Arts & Culture, Our City

The COVID-19 Pandemic brings Massachusetts Public Art to a Halt

Interviews W/ JJ Gonson, id m theft able & more

by

The COVID-19 Pandemic has already taken a significant toll on the Massachusetts economy. A hard hit sector in this mess has been the arts.

From the barista by day, aspiring musician by night, to venue and gallery owners, to established touring musicians, the modern music and art industry has never experienced anything quite like this.

JJ Gonson, owner of ONCE Ballroom and Cuisine en Locale, said she is ‘sort of resigned at this point.’

ONCE recently had to cancel their event, The Mutual Admiration Society which was a series designed to have established Boston musicians curate shows of their favorite Boston musicians, who are emerging. The event, which would have given 50$, free food and drinks, and exposure to two bands, had to be canceled due to the Covid Pandemic.

Waking Windows cancelled their Winooski, Vermont festivities for 2020, opting to look to 2021 instead. Boy Harsher cancelled and rescheduled their planned Spring European tour for this Fall. While Boston Calling Festival was just delayed, at this point in time, many estimates would see it as optimistic for the festival to go on as planned. These are of course, just a few examples of how artists and venues have been impacted in the region; many more exist and stories keep coming in daily.

The main problem for artists and musicians is: if people cannot congregate in large groups, then concert halls, gallery exhibitions, DIY venues, festival grounds will cease to exist, at least until this novel Coronavirus is not spreading among the population. When venues can’t operate, fans can’t buy tickets, merchandise, and drinks, which means musicians and bookers and venue workers cannot get paid.

The only hope is that the COVID-19 pandemic is severely curtailed so that we can get back to our daily lives again, meaning, we can yet again congregate in large groups at venues, restaurants, bars, etc..

Another problem is that more and more people are being put out of work every day. Which means even for the smaller musicians and bands, tours and events will have to be put further and further on hold.

Within the last week I lost my full-time job at a coffeeshop, Boston Hassle had to suspend events for the next two months, at least, and if we were to have advertisers at on our site, I am sure we would have lost them too. I, like most of the population right now, am severely impacted by not only this epidemic, but also but the gross unpreparedness on behalf of local, state, and federal governments. & While this mismanagement continues to exist on behalf of our elected officials, we need to remain positive, and in solidarity. Read more about the many petitions, fundraisers and mutual aid resources we have compiled in this post here.

From my perspective, the most logical response to the COVID-19 crisis would be to take drastic, coordinated measures to not only reduce the number of unnecessary deaths, but also reduce the amount of time this virus would linger around among the population. Though, even this may be wishful and simple thinking. Since I am not an epidemiologist, I will cease to comment on what the future may hold and focus on what is on people’s mind’s here and now.

Being primarily an arts reporter for this lovely publication, I spoke with local artists, venue owners, and musicians to get an insight into the problems they are facing daily right now, as well as some, if any, silver linings to this whole situation.

ID M THEFT ABLE:

id m theft able is an experimental musician from Portland, Me. Lauded for his unique, eccentric performances, id m theft able was planning to embark on a Spring tour in Europe until the Corona Virus began spreading there and the United States. Faced with little other choice, but to cancel, the difficult decision had to be made.

Now he is thinking about taking time to make more music and art, but also to care fo his parents through this crisis.

Picture taken from @idmtheftable’s instagram page.

Boston Hassle: How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting your business/ job?

id m theft able: I’d been hearing about the virus from a good friend living in Asia for a while, so I’d been monitoring it since early January. It actually compelled me to hold off buying plane tickets both in the event that it spread into Europe and/or anticipating that if the virus spread far enough, hey, tickets might be cheaper! My crass opportunism wound up being fortuitous in the end when I decided to cancel, so I didn’t wind up losing money on unused tickets. At the time I decided to pull the plug, I’d been debating the wisdom of traveling, going back and forth about whether to stay or go. Playing shows is my absolute thing to do and it was very, very hard to let go. None of the promoters had discussed cancelling shows, a few protested insisting that things were fine where they were, but within a week all of the shows would have been cancelled anyway. At this point, my disappointment at having lost my tour has long since faded to concern for my friends, family and the whole damn planet. At this point, fuck my tour, I just want all of us to be okay.

BH: How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting your well being/ your communities well being?

id m theft able: On a personal level, aside from a few bouts of anxiety and paying way, waaaay too much attention to my body, I’m fine. I’m more concerned about my elderly parents whom I help take care of. One of them is actually due to fly home from Washington DC in a week and I’m trying to convince her to just let me go pick her up instead so she can minimize her risk. That’s, I think, an 18 hour round trip, but it’s worth it to me to help keep her safe. Unless, of course, I somehow contract it in the next week. I work at a record store and we’ve decided to shut down for a week or two. I also volunteer at a radio station and that’s shut down. I live in the country and spend a lot of time alone, so “social distancing” is not that big a deal for me, but I certainly miss going out and about, hitting the thrift stores, getting my groceries without fear, et c. So far, the people I know seem to be dealing with it well, but I think we’re still early in the process, unfortunately.

BH: What are some positives you see in all this chaos?

id m theft able: Well, nothing is more valuable than time, and there’s suddenly a glut of that! I’m wondering what kinds of things friends are going to be doing and making with this sudden gift. I would imagine since we’re all going out less there’d probably some positive environmental impact. It’s also nice to see so many people acting in solidarity with one another for once. It gives me hope that if there ever actually IS an asteroid headed right for us we might actually come together and do whatever it takes to save the planet……….maybe.

BH: How can art act as a guide through all this madness?

id m theft able: Oh, I don’t know, making stuff is my crutch for literally any issue. There’s no one to talk to? Make something. Feeling anxious? Make something. Just went through a break up? Make something. That’s how I deal with everything so, I guess, art is always a guide in that sense. I always find it to be a grounding and reliably rewarding experience. The more I give it, the more it gives me, and seeing OTHER people thrive under strained circumstances is always inspiring and a nice reminder that hey, you too could be doing that.

BH: What do you envision the end to all this? What are you looking forward to when we can congregate freely again?

id m theft able: That’s a difficult one. I don’t think any of us have ever dealt with anything like this so the ending seems pretty unknowable. I hope it’s sooner than later, but who knows at this point. I’m very much looking forward to all of us not having to live in fear, especially for our elderly friends and family, fearlessly hugging friends when I see them, and marauding the thrift stores as I do.

SHANNON DONAHUE FROM LEOPARD PRINT TASER & SWEETEST DEATH:

Shannon Donahue is the bassist for Leopard Print Taser and one half of the duo Sweetest Death. She is also a bartender at a local venue and a runs an online vintage clothing store. Like many folks, Shannon is looking to pivot to a side business she runs to be a primary point of financial stability, yet with shortage of goods and fears of the Post Office closing, most businesses are, or soon will be, severely impacted by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Image taken from Sweetest Death’s bandcamp page

Boston Hassle: How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting your business/ job?

Shannon Donahue: My main gig is bartending at a music venue, which you can imagine was one of the first places to close down. All of my co workers are filing for unemployment, mostly for the first time. We are all pretty much lifer service industry types, so at this time, there is basically nowhere for us to go.

My other job is running an online vintage clothing store. I’ve been trying to focus on this, but I have concerns that the post office will end up shut down, which will mean I cannot ship out my sales. Not to mention that all my scheduled pop ups have been canceled. And my usual sources for curating my shop closed, so once I’ve listed everything I currently have waiting, I won’t be able to hunt for more.

I’d love to say that my other jobs are my bands (Leopard Print Taser and Sweetest Death), but let’s be real here, bands don’t make any money, so financially we are not effected. We were actually in the middle of recording an album when shit really started to go down. I can’t tell you how bizarre it is to spend 9-10 hours a day, in a windowless basement recording studio for three days total, and then realize the entire world around you has changed drastically in that time while you were just playing your music. And now the building where we practice is encouraging bands to stay home and not come out unless absolutely necessary, so we probably won’t be practicing for some time.

BH: How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting your well being/ your communities well being?

SD: Thankfully, I’m VERY healthy. I’m kind of a health nut, so I’m not worried that I could become seriously ill. But I worry about a lot of people around me. Especially my mother who is 60 and diabetic, and, much to my dismay, thinks none of these measures are necessary.

I’ve recently been in contact with my old boss, from a restaurant job I quit almost two years ago. Because she is a small business owner I’ve been concerned about her business. She’s one of so many in this city who might not be able to come back from this. She’s been donating produce that will go bad and trying to pay her employees for as long as possible. But since there’s no end in sight right now, I’m not sure how hopeful she is at this point.

BH: What are some positives you see in all this chaos?

SD: Honestly, I’m REALLY struggling to see anything positive in this. I’ve been feeling so pessimistic, I’ve quite literally found myself googling “good news on coronavirus,” hoping I could find ANYTHING that might make me feel better. It’s grim, and I’m concerned.

BH: How can art act as a guide through all this madness?

SD: Okay, okay, if there is ONE thing I can say is a positive about losing my goddamn job and not being able to leave the house, I’m getting a ton of stuff done that I’d been putting off for months. And one of those things is finishing lyrics for one of my bands, which is thankfully an at home/studio project type of band, so who knows, maybe my one bandmate in Sweetest Death and I will write a full length album during all this madness. I think after a few weeks of being forced home bodies with no jobs, we will start to feel bit loopy, but hopefully we can use making art together to keep each other sane.

BH: What do you envision the end to all this? What are you looking forward to when we can congregate freely again?

SD: I think a lot of fucking people are going to die. Period. and that’s how this will end. I worry that every one who lives will lose someone they love. I cannot fucking wait to go back to work. One of my favorite things is going to shows, and playing shows. I also find absolute joy simply in getting ready in the morning. Putting on make up and picking out an outfit gives me life! And right now, I have no reason for it. Today I showered and then put on a different pair of pajamas. I have nothing to look forward to. I wish I had something more positive to say, but watching the news all day has really left me feeling a little hopeless.

It’s time for everyone to start writing their memoirs!

ERIK GRAU FROM THE PIANO CRAFT GALLERY:

View this post on Instagram

Social Distancing Gallery Eli Portman 5. "Tower in Hyannis Port" Pen and Ink 10"X11.75" 2. "5th Ave and West 53rd, Manhattan" Pen and Ink 9.5"X12" 1. "Neon Orange, Chinatown, New York" Pen and Ink, Watercolor 10.25"X13.75" 3. "Under the Manhattan Bridge, Chinatown" Watercolor on Paper 20"X17" 4. "Walking Down A Colorful Block in Chinatown, NYC" Watercolor on Paper 21.75"X18" Website: www.eliportman.com IG: @eli.portman

A post shared by Piano Craft Gallery (@artpcgboston) on

Boston Hassle: How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting your business/ job?

Erik Grau: The Piano Craft Gallery has closed it’s doors for the next 30 days. We are expecting that we will need to remain closed for longer. Our April exhibit has been cancelled. We were going to host the Boston University MFA painting show, but with BU closing down for the semester, it was not going to happen. We are really lucky that the Piano Craft Gallery is currently rent free and volunteer-run, so we are not as worried as other galleries might be in terms of meeting the bottom line and providing for employees. We are pretty much locking the doors and walking away from our physical space for the time being. We recently switched to an online model, which we are calling the, “Social Distancing Gallery,” where we post artist submissions to our social media accounts. I had been following the spread of the COVID-19 for months and knew that we would be moving towards greater restrictions, and ultimately a full declaration of Shelter in Place. It was a pretty seamless transition for our gallery, and it was intuitive in regards to continuing our mission of making all types of art accessible to a general public. One day we were closing our physical space and the next day we were accepting art submissions from around the world. Right now our biggest goal is acting responsibly so that we can preserve the health of our most vulnerable members of the community.

BH: How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting your well being/ your communities well being?

EG: The immediate community is in a state of shock or is unwilling to accept what is going to be a very uncomfortable reality for the foreseeable future. I am a Boston Public Schools teacher and last week the school district was informing the community as early as Friday morning that school closures would be based on positive Coronavirus cases. Later that evening, it was announced that all schools would close for 6 consecutive weeks. The president consistently downplayed the U.S. spread of COVID-19 until finally being forced to recognize it as a true threat, all the while blaming the Chinese in a racist manner. Our community is in total disarray right now and the economy is in the process of collapsing. The federal government is looking into paying every citizen $1000 right now. I can tell you that doesn’t go far in Boston as everyone will be putting that towards their several thousand dollar a month rent. I believe that we are going to see a total shift in our economic and social policies in the upcoming months. I personally am in one of the best positions right now as I am a union employee of the Boston Public Schools. I will be working hard to launch in-home learning that is facilitated by myself, parents, and students with ensuring that instruction is effective and individualized. It’s a new challenge but it will allow me to adapt my instructional practices. Largely, I will also have some increased studio time to paint, and I’m also lucky that my studio is in my apartment. I know that others are not so lucky, and it is important that we all look out for one another right now.

BH: What are some positives you see in all this chaos?

EG: I do really believe that this pandemic is going to bring people together. We have experienced so much hate and negativity for a long time and it is really time we try a different approach. I think that a sense of community is going to be formed and our collective thinking will be more on how can my immediate environment be made better. We are seeing this in the, “Social Distancing Gallery,” right now. Artists are coming together to share work in a new way. We’re all stuck at home but we are so amazingly connected. I think that this time will change collective attitudes for the better, otherwise the corruption will run rampant.

BH: How can art act as a guide through all this madness?

EG: I’m not sure if art will act as a direct guide through this pandemic. I do believe it can continue to shape and buffer the edges of public perception right now. I see art-making and art-viewing as a momentary escape from the harsh realities right now. If art can offer a respite to improve mental health during this time I believe than that it is serving a strong societal purpose.

BH: What do you envision the end to all this? What are you looking forward to when we can congregate freely again?

EG: I unfortunately do not see an end in immediate sight. Science and data are informing us that we have not seen the peak of this pandemic yet. I do believe that in time we will slow the curve, meet the healthcare needs, and begin to heal globally, but that will be after a significant increase in the rates of infection and death toll. I’m looking forward to a contemporary society evaluating the effects of this outbreak and beginning to apply the ability to work together globally to tackle other problems, most importantly the climate change crisis.

JJ GONSON OF ONCE SOMERVILLE:

Support the ONCE Ballroom fundraiser!:https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-for-once-somerville

Legendary music photographer and owner of ONCE Somerville and Cuisine en Locale, JJ Gonson is trying her best to problem solve throughout this pandemic. Between trying to amp up Cuisine en Locale’s food and meal delivery programs and cut as much costs as possible off the running of ONCE ballroom during its closure, she was kind enough to take her time to speak with Boston Hassle on the phone.

She urges you to donate to the ONCE fundraiser linked above and also check out Cuisine en Locale, which supports local farmers as well.

Boston Hassle: How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting your business/ job?

JJ: The first cancellation was a week ago thursday 12th — Post Animal. We were open last wednesday but closed thursday because of the cancellation. Then the cancellations started to roll and it was more obvious we shouldn’t have events anymore.

BH: Do you have a direct contact with the city of Somerville?

JJ: I do have direct contact w city — it is a department called economic development and we’ve had a relationship for years. One of the things we are trying to work on is our liquor license. Liquor licenses needs to have insurance — by law. Our insurance agent asked if we could cancel insurance on our liquor license which would save us $675 per month which is life and death at this point.

BH: What are some positives you see in all this chaos?

JJ: Clear water in Venice, decrease in smog in Asia, spring outside, quiet, peaceful. There is a lot of solidarity; I like the Boston music scene a lot, my menopause group (laughs). I am overwhelmed by online dependency — I hope we start phoning more, going for more walks.

Angela Merkl just gave a beautiful speech.

BH: What do you envision the end to all this? What are you looking forward to when we can congregate freely again?

JJ: I really don’t have an answer for that…

Feature image of id m theft able’s instagram page.

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Chris Hues is a human & writer from Boston, Ma & Associate Editor of bostonhassle.com. //// They can be reached at chris@bostonhassle.com or @crsjh_ via instagram & twitter.

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