silver linings is the intimacy of these performances, recorded in soloists’ homes and studios. It’s also opened the door to presenting interviews with Attar and the soloists, offering more perspective on the music and the performers.

This new connection and broader reach has helped some organizations grow. “We’ve been able to reach people online who might not have wanted or been able to attend concerts in-person,” Attar says. “And we’ve gotten creative, providing more at-home programming for the entire family.” 

The pandemic spurred the BSO to create and share musical instruction tools filled with fun and learning that can be done at home. “Learning how to make a kazoo from a carrot, or conducting a blob opera is so much fun for the whole family,” says BSO Executive Director Gail Ridenour. “Sharing the joy of music is our passion, and we love providing these resources to parents and teachers.”

The Learn at Home program provides teachers and parents hands-on activities, interviews with musicians, composers and inspiring stories. One lesson features Breanna Sinclaire, the first transgender person to sing the national anthem at a professional sporting event. Another lesson features soprano Ashley Becker talking about kid-friendly operas. There are also an array of entertain videos on the BSO website, such as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg discussing her top five must-see operas. (She saw her first opera at age 11, and was hooked!) 

Looking ahead

The BSO is a founding member of the new Whatcom Arts Project, a consortium of more than 30 local arts nonprofits. The goal of the Whatcom Arts Project is to reach the community during to provide hope, entertainment, learning opportunities and a sense of togetherness. Each week, the BSO posts learning activities and videos on its website and to social media as part of the Whatcom Arts Project.

This kind of collaboration is key to a healthy future for the arts. For many arts organizations, the challenge of adapting in-person performances to virtual experiences — and to monetize these experiences — will be critical to longer-term stability.  Solutions will depend on creative collaborations among arts organizations, government, the private sector, foundations and audiences.

“An orchestra cannot exist on its own. Only when there is total harmony between the artistic staff, the administration, the board, the orchestra, and the community, can music thrive,” says Attar.

In the meantime, artists with groups like the BSO continue to connect with audiences in new ways in the hope that the expanded online programming will continue to attract more people who will come see them in person when performances go live again.

The Bellingham Symphony Orchestra engages, connects, and uplifts our community by performing powerful, beautiful and inspiring music. We work to keep our community engaged with classical music, by performances and by providing educational tools.