Highland Center for the Arts is staying nimble amid surging statewide COVID numbers
In recent weeks, the omicron variant has led to record-breaking daily COVID-19 case totals in Vermont, clouding the outlook for businesses and nonprofits heading into the new year.
That includes the Highland Center for the Arts, which puts on events, exhibitions and performances in the Northeast Kingdom.
VPR’s Liam Elder-Connors spoke with Executive Director Keisha Luce to see how the center is dealing with a COVID trend that public health experts don’t expect to ease anytime time. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Liam Elder-Connors: First off, how has the center been adjusting to the surge that we're seeing?
It's been a roller coaster. So I think what we've learned over the last couple years is that we have to have a bunch of different contingency plans for every scenario that comes up. There was a period this summer where people were vaccinated and not wearing masks as often, and we sort of thought we were out of the woods. But then the delta variant hit us and we quickly had to make changes.
And with omicron, we're finding that all the plans that we had put in place for our indoor performances — now we had to move online. So we've also learned that we need to build in programs that we can do outside, and explore what Vermont has to offer in our winter months. And so we've developed a whole set of programs around that which has been exciting and challenging.
So it sounds like you're not doing indoor performances?
With the omicron variant, we've realized, just in order to keep our community and our state safe, that is probably not the best route to go. So we're in a transition period now bringing those in as virtual shows. But we really wanted to have an in-person component to what we do because we feel it's really important to have people get together and have those art experiences — especially in this difficult time.
So we created last year a two-mile ski and snowshoe trail, and we've set up a gallery outside so you can actually ski or snowshoe among works of art from Vermont artists. So we did that last year. And it was such a success; we had thousands of people come and enjoy the artwork. And so we've decided to bring that back this year. We have warming fires on our front property, and our café is open for a limited lunch. So we're making the best of it.
It seems like there's a balance there — the need that you have to hold events and keep revenue flowing, and also trying to keep everybody who is coming safe.
Yeah, I mean safety for our community and our staff and our patrons is foremost in our mind. And we also really feel like this is a such a difficult time to be a performing artist or a visual artist, so we're trying to make opportunities for them to share their craft and their artistry with their community.
In prior stages of the pandemic, there was more specific guidance from the state on how an organization like Highland should operate. Is it a challenge at all in your response to omicron that there's not not a statewide COVID response, or as many statewide COVID measures in place right now?
Absolutely. I think that has really been one of the hardest challenges for us, when the guidance sort of ended. Because it was very clear at the beginning of the pandemic, what we should be doing to keep our community safe. And when that sort of ended and there weren't those mandates or that guidance, we really had to make some tough decisions and look to other resources and other organizations to see what they were doing.
So I definitely feel like, in the arts community, organizations have been collaborating a lot more just to discuss, like, "What are your protocols? What are you doing?" So it's been hard, and it's a lot easier when there is, say, a mask mandate in the state to be able to enforce that within your organization.
Would you like the state to come out with more specific recommendations?
I think we've managed to create a solid plan that keeps everybody safe. But I think it would would be helpful because it communicates to the greater community what should be happening when you're gathering in large groups. You know, we really want to return to live performances — but it has to be safe in order to do that.