Regional Report: Elevating the arts

Published: 10/12/2020
Updated: 09/22/2021

Arts are the byproduct of creativity and imagination cultivated from, and always reshaping, our cultural identity. While the societal and individual impacts of the arts cannot be overstated, the economic contributions often times go unnoticed. In Arizona, the industry contributes $9.3 billion annually into the state’s economy and employs almost 92,000 people.

“When you participate in the arts, you’re not just doing that one thing. You’re making a whole evening of it, or a whole weekend of it, and of course it really impacts tourism as well,” said Joseph Benesh, Executive Director of Arizona Citizens for the Arts.

Benesh participated in our recent Regional Report centered around ‘Elevating the Arts.’ He was joined by three Greater Phoenix industry leaders (below) who spoke about COVID-19’s impact on the sector, what lessons they’ve learned and how virtual experiences implemented as a result can be developed for the future even after the pandemic.

    • Kim Boganey, Director, Scottsdale Public Art
    • Joseph Specter, President and General Manager, Arizona Opera
    • Cindy Ornstein, Executive Director, Mesa Arts Center

Scottsdale adjusts Canal Convergence

One of the cornerstone attractions Scottsdale offers each fall faces dramatic changes this year.

Canal Convergence, an evening art exhibition typically drawing thousands to the Scottsdale Waterfront, will now be spread throughout downtown Scottsdale. Spectators will be able to experience the installations from the safety of their cars, and by decentralizing the event, businesses in the area have the opportunity to generate revenue with additional foot traffic.

There will be augmented reality artwork – “think Pokémon Go,” Boganey said – and livestreaming for online workshops and public art tours.

“We are still moving forward with doing that, but it’s going to be a new world with regards to what we’re doing,” Boganey said. “It’s about (being an) economic driver and it being this big impact for tourism, which has been significantly hit in Scottsdale.”

The experience will be different, but that doesn’t mean it will lack impact.

“It is going to not be about crowds condensed at the waterfront … we absolutely cannot do that, that just would not be prudent,” she said. “But we can rethink public art. We can rethink these events so that they can become experiences.”

Scottsdale Arts has already re-thought in-person experiences. On Sept. 26, the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts’ 853-seat auditorium hosted Jazz Con Alma with guest Holly Pyle for 70 attendees and 30 more watching virtually.

The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art reopened some exhibitions for the first time since March with 16 people allowed in each hour.

“We may not make a lot of money, but we very much want to drive for the city of Scottsdale how we can put forth the arts,” Boganey said. “It keeps the arts alive in Scottsdale, which is a big aspect of driving tourism for the city.”

Arizona Opera gets international viewership

That rethinking of experiences is a common trend in the art world.

The Arizona Opera opened its studio spotlight series the first weekend in October with a pair of performances: one in Phoenix and one in Tucson. There were about 50 in-person attendees at each, including staff, but it reached almost 30 times that many people.

About 1,400 people watched the performance online, with international viewers from countries such as Switzerland, Jordan and Spain.

“It’s probably fair to say that this is the first time we’ve been able to serve, through our artform, as Arizona Opera, audiences in Jordan,” Specter said. “We could serve many more people with the right programming than we ever could before.”

The performance struck a chord not just with the audience, but with the musicians.

“All artists want to do is create. The emotional content of our first performance on Friday was almost indescribable … I have never felt so much pent-up energy around a simple performance,” Specter said. “The act of creating this one-hour program, appreciating that it was going to be shared online, but after essentially a seven-month absence from the stage. It would really be difficult for me to sum up what that felt like. It was palpable.”

Yet the opera house is among the countless organizations working to manage with the loss of revenue due to the coronavirus. The group canceled its season on March 16, a move that resulted in the postponement of their gala that was expected to bring in $150,000.

“Arts and culture organizations are adept at operating on thin margins, but that is the kind of impact that all of us have felt,” Specter said.

Arizona Opera is also creating a new series. It is working on an opera film adaptation, which is expected to be released in April, and they’re planning to produce a series of podcasts and video programs that will be available on

“These programs are not also-rans to our normal season,” Specter said. “We have thought very intentionally about how we can really bring a lot of value and entertainment and connection through opera this year.”

Mesa Arts Center prepares new programs

The Mesa Arts Center went from packed houses to remote sessions. It has transitioned to regular programming that includes online art demos and virtual tours. It offers art-to-go activity boxes with materials and instruction. It has snail mail art to bring personalized artwork to homes.

The center has also moved its programs for vulnerable populations, such as veterans, online.

Ornstein said this helped reduce the stress of people in these groups, many of whom were isolated, and the center found that it reached a larger audience because some people were unable to attend in-person classes even during normal times.

The pandemic stalled the community, but Ornstein said Mesa Arts Center and its peers need to “embrace change.”

“We will never do things exactly the same because we’re going take these new tools and we’re going to figure out how they let us do things we couldn’t do before. How they let us reach people we didn’t reach before,” Ornstein said. “I think we’re going to see the advantages of this new way of doing things combined with the beauty and connectivity of the old way of doing things.”

The Mesa Arts Center has some key dates on the horizon. Its Halloween Scavenger Hunt throughout downtown Mesa, featuring work by sculptor and designer Ray Villafane, is starting Oct. 17. The Dia de los Muertos Festival is launching Oct. 24 as both a virtual program and in-person window displays at the arts center.

It is also preparing for its reopening, scheduled for Dec. 18. In-person art studio classes are expected to resume in January.

And keep an eye out for MABEL, the Mobile Art-Based Engagement Lab with low-touch activities and art project kits, which is expected to begin mid-October.

As these organizations continue to embrace the change thrust upon them, Benesh says there’s precedent of the arts community leading the charge out of a downturn.

“Artists and arts organizations, time after time, city after city, rebuild economies, rebuild downtowns. And you’re going to see that with this pandemic,” he said. “The artists are going to lead us.”

Residents can contribute to the arts and culture sphere by buying from local artists, signing up for newsletters of groups that appeal to your interests, reviewing event calendars and attending shows in-person or virtually to your comfort level and donating to or sponsoring events. Find more specific ways to get involved on organizations’ websites.

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