Online arts: Arts venues respond to COVID-19 outbreak

  • The Academy Award-nominated film “Corpus Christi” is one of a number of movies that now can be streamed via the Amherst Cinema website while the movie house remains closed. Image courtesy Amherst Cinema

  • The documentary “Fantastic Fungi” is one of a number of movies that now can be streamed via the Amherst Cinema website while the movie house remains closed. Image courtesy Amherst Cinema

  • The Springfield Museums have added several online features such as videos, interactive games for children and painting lessons for adults in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Image courtesy Springfield Museums

  • Northampton singer-songwriter Heather Maloney, here playing the 2019 Green River Festival, can also be seen in a past performance at Watermelon Wednesdays in Whately. The popular summer music series has now made over 30 videotaped shows available for online viewing. Photo by Paul Franz/Gazette file photo

  • The West Whately Chapel, where the Watermelon Wednesdays summer music series is staged. With concerts this year uncertain, past shows at the 19th-century building can now be seen online through the series’ website. Image from Facebook

  • West Whately Chapel, Mar. 30, 2020 —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Shuttered art galleries. Blank movie screens. Museums empty of visitors. Concert series scrapped or uncertain.

The COVID-19 outbreak has pretty much closed down the arts for the time being, or at least the public presentation of it, hitting art venues and artists alike in their wallets and their sense of purpose.

Now some of those venues are searching for ways to maintain links to the public and their supporters through online programs — and maybe generate a little revenue in the process.

From live-streamed films, to videos of memorable concerts from the long-running Watermelon Wednesdays series, to online activities for children to access through the website of Springfield Museums, different venues are trying to maintain what Kay Simpson, the president and CEO of the Springfield complex, calls “the bond we have with the public.”

Last week, Amherst Cinema launched what it calls its “Virtual Cinema” program, through which film lovers can get direct access to first-run movies the cinema had planned to run in-house this year. From now until the cinema reopens, about three movies will be offered for streaming each week, each with a price roughly comparable to that of a single ticket for a regular movie.

The money generated will be split between the cinema and the independent film distributors that make the movies available, said George Myers, Amherst Cinema’s general manager.

“As much as we’d like to have people here together to watch these films, the reality right now is very different,” said Myers. “But one of the benefits of being an independent cinema is that we get to work with independent distributors, who have more flexibility to adjust to this new situation … This really is a very good opportunity for people who are stuck at home right now.”’

Three new films, online streaming for which can be accessed through the cinema’s website, opened March 26 and run through April 2, including “Corpus Christi,” a Polish movie nominated for Best International Film at this year’s Academy Awards. The Los Angeles Times called “Corpus Christi,” about an ex-convict who through strange circumstances becomes a village priest, a “blistering drama, intense, disturbing and inescapably thought-provoking.”

That film and two others — “Fantastic Fungi” and “No Data Plan” — will be offered through April 2, with new films added Friday, April 3. The online films will continue to be offered until the cinema reopens, which had previously been slated for April 3 but will undoubtedly now be pushed back further, said Myers.

“We have 6,000 members, and we want to be able to offer them something while we’re waiting,” said Myers, who notes that Amherst Cinema is also trying to arrange some short additions to its online offerings, such as brief interviews with the film directors, as a substitute for the in-house Q&As the cinema has previously hosted with directors and other principal figures from its films.

“And,” he added, “this also gives us a bit of financial support.”

At the Springfield Museums, meantime, Simpson says a number of online activities have been added or expanded, including interactive games for children, especially through the website seussinspringfield.org, which is dedicated to the Dr. Seuss Museum. Kids can learn how to make a “3-D cat,” for instance, with paper, scissors, glue and coloring materials; the site also includes online games. Online art lessons for adults, such as one on watercolor painting that will run for seven weeks beginning April 8, have been added as well.

New science videos by “Safari Dan” — the museums’ aquarist, Dan Augustino — have been introduced and have proven popular so far, said Simpson, who noted that the new content is in response both to requests from the public and because staff want to remain in touch with people.

In a typical year, Simpson said, well over 400,000 people — regular visitors, school groups, museum members and others — come through the doors. “It is such a strange and different feeling not having anyone here, with no one out on the Quadrangle” where the Dr. Seuss sculpture garden is set, she said. “Now, with so many people working or learning from home, we’re trying to reach out through the website and social media and stay in touch.”

The popular Watermelon Wednesdays series, which last year celebrated its 20th anniversary, has featured dozens and dozens of top-flight acoustic music groups over the years, with shows typically selling out well in advance. In an email, Paul Newlin, the founder and director of the series, says many of those performances, in the West Whately Chapel, have been filmed by FCATMedia (Frontier Community Access Television), and are now available for viewing online at the series’ website.

From a 2011 show by the Sweetback Sisters, to a 2016 concert by Heather Maloney and Darlingside, to one from 2015 by the St. Petersburg Quartet, over 30 concerts can be viewed at watermelonwednesdays.com. The site also includes a link for making a donation to Watermelon Wednesdays that Newlin says will be pooled for musicians “who, by necessity, might have to cancel their shows this summer.”

A growing number of other online “exhibits” and activities are being added regularly by arts organizations or event hosts:

■ Amherst Arts Night Plus will go virtual on April 2, with a series of back-to-back interviews with area artists who have exhibited in Amherst galleries since November 2019. It will air on Amherst Media, Channel 15 beginning at 5 p.m. and can also be streamed at

■ Karen Skolfield, Northampton’s poet laureate and a writing teacher at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has compiled an online list of poems and poetry resources for the community. Resources range from online workshops and readings to podcasts and audiobooks, writing prompts, and a sampling of journals. northamptonartscouncil.org/2020/03/sheltering-in-poems-and-poetry-resources.html

■ This month’s Song & Story Swap in Amherst, with folksinger-songwriter Pat Lamanna, takes place April 4 at 7 p.m. via Zoom. Visit filbert.com/pvfs/ and click on the “register” button at the top of the page.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.