Has your arts organization figured out how to build on lessons learned delivering virtual arts programs or how to move forward in a post-quarantine COVID environment? In 2020, COVID quickly changed the landscape of arts programming. Workshops, performances, and classes took place on screen rather than in person. As we navigate a new arts engagement landscape, it’s important to reflect on what this experience taught us and how it can inform our path forward.
Between 2018 and 2021, Creative Forces supported Community Connections Projects (CCPs) to explore the impact of community-based arts activities for military-connected populations, including service members, veterans, families, and caregivers. Recently Creative Forces brought the CCPs together over Zoom to reflect on their experiences delivering programming during COVID and how they are moving forward in a post-quarantine COVID world. Below are the five key lessons they shared.
1. WHAT SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE IS POSSIBLE
Moving community arts programs online seemed daunting for the CCPs in spring 2020. “We’ll never be able to do this!” many recalled. But they did.
In fact, all Creative Forces CCPs moved at least two programs to a virtual format between spring 2020 and fall 2021, and 66% moved at least two programs to a hybrid format by fall 2021.
Through trial and error, they became “Zoom savvy” and taught themselves how to set up multiple cameras, create YouTube courses, run live webinars, connect to Facebook Live from Zoom, and how to host and monitor chats. They now consider these “professional survival skills.”
2. WHAT’S DOABLE IS BETTER THAN WHAT’S IDEAL
CCPs were practical and started small when developing virtual programs. And, importantly, they learned to check their assumptions about people and virtual arts engagement.
First, they adapted a few existing classes to the virtual format for current students, tracking what worked and what did not, and adjusting classes as they went. Once the teaching artists and military-connected participants were comfortable, they opened the virtual classes to new military-connected participants.
And to their surprise, new participants joined from across the country, reaching audiences they wouldn’t have otherwise!
CCPs gained between 6 and 20 new military-connected participants through virtual programs. Most were from out of state, lived in rural areas, and included spouses and caregivers of veterans. Many new participants were homebound:
“We reach an entirely different group of people who can take a class from their bed—literally we have two people who take classes from their bed.” –Brooke Dickhart, Executive Director,
The Joel Fund
These new participants continue to take virtual classes and satisfaction ratings are equal to in-person programs.
The Joel Fund delivered Writing for Wellbeing classes to staff and patients of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as part of Creative Forces virtual community programming between September 2020 and March 2021.
3. FLEXIBILITY AND CREATIVITY ARE YOUR FRIENDS
Frequent change was the only constant in the first two years of the pandemic according to CCPs. During quarantine, changes centered on transitioning programs, teachers, participants, and outreach to virtual platforms.
CCPs used the flexibility of the virtual platform to hire teachers familiar with online teaching from across the country when local teachers could not make the transition.
“We learned not all our instructors could make the transition to online teaching. But now I can get staff from all over the country, and if local instructors move, I can keep them. The benefit of virtual programming is they don’t have to physically be here to work for me.” –Celia Hughes, Executive Director, Art Spark Texas
Participants in virtual spaces had different engagement styles. Initially these looked like lack of engagement: not turning on their camera, remaining muted, and not using the chat. When these participants felt comfortable with the group, they turned on their cameras and mics, and began chatting. CCPs realized flexibility meant allowing participants to engage “at their own speed.”
Later in the pandemic, military-connected participants’ interests changed as their digital literacy skills increased. According to CCPs,
“What worked last year or yesterday may not work tomorrow. People are willing to try new things—and those will change over time.” –Jennifer Corley, Program Director, So Say We All
The key to flexibility was listening to participants and being creative in adjusting programming and schedules.
4. REGULARITY AND QUANTITY MATTER, ESPECIALLY FOR COMMUNICATIONS
Prior to the pandemic, CCPs communicated with participants through flyers, word of mouth, and personal contact often at local military clinics or in studio classes. These localized, in-person outreach strategies were not possible during quarantine.
Three communication formats proved successful for virtual engagement: veteran Facebook groups, email, and text messages. Using a virtual “word of mouth” outreach strategy, CCPs asked long-time participants to post upcoming class information to their Veteran Facebook groups. This expanded outreach from local to national, increasing participation.
“This really changes how we reach the community; we’re not doing just local outreach now; it is much broader—we have to think broader and use different media.” –Fred Johnson, Program Director, The Straz Performing Arts Center
CCPs used email and text messages to share class instructions and Zoom links. They quickly learned to send multiple reminders and detailed instructions for using Zoom, and to have an extra staff member available during the class to help with tech issues and to build the digital literacy skills of participants.
5. REMEMBER, WE ARE HUMAN
Staff and participants faced a variety of personal crises throughout the pandemic, reminding everyone of our humanity and need to slow down and connect with each other.
On top of this, Zoom enabled us all to enter each other’s homes, making us all more vulnerable to each other. This level of vulnerability demanded safe virtual spaces for military-connected participants to interact, often with family participating.
CCPs created safe virtual spaces by not recording the Zoom classes and allowing participants to keep their cameras off until they felt comfortable.
“We are literally in people’s homes with Zoom, so creating a safe space is not recording it because being in your home makes it more personal. You see things, things hanging on the wall behind them that start conversations. So, it’s a heightened vulnerability and we get to know people in new, personal ways.” –Brooke Dickhart, Executive Director, The Joel Fund
Another strategy was building community on Zoom through facilitated conversation. CCPs created sets of open-ended questions for instructors to use during lessons which jump-started discussions among participants. Using the chats and breakout rooms also supported these discussions.
CCPs continue to take this reminder of our humanity to heart when designing and delivering virtual programming and now apply it to all their programs.