El Paso arts community cautiously embraces the return of in-person events
The question “ARE YOU OK?” sprawls across the back of an ink-drawn cicada in the new show opening at Galería Lincoln this week. It’s a fitting question for artists, nearly a year into the global pandemic that has spelled doom for creative industries that rely on IRL experiences for maximum impact.
Some members of El Paso’s arts community have begun a tentative return to in-person events, and with that comes a precarious balancing act: simultaneously nurturing connection while minimizing public health risk.
“At first we were gonna do a virtual opening. (But) I was like, ‘No, when people see art you need to see all the pencil lines, you need to see the brush strokes, you need to see a piece in person,’” artist Christin Apodaca said. Her inquisitive cicada is one in a series of surreal and isolation-inspired line drawings on cut Masonite that will be viewable to the public at Galería Lincoln Feb. 11-13.
It’s the first gallery show she has done since the pandemic, and has already been postponed several times due to COVID-19 concerns. But Apodaca was determined for it to be an in-person event, even if that meant waiting longer and taking extra precautions.
Reopening the gallery is necessarily a cautious process, said curator Tino Ortega, who decided to reduce hours and limit capacity in the small space to prioritize the safety of guests.
“It’s nice to see a line wrap around the neighborhood just to get into the gallery, but it’s unfortunate that people have to wait and can’t have that social interaction that they normally would,” Ortega said.
Before the pandemic, Galería Lincoln and Old Sheepdog Brewery across the street had a “symbiotic relationship,” Ortega said. Crowds from one would gravitate to the other, and vice versa.
That economic ripple effect — the tendency of people who come to arts events to spend money at nearby businesses — has implications on a macro scale.
“It’s not just (an impact) for arts and culture adjacent industries, it’s actually everywhere — it does have a very significant impact on revenue for restaurants and bars, it has a significant impact on hotels, it just kind of scales over and over,” said Ben Fyffe, director of Cultural Affairs and Recreation for the city of El Paso.
A 2017 Americans for the Arts study found that the non-profit arts sector had an over $100 million impact on El Paso’s local economy, while a 2014 Creative Vitality Index determined that the for-profit creative workforce in El Paso generated nearly $650 million in revenues.
A study by the Brookings Institute estimated that nationwide, COVID-19 has caused losses of 2.7 million jobs and $150 billion in sales in the creative industry.
For individual artists, the pandemic has been catastrophic. That’s especially true for those in the performing arts, where large gatherings of people in close proximity are critical to the economic viability of their work. Unemployment rates for people working in the arts and “artist-heavy occupations” like food service have outpaced rates in the general population during the pandemic.
Fyffe also said that when there is an economic downturn, the arts tend to be the last sector to recover. Although larger gatherings like big concerts or festivals may still be distant on the horizon, members of El Paso’s visual arts community are starting to plan small gatherings with optimism and enthusiasm.
New El Paso art spaces are ready for a post-COVID world
Diego “Robot” Martinez, an El Paso artist and curator, moves at 1,000 miles a minute as he describes the new creative epicenter he has planned for historic Socorro, just outside El Paso city limits.
Martinez’s new gallery, Casa Ortiz, hasn’t had an official grand opening yet, but it has already begun to experiment with small in-person art events in the airy, several hundred-year-old building and its spacious grounds. Like Galería Lincoln, which Martinez co-founded with Ortega, Casa Ortiz also is situated beside a brewery, the soon to be opened Mission Trail Brewery.
Across the street sits Casa Apodaca, a concert hall with echoing acoustics, high wood-beamed ceilings, and original 19th-century fixtures. Although no concerts are planned yet, small gatherings have already begun in this space as well — a limited capacity yoga class and sound healing session was held there this past weekend by Shanti Yoga.
But the context of COVID-19 is an omnipresent specter as Martinez and his fellow artists initiate plans for the growing Socorro arts community.
“We were building all this momentum for our grand opening, for a show, and then somebody gets COVID and they’re like, we’re gonna wait till March. It’s like we have to keep scrambling,” said Gabriel Marquez, an artist whose work hangs at Casa Ortiz.
For many artists who spent 2020 incubating new work, their ability to share that work in-person is a constant question hanging over their heads, one that involves planning for a future post-COVID world, navigating through constraints of the present, and hoping things don’t take too long to improve.
El Paso artists have been busy during lockdown
Christin Apodaca created her Galería Lincoln show as a way to process the isolation of the pandemic, refracting the quiet thoughts that emerged in seclusion through a surrealized dream logic, and then translating them into vivid images.
“I’ve never expected artists to just stop creating because we’re in a pandemic, and that’s true, they haven’t,” said Marina Monsisvais, host of KTEP’s radio program “State of the Arts,” where she has been in conversation with local artists and arts organizers throughout the pandemic.
“A lot of (artists) are incubating at home and processing, and I think that the art that we’re gonna see after this is gonna be amazing,” she said.
If anything, El Paso artists are especially well-equipped to withstand the challenges of a pandemic and make great work out of it, Monsisvais said, because “we’re scrappy.”
“She’s one of these people (where), pandemic hit, incubated (a creative project) here in El Paso and gave birth to this baby,” Monsisvais said.
Optimistic “pre-planning” is happening for larger scale events
Much of El Paso’s arts industry is still shut down: museums are closed, music venues are quiet, and big events listings are sparse. But behind the scenes, preparations and planning are underway for a triumphant return to a vibrant local arts scene.
Fyffe says that planning for how to reopen the museums began almost as soon as they closed, but that the city has been stuck in a “wait and see” holding pattern.
“We’ve come very close to what that is called Phase 1 (when we’d be able to initiate re-opening) several times, and each time we’re almost there, then we see a spike in numbers here in the community, and we’re told to basically take the foot off the gas,” Fyffe said.
Much of the reopening of large-scale arts institutions and events will depend on the vaccine rollout, said Bryan Crowe, chief executive officer of Destination El Paso, which operates the city’s convention center and the Plaza Theatre.
“We’re hopeful that we’ll see that the vaccinations will be publicly available on a wider scale as we get into the May, June, July time period, and that by late summer, we’ll have a community with enough vaccination that we’d be able to look at in-person events again,” he said.
Although elements of the vaccine rollout are uncertain, Crowe’s office is approaching future planning with optimism.
“We are in pre-planning and planning stages for some of our larger events– landmark events to possibly take place this fall. Things like say Sun City Craft Beer Festival or Cool Canyon Nights,” Crowe said.
For now, El Paso’s arts community eagerly awaits the return of bigger scale arts events and reduced COVID restrictions for gathering.
“This is what I know: when this whole thing is over we’re all gonna go to every party,” said Monsisvais. “And who creates those parties and who makes them great? It’s your creative community.”
Cover photo: Visitors view artwork by Gabriel Marquez of Mystic Desert Studio during at private event at Casa Ortiz Gallery in Socorro on Feb. 2. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)
Disclosure: Marina Monsisvais is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.