The arts prove to be vital throughout pandemic
By Tristan Bennett
Delta Digital News Service
Jonesboro, Ark. — Hidden in the midst of the Delta lies an unexpectedly thriving arts scene with a goal to enrich the community in which it resides.
Even with the addition of masks, extra disinfecting and social distancing required by the new normal of the pandemic, arts organizations around Jonesboro remain open as a haven for local artists and lovers of the arts alike.
As the pandemic drags on, so does the anxiety surrounding the still-unknowns of the coronavirus. The arts are proven to alleviate stress and calm the brain. While it is impossible to see a Broadway show right now, local organizations continue to be an outlet for the community.
A quick temperature check, a mask, a squirt of hand sanitizer and an open mind is all it takes to learn a new craft in the age of COVID.
The Foundation of Arts operates in Jonesboro as a communal space for new and experienced artists to learn and perfect their craft. Kristi Pulliam, FOA executive director, said the arts are a vital part of life.
“The arts can improve your life in so many ways, Pulliam said. “The participation in the arts makes you better at almost every other thing you do. You’re a better communicator, you’re more self-confident, you’re more able to experiment and grow in all kinds of areas of life.”
The FOA offers classes in a wide range of arts disciplines. While learning an art may look different than in a pre-COVID world, Pulliam said the FOA staff strive for a safe environment for all their students. Enrollment numbers took a dive due to the pandemic, but classes are growing each week, and endorsement of the safety measures enacted by the Foundation.
As a space to learn, the FOA strives to improve the quality of life for everyone in Northeast Arkansas.
“The programming at the Foundation of Arts is really about people,” Pulliam said. “It starts with people, it ends with people, and it has arts all in between.”
Students of dance can learn to arabesque in ballet class, shuffle in tap or pirouette in jazz. After learning their new skills, they have the opportunity to showcase them in competitions across the region.
“It allows them to strut their stuff, and they’ll be judged against other dancers,” Pulliam said.
In addition to dance, students can train to be the next Broadway star in the FOA theatre arts classes or learn to paint like Picasso in their visual arts classes.
The FOA continues to provide opportunities for the general public to engage in the performing arts as well. Coming up, the FOA is hosting a House of Villains at their Forum theatre for Halloween, and their production of “Dreamgirls” hits the stage in November.
There is a certain calmness that can only be achieved by visiting an art museum. Jonesboro is fortunate to have one right at its heart on the Arkansas State University campus.
The artworks that grace the walls of the Bradbury Art Museum silently serve as a cultural steward to enhance the lives of Northeast Arkansas citizens.
Even in a pandemic, people of the community can immerse themselves within the quiet elegance of the museum. Garry Holstein, BAM director, said the art museum adjusted to the new protocols with relative ease.
“We’re a fortunate space in that we’re set up for people to come and enjoy artwork by themselves or with close friends, and not to touch,” Holstein said. “We’re kind of built for a going out safe experience.”
After a temporary closure, BAM reopened with a small, socially-distant reception and a brand new exhibit.
Currently, the museum houses an exhibition entitled “Radius 1.” It showcases artwork created by artists who live and work within a 180-mile radius of BAM. The show not only gives local artists a chance to showcase their work regionally, it gives the community the opportunity to see the talent growing in their own backyard.
Holstein said, “The amazing thing about this is you have so many talented artists here. A lot of people think you have to go to New York or somewhere far away to see amazing work, but we have people that have shown in Venice in this exhibition.”
The Delta is crawling with artistic talent, and through places like BAM, the residents of the community have the opportunity to dive into prestigious art right from home.
“Creative exploration of our shared cultural dialogue is what we do,” Holstein said. “It just reinforces our role in the community and our dedication to serve as a cultural steward and collaborate to create a shared sense of place.”
The coronavirus forced BAM to limit its hours to noon to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays through Saturdays, but the artwork still waits in its regal silence for someone to come brood over the artist’s true intention.
As devastating as the pandemic could have been on the arts, it only brought more creativity into the delivery of artistic experiences. Before, no one could have ever imagined listening to a live symphony from the comfort of their couch, but current circumstances made it possible for fine music to be available outside of the auditorium.
The Delta Symphony Orchestra is rooted in heritage and strives to meet an underserved need in the community. Neale Bartee, music director and conductor, said the orchestra formed in 1975 to give professional musicians in the area a chance to perform.
“There were really strong band programs and choirs, but there were no orchestra programs, and that’s an entirely different thing with the string section,” Bartee said. “We were providing a need that had not been fulfilled at that time.”
45 years later, the music scene in Jonesboro has expanded greatly. However, orchestra music still lags behind. The Arkansas State music department focuses mainly on instruments commonly played in marching bands, but Bartee, during his time on faculty with the department, helped to create the university orchestra program. As far as professional orchestra music in the region, the Delta Symphony Orchestra still operates alone.
“There’s a whole heritage of orchestra music that goes back 300 years with Bach through Beethoven, and there is no other group that performs that,” Bartee said.
COVID-19 forced live orchestra performances to a grinding halt, but in a way, it is now easier than ever for everyone to experience symphony music. The Delta Symphony Orchestra began livestreaming their performances on Facebook, making it possible to listen to a live professional orchestra on a couch, at the dinner table or in a car.
Bartee and the orchestra even began digging through past, recorded performances in order to provide the community with music during this time.
Now, anyone in Jonesboro can experience the sounds of the orchestra on cable channel 24. Previously recorded performances are broadcast regularly on the City of Jonesboro’s channel as a service to the community.
The Delta Symphony Orchestra not only provides a historically rich music to the community, it invests in the next generation of artists.
“We’ve brought Broadway stars to Jonesboro,” Bartee said. “We brought those guest artists that did some great work coaching the kids on how to do musicals.”
Hearing the orchestra through a screen may not be the ideal experience, but it expands the opportunity to more of the community and provides a chance to the general public to broaden their horizons.
As Pulliam said, involvement in the arts is a pillar of any quality society. Whether it be learning a new craft, immersing in a visual art or experiencing an orchestra, all work to enhance the quality of life of all those who enjoy it. In the extra stressful era of COVID-19, art can serve as an escape. Many think great art lives in far off places, but Jonesboro is home to a thriving art scene just waiting for the community to join.
NOTE: Feature photo by Tristan Bennett.