An arts center – especially one with two locations – has a lot of moving parts.
Perkins Center for the Arts is a perfect example. Just follow the link to the website, and the home page banner will provide a glimpse of what the art center offers. Education. Events. Exhibitions. Folklife Center. And those are just the bullet points.
Then everything changed in March 2020.
“Registration for spring classes – which were starting soon - was going very well,” said Executive Director Kahra Buss. “Our numbers were climbing past our goals – and then it all came to a grinding halt.”
But the desire to create is a powerful force, and Buss and the staff at Perkins faced the challenges head-on.
“I give credit to the Board, who allowed me to make some quick decisions,” Buss said, “and to the Perkins’ staff, who really dove in and started figuring out what we could keep and how.”
“Being a multi-disciplinary art center, we have a lot of things we offer,” said Buss, “and each had its particular set of COVID regulations. We were waiting each day to hear what the governor would say in his 1:00 p.m. news conference.”
Looking back, Buss admits that no one fully understood the severity. “But at about the four-week point, we realized we needed to re-center.”
Discussions with staff and instructors resulted in workable ideas for what could successfully be moved online, and ideas that had been simmering on the back burner suddenly became action points.
“We immediately established online galleries,” Buss said, “and made that really robust.”
The shift to virtual music instruction was also a winner. “We had a 97% rate of retention for our Music Conservatory classes,” Buss said.
As daunting as it was, Buss said that this necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention shift in perspective had a silver lining.
“We basically pole-vaulted into the future,” she said.
Prompted by having to “jump across the chasm” into digital/virtual territory, Buss said that Perkins is now establishing a filming studio, designed to provide professional development opportunities and training for artists with little or no experience with creating digital content.
“We want to support the artists in this way.”
Buss said that they also started to connect more with other groups – checking-in regularly, comparing notes, sharing information – and explore how they could collaborate. This network building was extremely helpful in identifying opportunities for ways they could support each other, not just in the present situation, but also as a roadmap for the future.
Buss said, “It’s easy to get stuck in our individual organizations and forget to reach out.”
Staying in touch – with staff, faculty, students, members – emerged as another priority.
“We worked very hard to keep communication flowing,” she said, going from putting out a monthly newsletter to offering a weekly edition and actively encouraging feedback and ideas.
From these discussions about the challenges, the anxiety, and the roadblocks, one thing was clear: “Children were isolated, and we felt – seeing enough throughout the community – that we could help.”
So, Perkins Center for the Arts, which had closed on March 16 – and shifted music lessons, exhibitions, some visual classes, and some free programming to a totally virtual format – brought back a small crew to the buildings in June and reopened with summer camp on July 13.
“We took every precaution, and had no incidents,” Buss said. “We felt it was important to keep going forward.”
Showing art, of course, is also a primary part of what Perkins is committed to doing. Therefore, in October 2020, with a host of regulations still firmly in place, Sharon Kiefer started her new job as Director of Exhibitions at Perkins. And although the gallery doors in Moorestown and Collingswood had been closed for more than six months, Kiefer barely missed a beat.
“I reinstated the regular schedule of exhibitions, with a new show installed every two months at both galleries,” said Kiefer. Artist receptions – online, but still happening – also continued on the second Saturday following the show opening at Moorestown and the third Saturday at Collingswood.
“I kind of came in with a bang,” Kiefer said.
At the Moorestown location, Kiefer maintained “beloved yearly” exhibitions and events that had been a consistent part of the Perkins schedule, such as the photography show in January, which marked its 40th anniversary and featured fine-art photographer Erik James Montgomery as juror. The awards included having a work selected by Philadelphia Museum of Art photography curator, Peter Barberie, to be added to the museum’s collection, and three pieces chosen for a future exhibition at the Collingswood gallery. The Fall Annual Exhibition; the Perkins’ Faculty and Members Show; and Small Works, a show and sale of carefully curated handcrafted and locally produced fine art and craft works, also took place.
Additionally, Kiefer added new things to the exhibition schedule for 2021. For example, works by artist Philip Carroll (who proceeded Kiefer as Curator of Exhibitions) and Moorestown High School alumni were added to the Members and Faculty Show and are on view through July 16 in Moorestown. “Persephone Rising – A Curation of 13 Artists by Terri Amig and Molly Sanger Carpenter,” is also open and on view through July 16 at the Collingswood Gallery.
And – ta-da! – both shows will have in-person artists receptions, at the Collingswood Gallery on June 12 and in Moorestown on June 19.
The first step toward normalcy for Buss was that art was on the walls for the 2020 Fall Annual Exhibition in October. A reception was held online, and visitors were able to make appointments to see the show in person. Then, the first live exhibition opening was in January in Collingswood.
“It was so nice to see people back in the building again,” Buss said. “We are pack animals. We need that!”
More exciting things are in the works as well.
“A Quilt Show will feature traditional and contemporary quilts from a variety of guilds in the region,” Kiefer said, “and will be on view at the Collingswood Gallery through September 17.”
The exhibition will be held in conjunction with the Collingswood Crafts & Fine Arts Festival, which Perkins is co-hosting. Perkins’ Collingswood location will be open that weekend for walk-throughs, teacher demonstrations, make-and-take projects, music performances, and, of course, the Quilt Show. Perkins will be providing breakfast for the festival vendors on Sunday morning.
With all this buzz of activity, it is almost hard to remember how different the world was this time last year.
But Perkins has met the challenges, made the adjustments, and continues to be a champion for the arts in the South Jersey area.
As Kiefer said, it is not unlike the theme of “Persephone Rising.”
“We are emerging from the pandemic,” she said. It’s like a rebirth.”
Perkins Center for the Arts’ Moorestown gallery is located at 395 Kings Highway, and its hours are Monday through Friday, 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM; and Saturday, 12:00 – 4:00 PM. The Collingswood gallery is located at 30 Irvin Avenue, and its hours are Monday – Friday, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM, and Saturday, 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM. Visit perkinsarts.org to learn more.
Photos in header: Collingswood gallery - “Persephone Rising“ exhibit with ceramic by Jackie Sandro; Moorestown gallery - Moorestown High School Alumni show; and 2020 Camp - artmaking