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COVID-19 Puts Iowa’s Arts Community In A Long Intermission

Michael Leland
Des Moines Perfoming Arts has launched #ProjectJoy and encourages Iowans to share what brings joy to their lives using the hashtag.

Ashley Shields became the executive director of the Old Creamery Theater in Amana on Feb. 9. A little more than a month later, the professional company in eastern Iowa postponed its production of the jukebox musical “Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story.” It was because of the spread of the novel coronavirus. Shields has been working to keep her spirits up ever since.

“I love it that I’m at least working passionately to keep something alive and thriving during this time,” she said. “At least I have something positive to channel my energy into.”

The outbreak of COVID-19 in Iowa is forcing the creative class to become even more creative. With stage shows and exhibits either canceled or postponed by social distancing guidelines, leaders in the arts are dreaming up new ways to reach audiences. For many, this means going digital.

The Des Moines Symphony Orchestra has cooked up something called “DMSO at Home.” It includes videos of musicians coping with forced isolation from their living rooms and playing small concerts. The orchestra’s music director for more than 30 years, Joseph Giunta, said such efforts would not have been possible in the days before live streaming.

“The most important thing we all can do in the arts community is try to stay connected to our audience,” he said. “And that’s easier today with the technology we have.”

In the midst of the unknown, the arts have always united communities. - Jeff Chelesvig, CEO Des Moines Performing Arts

The symphony stages its concerts at the Civic Center, one of the venues operated by Des Moines Performing Arts. The site for many events, including touring shows from Broadway, is quiet until at least mid-May. It has launched what it calls #Project Joy. The organization’s president and CEO Jeff Chelesvig said the effort attempts to keep people engaged in the arts.

“We have a lot of content for the different arts we present, including playlists to listen to when working from home, lots of wonderful family activities, videos from favorite Broadway performers,” he said.

Des Moines’ only jazz club, Noce, is streaming free performances on Wednesday and Sunday nights. Co-owner and general manager Max Wellman is also a singer and part of the live shows. He said he quickly got used to singing in front of empty chairs.

“It’s not unlike doing something for a recording or a TV appearance,” he said. “The camera is your audience.”

What’s missing said the other co-owner of Noce, Maria Filippone, is the money that comes from the bar business.

“Clearly, our revenue is nothing what it used to be,” she said. “But, we wanted to find a way to keep local musicians and some of our staff employed.”

It’s not just the performing arts that are affected by COVID-19. Art galleries have gone dark, too. The director of marketing and public relations for the Des Moines Art Center, Jordan Powers, spent seven hours with a photographer scanning images of displays to create a virtual tour.

“It has pushed us really hard to try new things and to challenge ourselves to reach our audiences in ways we never knew possible,” she said.

Back in Amana at the Old Creamery, Ashley Shields helped organize a digital cabaret that served as a fundraiser for five Eastern Iowa theater companies. The goal was to bring in $5,000. The result was almost $17,000, which gives her confidence for the future.


“I do think that once we are able to get people back in the theater our ticket sales will be robust because people are just craving that right now,” she said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jeff Chelesvig in Des Moines.

“In the midst of the unknown, the arts have always united communities,” he said.

The current unknown, of course, is when will patrons be allowed back inside to share the arts.