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Arts, culture organizations make adjustments

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BENNINGTON — Bennington Museum will remain closed until July 1, reduce staff to a bare minimum and cut all reasonable expenses as it attempts to weather the coronavirus pandemic, the museum's executive director announced Friday.

The museum's trustees approved the measures in a meeting on Friday, Joshua Campbell Torrance, the museum's executive director, said in an email addressed to friends of the museum.

Torrance said museum officials "have also been keeping a close eye on Federal and State legislative measures, particularly regarding unemployment compensation and Federal financial assistance, in order to best assist our laid-off employees and support our operations moving forward."

"While the current crisis poses unprecedented challenges, we are confident that, with your help, we can weather the storm," he said.

The museum has been closed since March 17.

Other arts and cultural organizations in the region are also facing difficult decisions about employment and programming as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies.

Bennington Performing Arts Center — Home of Oldcastle Theatre has not had to furlough any employees at this time, interim executive director Jennifer Jasper wrote in an email.

Staff members are working from home or one at a time at the theater, if necessary for maintenance issues, Jasper wrote.

"We are holding meetings virtually and working on providing digital entertainment in the interim via Facebook and other digital venues," Jasper wrote. "Check out our website and Facebook page for events for April coming soon."

"We are feeling the impact with loss of revenue for performance and fundraising events that have been either canceled or postponed," Jasper wrote. The arts center just canceled Bennington Community Theater's next production, slated for May — "a big loss at the box office," Jasper wrote, though she added that the organization continues to meet its monthly expenses.

The organization will delay announcing Oldcastle's summer season "until we know exactly what shows we will be able to produce and when the season can begin," Jasper wrote.

"It's a waiting game with many pieces constantly moving," she continued. "There are so many unknown variables to consider: capacity limits, cast size for rehearsals, Equity contracts, housing are just a few. We don't know the answers yet."

North Bennington's historic Park-McCullough House is currently closed for the season and is slated to reopen on Memorial Day weekend in May.

The organization has not yet cancelled or postponed any of its planned events, which include an outdoor movie series, concerts and weekly croquet, executive director Chris Oldham wrote in an email on Tuesday. "We have a little time left before we need to start making any tough decisions regarding our season," he wrote.

Private parties also rent the venue for various functions. Two such events in April and May have been cancelled, but other private events are still planned, and the organization is still accepting summer and fall bookings, Oldham said.

"In the event that the pandemic forces us to evaluate our 2020 season we will do so on a month-to-month basis," Oldham wrote.

Oldham, the nonprofit's sole paid employee, said the organization will likely delay its seasonal hiring process "until we have a better idea of our timeline."

Landscaping and preservation projects will continue whether or not the mansion opens for the season, Oldham said.

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The pandemic could reduce the mansion's revenue through a decrease in memberships, events, admissions and rentals, Oldham said. The nonprofit will continue to seek community support and grants to support its work.

Hildene, the Lincoln Family Home, a 412-acre estate in Manchester that was once the summer home of Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, normally open year-round, is temporarily closed to visitors.

The organization has "undertaken a series of measures in response to the current crisis, in a manner consistent with our core values of integrity, perseverance and civic responsibility," President Brian Keefe wrote in a newsletter released electronically on Monday, March 30.

Hildene has "reduced staff, streamlined operations, and [is] paying very close attention to our bottom line while we await a change in the trendlines," Keefe wrote. More than half of the organization's staff have been "temporarily furloughed."

In an interview on Tuesday, Keefe said his hope is for every furloughed employee to return "at full time and full pay" when the estate reopens. The organization has needed to make difficult decisions in an evolving situation, Keefe said.

"Without any admission revenue, we had to slow things down," Keefe said.

Keefe wrote in the newsletter that the smaller team is "continuing our necessary agricultural and horticultural chores on premises, as well as the administrative and communication duties remotely."

The Southern Vermont Arts Center's campus is also closed. The center "will follow the governor's orders as to when to resume or reschedule our exhibitions, performances, and planned programming for adults and children," Connie Blatchford, deputy director for operations and external affairs for the organization, wrote in an email on Tuesday.

"It is too soon to know the financial impact [on SVAC] of the COVID-19 outbreak," Blatchford wrote. "Those effects will be determined by the length of the closure, the philanthropic landscape, and the financial markets."

The Dorset Theatre Festival, which had been slated to open on June 25, has cancelled all scheduled performances of the season's four main stage productions, though many of those shows "are likely to move to the next, or a future, season," Ryan Koss, the festival's marketing and development director, wrote in an email.

"In the event people are able to gather before the end of the summer, we hope to be standing by with some new creative program or offering," Koss wrote.

Artistic director Dina Janis said in a news release that following the "tough choice, we are focusing on re-inventing our annual celebration of great plays for these extraordinary times."

The festival is now developing digital programming, "which will begin rolling out this spring," and it "will do something in-person as soon as we are able," Janis said.

Some of the festival's other programs are continuing. The Dorset Theatre Festival Women Artists Writing Group, which normally meets twice a month in New York City, will be meeting electronically, and a program for young playwrights is being offered online.

The Weston Playhouse Theatre Company announced on April 2 that it has cancelled all previously scheduled productions at the Weston Playhouse and Walker Farm, though three shows will be produced next year.

Susanna Gellert, executive artistic director of the company, said in the release that the group "will re-imagine our 2020 season."

"The team at Weston Playhouse will continue to work toward a variety of dynamic projects, including the development of brand-new musicals and plays, concerts, and events featuring Weston artists," the release stated. "When the threat of COVID-19 recedes, Weston Playhouse will once again open its doors as soon as possible for exciting and joyful entertainment."

Contact Luke Nathan at lnathan@benningtonbanner.com.


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