Duration: 55:01 min

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M&T’s Commercial Bank and our Group Vice President of our Education and Not-for-Profit Banking Group, Janet Farrell, hosted the second virtual panel discussion in our ongoing specialty lending series, Managing Through Challenging Times. The discussion focused on how cultural organizations are adapting to the unprecedented impact of COVID-19, navigating reopening and responding to critical social justice issues.

The panel featured:

Ongoing Impact of COVID-19

Janet Farrell opened the discussion by introducing the panelists and asking Jacqueline Copeland to share her point of view on how the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture has been handling the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Copeland began by talking about how, once the institution closed in early March, she and her team began rethinking the idea of what a museum is and how people engage with displays and exhibitions. Following internal conversations, Copeland knew the museum would have to make the pivot and go virtual.

“We quickly developed programing such as Objects Revealed that gave us the opportunity to pull back the curtain and showcase the objects and collections that were not currently on display,” she explained.

As Copeland and her team are mapping the move to digital, they are focusing on their strengths, distinctive knowledge base of Black history and the discussion of systemic racism.

While Copeland was able to use the museum’s physical assets in their transition to digital experiences, IN Series, a Washington, D.C.-based theater group focused on opera and song, found itself in a unique position because they do not obtain a theatre space of their own. Tim Nelson said this is intentional, as it gives the community-based organization the ability to tailor its pieces to the specific venues where performances are held to foster conversations and reflection on key issues.

“We were privileged in that we did not have to think about things like the overhead costs of owning a venue. That gave us the unique ability to weather the immediate aftermath of the shutdowns. It’s also given us the opportunity to talk about how we can use our advantages to help us produce content,” said Nelson.

As the discussion continued, Farrell commented that M&T Bank has enjoyed some of the online performances and virtual cocktail hours that IN Series has offered over the past few weeks.

For Aidan Connolly, the most enduring lesson that the Irish Arts Center has learned through their initial response to the pandemic is the importance of their mission and values. He explained that they were focused on the wellbeing of their teams, artists and audiences in the early days. With that top of mind, Connolly and his team’s next move was set up a recurring call with the thought leaders on their board of directors. “Our weekly board calls have been so valuable to us because many of our board members experienced the 2008 financial crisis, and they have shared important lessons they learned going through that with us,” explained Connolly.

Like Copeland and Nelson, Connolly also talked about the Irish Arts Center’s transition to digital programming and launching new online content such as At Home With the Irish Arts Center. “We were resilient and nimble and found opportunities to grow during the crisis, he said. “It was important to us. We also showed our audiences and stakeholders that there are different ways we could fulfill our mission.”

Navigating the Reopening Landscape

As cultural centers start planning for a safe reopening, they will likely seize the opportunity to continue their digital programming that grew out of the pandemic.

For Connolly, that means augmenting the Irish Arts Center’s in-person classes with online classes to reach people beyond the New York City area. In addition to planning for reopening, Connolly has also been focusing on keeping construction on the Center’s new building on 11th Avenue in Manhattan moving forward with an emphasis on flexibility and agility during these uncertain times.

“The construction project has been more than a decade in the making,” he added “We worked with our board and stakeholders to identity a new plan that we feel like we can stand behind and understanding things could change.”

While the Irish Arts Center is planning for an eventual reopening, IN Series announced early in the pandemic that all of its 2021 programming would remain online. Nelson explained that this decision stems from the desire to focus on the things he and his team can control. Committing to a digital strategy a full season enables IN Series produce content without guessing whether they will have to cancel or reschedule shows.

Additionally, Nelson wants to use the 2021 season to showcase what he calls the next phase of opera. “We will use the year as a year of adventure. For example, we’re going to make radio operas, video game operas, short-form operas and animated operas,” he said. “We’re going to play with form and see what is meaningful and resonates with our audiences.”

As Copeland and her teams in Maryland plan for the museum’s reopening, she understands that people may need time to feel comfortable visiting the space again. The museum recently made physical changes to ensure to the health and safety of its staff and visitors.

Addressing and Responding to Social Justice Issues

Farrell also addressed the country’s ongoing awareness of racial injustice and the pledge from organizations to dismantle systemic racism and understand their own unconscious biases. Cultural institutions are leaning into these issues, leveraging their particular strengths and experiences to bring unique perspectives to a societal challenge.

Farrell asked Copeland what this time means for the museum. In Copeland’s eyes, the museum has always been a safe place to conduct challenging conversations. “We look at this as a moment of strength for us. This is what we do,” she said “We look at ourselves not as a community center, but a center for the community. A place where we can discuss our history, discuss science and education and where we can grapple with issues that are really facing us now.”

For Nelson, a first step in being part of the change acknowledging that opera has historically been a white space. The next step is taking responsibility for addressing it. IN Series has focused on creating opportunities to amplify voices of color, such as giving writers the chance to rewrite well-known plays and operas from the perspective of the unvoiced.

Connolly sees this time as a moment for the Irish Arts Center to look inward and be more introspective when considering what they are doing in terms of inclusive programming. 

Final Thoughts

Clearly these are challenging times for many cultural institutions. But as our panel discussion revealed, innovative leaders are striving to find opportunity and create groundbreaking work within their respective industries amid disruption. By reimaging how they engage with their stakeholders and welcoming difficult conversations, these decision makers are implementing ideas that will not only see them through the pandemic but positioning them to be even more successful in the nation’s new normal.

Please review the content discussed in this important webinar and reach out to your Not-for-Profit Banking Relationship Manager or email Janet Farrell directly for questions regarding the challenges you may be facing during these unprecedented times. Be sure to revisit our Managing Through Challenging Times microsite at mtb.com/managing to access other episodes you may have missed within our series.

Disclosures: 

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not designed or intended to provide financial, tax, legal, investment, accounting, or other professional advice since such advice always requires consideration of individual circumstances. Please consult with the professionals of your choice to discuss your situation.

The information in this article has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but its accuracy and completeness are not guaranteed.  The opinions, estimates and projections constitute the judgment of Wilmington Trust and are subject to change without notice.

©2020 M&T Bank Corporation and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.

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