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March 31, 2020

County theaters, galleries deal with closures

After the outbreak of COVID-19 prompted shelter-in-place orders last week, scores of performing arts venues and museums across Santa Cruz County have closed. 

Staff and artists are now out of work, and locally-owned venues are currently figuring out their next step.

Cabrillo College Box Office Specialist Shawna Berry said she never imagined something of this magnitude.

“I have worked in box offices for more than 20 years and have never seen such high numbers of venues closed,” Berry said. “It’s odd, and sad to experience the unexpected halt of such a big part of society.”

Cabrillo’s Music and Theater Arts departments were halfway through a run of “Considering Matthew Shepard” when the school suspended all in-person classes and live performances.

“My heart sank when we had to freeze sales and begin issuing refunds,” Berry said. “I had seen the performance the week prior and was completely in awe. I had so much hope that so many more people… would be able to see, hear and feel [it’s] very important message.”

The college has suspended 14 other events and postponed sales for the Cabrillo Stage Summer Musical Festival. Berry said phone lines have been filled with hundreds of messages, many asking for refunds but others expressing sympathy for those dealing with the aftermath.

In Santa Cruz, longtime Rio Theatre owner Laurence Bedford is also dealing with an uncertain future.

“We closed March 12,” Bedford said. “It was a hard decision… We had sold-out shows on both the 13th and the 14th. But we didn’t want to be that one venue that took a chance. We are high-capacity, so there’s really no goofing off there.”

Santa Cruz’s historic Rio Theatre is one of many performing arts venues across Santa Cruz County that have closed their doors during the shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19. —Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

The Rio opened its doors in 1949 as a movie theater and now serves as a performing arts venue, with the occasional film screening. With no events assured, Bedford is looking for ways to keep the historic building maintained and staff paid.

“Everyone is affected,” Bedford said. “Artists, promoters, professionals… it’s mayhem. We hope to rebook people, but no one knows when they can get back on the road.”

Pajaro Valley Arts had just finished installing its latest exhibit, “Campesinos: Workers of the Land” when things shut down. The gallery in Watsonville is currently closed to the public and staff is working from home.

The opening reception for “Campesinos” plus the first two events are canceled, and the next two are pending. The organization hopes to extend the exhibition, moving others further into the year. 

“Sculpture Is,” the annual show at Sierra Azul Nursery and Garden, has already been postponed until July, and the annual member show until August. 

“It’s a domino effect,” said Exhibit Coordinator Hedwig Heerschop. “Things just keep changing. We’re doing what we can.”

PV Arts usually works with Pajaro Valley Unified School District to bring students to the gallery on field trips and participate in art shows. During school closures, the organization’s Education Committee is developing an online curriculum and virtual tours of exhibits.

“We miss our patrons and friends, and especially the students,” Heerschop said. “We miss those little faces, full of energy and eager to learn.”

PV Arts is still taking donations through its website.

“There is so much work involved in putting these shows together,” Heerschop said. “We hope people stay engaged. We have so many more plans. The arts must go on.”

Bedford said there has been a great deal of miscommunication about what will happen next.

“We don’t want people to give up,” Bedford said. “Just take a step back… figure out what comes next. That’s all we really can do.”

Berry had a similar view.

“Our events will continue. Our lives will go back on track,” she said. “It’s just this time in between… where we wait. I’m fairly new to the area… but what I have experienced so far is that this place is filled with art-loving and free-thinking people. With all that is happening… [it is] a place of hope.”

Johanna Miller
Johanna Miller
Reporter Johanna Miller grew up in Watsonville, attending local public schools and Cabrillo College before transferring to Pacific University Oregon to study English and Media. She covers the arts, business and agriculture.


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