WESTAF Stories of Resilience

With winter just around the corner and 2020 soon drawing to a close, it feels like an appropriate and productive time to look back on the year’s events and reflect on what went well and perhaps what could have been done better.

As we all contemplate the many challenges we were confronted with in 2020, we wanted to share some stories of hope from the 13 western states in our region. These stories offer examples of ways the arts and culture sector is addressing current challenges, specifically the COVID-19 pandemic, and our nation’s coming to terms with its history of ongoing racial inequity. Each story resonates with one common theme: resilience. Resilience, that characteristic that demonstrates an ability to bend but not break, a bouncing forward rather than falling back.

At this chaotic and uncertain time, we hope you find inspiration in these Stories of Resilience and the coming together of communities to overcome adversity and ensure a brighter future for us all.



Photo courtesy of Alaska State Council on the Arts

Alaska Arts and Culture Emergency Relief COVID-19 grants
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation, the Atwood Foundation, and the Rasmuson Foundation offered Alaska artists the opportunity to apply for Alaska Arts and Culture Emergency Relief grants. Artists whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the pandemic had the opportunity to apply for grants of up to $1,500. Applications were reviewed by a panel of artists and art experts from across the state. The Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation and the Alaska State Council on the Arts have also provided the field with a web page offering information and resources related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Bunnell Street Arts Center presents: Inspiration and Adaption
Inspiration and Adaptation is a weekly conversation with Alaska artists hosted by the Bunnell Street Arts Center. These conversations offer strategies and perspectives on issues such as the current effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, social unrest, recession, and more. Inspiration and Adaptation provides an intimate look at the ways many artists are responding to these challenging times. Listeners can go to the Bunnell Street Arts Center website to register to join the weekly conversations via Zoom or tune into previous conversations.

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Photo courtesy of Bunnell Street Arts Center


Photo by Josh Galemore, courtesy of the Arizona Daily Star

Black Lives Matter mural project in Tucson
Muralists Robbie Lee Harris, Adia Jamille, and To-Re-Nee Wolf took to the walls of Tucson, Arizona amid protests against police brutality and racism. Artist Joe Pagac organized the Black Lives Matter mural project and collected monetary support from the community. Each mural has its own theme of justice, freedom, or Black love, but they all send the same message: Black Lives Matter. 

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Californians for the Arts: Artists are second responders
In light of the public health crisis resulting from COVID-19, systemic racism, and the financial crisis in the arts sector, Californians for the Arts is fighting back. Making the case for artists as “second responders” to the pandemic, the advocacy organization is pivoting its messaging to emphasize the essential impact artists make in our society and economy. With the goal to protect the California Arts Council’s budget, the organization is also working to persuade lawmakers that cultural workers are essential to disaster recovery by stepping in just after first responders to help rebuild life and community. Californians for the Arts also hopes to engage writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and storytellers of all kinds to use this message as a creative prompt to illustrate the value of artists and arts organizations as essential workers and services in our communities. 

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Photo courtesy of Californians for the Arts


Photo courtesy of Control Group Productons via The Know

Control Group Productions: Live theater from your car in Denver
The performing arts sector is among those most impacted by COVID-19, with indoor large gatherings being either forbidden or seriously curtailed. But the Denver-based experimental theater company Control Group Productions is challenging would-be theatergoers to expand their horizons—literally—by providing a 9-mile route of dance and narrative performances on public and private lands. Driving themselves along the route, attendees can watch the performance as well as listen with an accompanying FM broadcast. By thinking outside the (theater) box, Control Group Productions hopes to make attention-getting new work while providing an important creative outlet for theatergoers and performers alike.

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Black Lives Matter street mural in Denver
Taking a page from the city of Washington, D.C., artist Adri Norris and a team of volunteers—with the support of the city of Denver—transformed part of the main thoroughfare street of Broadway near the state’s Capitol building into a large-scale mural supporting the voices of the Black Lives Matter movement. While the nonprofit organization Denver Arts & Venues supplied the volunteers, Norris and her artist cohort, Pat Milbery, designed and planned the effort to create this outlet for Black voices in a time of historic racial struggle.

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Photo by Andy Cross, courtesy of The Denver Post

Art and photos by Josh Tagle (left) and Alexander Allen (right), Courtesy of Pandemic Self-Portraits

Pandemic Self-Portraits
A Denver artist sought connection in a time of isolation through creative self-portraits accompanied by stories of COVID-19 experiences. Within two days, her Facebook and Instagram project had collected submissions from across the world. As of September 2020, the call for submissions continues indefinitely.

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Hawai’i International Film Festival at home
Despite COVID-19’s impact on the independent filmmaking scene, the Hawai’i International Film Festival (HIFF) made sure access wasn’t diminished by releasing shorts for free to stream at home and converting the SummerFest into a virtual experience. Nothing is stopping HIFF from continuing to support the development of young creatives with the K-12 Student Showcase as well as a partnership with the Academy of Creative Media at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Their Virtual Cinema project encourages Hawaiians to continue to support the film festival into next year by offering discounted membership to their Ohana program alongside the full slate of this year’s films.

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Photos courtesy of Hawai’i International Film Festival

Photo courtesy of the Hawai’i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts

Virtual Teaching Artist Institute
In March, the Hawai’i State Foundation for Culture and the Arts (HSFCA) was planning to host its Teaching Artist Institute just as the pandemic hit. Instead of cancelling the Institute, the HSFCA pivoted to turn the Institute into an online experience. Originally, the focus of the Institute was on the intersection of arts and science. With the new online format in mind, the workshop changed its focus to four strands—arts, education, technology, and wellness—and took place over the course of three weeks. The pandemic and social unrest that followed influenced the resulting programming. Presenters were asked to connect technology with culturally responsive pedagogy and incorporate wellness and anti-racism work into their sessions. The resulting shift in the Institute’s format inspired the HSFCA to not only rethink the sessions, but also offer more online programming in the future.

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Idaho Botanical Garden storytellers
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was immediately felt on the creative community of Idaho. The Treefort music festival, a large annual music and arts festival in Boise that was slated to take place in March, had to be cancelled. In response, Treefort came together with the Velma Morrison Center for the Performing Arts and the Boise City Department of Art and History to launch the COVID Cultural Commissioning Fund. Members of the creative community would receive $1,000 to create a work sharing their COVID-19 experiences with the public at events held at the Idaho Botanical Garden during July and August, with COVID-19 safe procedures in place. The project not only supported the creative community, it offered an opportunity for residents to find connection and peace in the midst of the pandemic.

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Photo courtesy of Storyfort via Idaho Press. Logo courtest of Idaho Botanical Garden

Photo by Matthew Wordell, courtesy of Treefort Music Fest

Treefort Live Music Relief Fund
The Treefort Live Music Relief Fund was created to offer support to local artists and live music industry workers in the Treasure Valley area. This relief fund is helping to keep the state’s local music ecosystem—which has been deeply impacted by the pandemic—alive. Funded through multiple sources, this emergency initiative offers financial resources to live music industry workers during the COVID-19 crisis, helping ensure the music keeps playing in Boise despite current challenges.

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Art in Isolation: Response to COVID-19 in Montana
The Western Heritage Center in Billings, Montana invited artists to share their responses to the pandemic through a unique, online exhibition. Featuring artists of all ages and media, Art in Isolation: Response to COVID-19 is intended to spark conversation by allowing Billings residents to express their feelings about the COVID-19 crisis through their creativity.

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Art and photo by Jon Bennion, courtesy of the Western Heritage Center


Photo by Byron Evans, courtesy of Reno is Artown

Artown 2020
Since 1996, Artown’s mission has been to “strengthen Reno’s arts industry, enhance our civic identity and national image, thereby creating a climate for the cultural and economic rebirth of our region.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, Artown has launched multiple efforts to stay true to this mission under the current circumstances. Artown hosted its 2020 opening night virtually, featuring 23 performances, and celebrated art in the Reno community by launching the Heartown regional campaign. The Heartown gallery features heart themed artworks by local members of the Reno community while collecting donations of art supplies for distribution to underserved communities, children’s programs, nonprofits, and family-focused organizations. Artown’s Discover the Arts series was created to introduce the community’s youth to various art disciplines, allowing participants to partake in hands-on art projects. Most recently, Artown has collaborated with the city of Reno and the Reno Philharmonic to create the From Reno With Love Artist Fund to support Reno’s performing arts community during the pandemic. 

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Virtual LemonAid
From the people at Creative Santa Fe comes Virtual LemonAid, a digital arts festival that brings the region’s creative talent together to raise funding and support for their community during the pandemic. Through a virtual concert, New Mexico musicians came together to raise much-needed funding for relief efforts during the COVID-19 crisis. This virtual platform created the opportunity to broaden the New Mexico festival’s reach and gained viewers and donations from states near and far, including California, Texas, New York, Nevada and Colorado to raise over $50,000.

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Photo courtesy of Virtual LemonAid

Art by Toby Morfin, photo courtesy of Vital Spaces

Windows on the Future
Throughout July 2020, stores across Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Taos, New Mexico displayed their resilience through Windows on the Future, a regional series of storefront art installations. This collaboration between Vital Spaces, 516 ARTS, and the Paseo Project supports working artists with stipend payments and provides broader public exposure. Artists of all levels of experience from across New Mexico were featured. The installations display a broad spectrum of styles and content, with each artist re-imagining their own window to the future, bringing vibrancy and vitality to cities across New Mexico and making art accessible while still encouraging social distancing.

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Oregon Arts and Culture Recovery Program
In April 2020, funders united to disperse much needed financial support to cultural institutions across Oregon through the Oregon Arts and Culture Recovery Program. Led by the Oregon Community Foundation, the $1.3 million fund prioritized nonprofit arts and cultural institutions that had been most adversely impacted by COVID-19. These flexible resources included grants for emergency operating support and recovery activities. Funders focused on organizations that supported community arts and presented innovative strategies to adapt to COVID-19.

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Photo courtesy of Oregon Community Foundation


Photo courtesy of Ogden Unite

Ogden Unite
Originating from the town of Ogden, Utah, Ogden Unite was created to offer inspiration at a time when it’s needed more than ever. The effort asked Ogden area residents, “What does your world look like right now?” Participants submitted videos of 10 seconds or less sharing a positive message of how they are handling social distancing in their community. The goal of the project was for participants to unite and celebrate the community, and the end result captured the spirit and adaptability of Ogden residents amidst the pandemic.

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Random Acts Community Performance Series
Cache Valley Center for the Arts recently hosted a limited run series of performances by local artists on its stage. The Random Acts Community Performance series provided the Center with the opportunity to practice a soft reopening with audiences as small as 30 for its 1,100 capacity theatre. Through this series, the Center gained helpful insights, a promotional opportunity for the town’s tourism board, and the confidence of patrons in just a few performances. The series also provided the Center with a great opportunity to build new relationships and strengthen old ones. The Cache Valley Center for the Arts is proud to host local artists and build its professionalism through practical experience while adhering to new safety protocols. 

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Photo courtesy of Cache Valley Center for the Arts Facebook Page

Photo courtesy of Cedar City Arts Council

Cedar City Arts’ socially distanced Final Friday Art Walk
To keep visitors safe during the pandemic, the Cedar City Arts Council adapted its Final Friday Art Walk to allow the community to enjoy the art responsibly, with socially distant live music and free masks for all participants. With safety precautions at the forefront, the Cedar City community can continue to enjoy local arts offerings in the age of COVID-19.

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Our River is Our Community
In partnership with the Museum on Main Street program with the Smithsonian, the John Wesley Powell River History Museum staff banded together to curate an exhibit that told the story of the Green River that forged their community and its continued importance. While working during a pandemic and navigating the challenges for staff and budgets therein, the museum staff were able to pull off a large scale partnership and bring a long-planned exhibit to an isolated, rural community.

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Photo Courtesy of Kelsie Hart via John Wesley Powell River History Museum

Photo Courtesty of Orchestra of Southern Utah

Orchestra of Southern Utah
Like much of the performing world, the Orchestra of Southern Utah (OSU) has turned to its social media outlets to continue providing great performances to the general public. Utilizing its YouTube channel, the OSU has provided new content, much of it topical to current events. One example is trumpeter Gary Player performing “Taps” at a veteran’s memorial on Memorial Day.

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Art and protest unite in Washington State
Seattle, Washington has become the stage for several examples of how art and protest are entwined. Spectrum Dance Company released a video of choreographer Donald Byrd’s latest piece, SHOT, which addresses the long history of police officers killing unarmed Black people. The Seattle Symphony & Opera Players’ Organization held an Arts March for Racial Justice and Equity—calling for greater representation of Black artists in arts organizations. Seattle-based musician SassyBlack posted a call on Twitter to encourage people to buy Black music via Bandcamp on days the service will direct more money directly to the artists. These efforts by members of the Seattle arts community are just a few examples of the power of art to incite change. 

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Photo by Daniel Spils, courtesy of Crosscut.com


Photo by Susan Moldenhauer, courtesty of WyoFile.com

COVID-19 closed Wyoming venues, artists migrated online
As the pandemic shuts down many avenues artists have to present and distribute their art, artists in Wyoming adapted by moving their presence online. Artists with mediums in the visual arts, music, poetry, dance, and more found opportunity in virtual performances, classes, tours, sales, and other programming. The migration online encouraged artists to get creative in how they were connecting with audiences, as well as encourage patrons to safely support the local art economy. As the pandemic shuts down many avenues for performances and exhibitions, artists must find ways to present and distribute their work in other ways. Many artists in Wyoming have adapted to current challenges by moving their presence online. Wyoming artists working within the visual arts, music, poetry, dance, and more have found opportunities in virtual performances, classes, tours, sales, and other programming. The migration online has encouraged these artists to get creative about how they connect with audiences and encourage patrons to safely support the local arts economy. 

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