The Harriman-Jewell Series, Kansas City’s premier performing arts presenter that focuses on live performances, has had to adapt considerably to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Executive and Artistic Director Clark Morris and Associate Executive Director Eryn Bates Kemp spoke on how the series had been overcoming these challenges as well as the Series’ outlook for the future.
Early to make the call to stop all live performances, the series had to find a way to postpone the season planned for 2020-21 season.
“Most of what we had planned for this year – and we do a lot of planning in advance, so we had a whole concert season and in fact we even had a new series that we were trying to roll out this year – and all of that we had to rebook and sort of recast into next season,” said Morris. “So the first thing we had to do was to take shows that were on the books and see if we could get them rescheduled. For the most part, the sort of the heart of that whole season is going to happen; it’s just going to be next year so it’s going to be the, for us, the ’21-’22 season. So it’ll start in the fall. There were some things that we weren’t able to rebook because it was a specialized tour or they’re just not available down the road and so we’ve had to really work through all that. The other piece of that is that we actually had events last spring that were on the latter end of the former season and some of those got cancelled, some of those got rebooked.”
Kemp elaborated, detailing how the series made the decision to cancel after hearing about the restrictions and health hazards of live performances during COVID-19.
“When the city made the announcement, Kansas City made the announcement that we couldn’t have events of a certain size, or we had to socially distance our audience, or we had to socially distance in big gatherings of people, that caused us to have to make the choice,” said Kemp. “It [was] just [an] overview that we couldn’t really present a performance to keep our Patrons healthy or our audience members healthy so we had to make that choice very early. Actually in March of last year we decided that we weren’t really going to be able to have any events and keep our audiences safe and also, you know, have a business that runs effectively. So, we had to make that really hard choice to really just stop live, in-person performances in favor of the health and safety of our folks. So that’s been the biggest challenge as Clark’s saying. And then we’re trying to reschedule all our events.”
After the cancellations, the series worked with those who already had tickets to return, donate or keep the tickets for a possible rebook performance. Along the way, the series has been diligently working with its donor base, which Morris claims has “really [been] the underpinning that has kept us going.”
The donor base is vital to the series, according to Kemp.
“Because we can’t hold an event, which means we can’t sell any tickets to our ticket buyers, our donors are the only thing that’s making this possible. Unlike a typical business, we can receive donations so we’re able to stay afloat with some type of revenue stream even though we don’t have a product to sell right at this very moment,” said Kemp. “I don’t want to confuse your readers because our donors have always supported student tickets being free. So the students aren’t feeling the same effects of that. Everything that they go to is always free.”
Despite the cancellation of in-person performances, the series has still been finding ways to bring music to an audience. Like many performing arts organizations, livestreaming events have become the new normal for the Harriman-Jewell Series.
Morris spoke on the importance of continuing to provide both entertainment for an audience and work for young artists.
“Our challenge was to find a way to try to do something that was appropriate for the environment that we’re living in in the pandemic but that would still accomplish our mission and reach an audience – reach our audience and hopefully even further,” Morris said. “And so, what we’ve done is, we have been doing a series of what we call discovery concerts but through a livestream approach. And so some things are exactly the same. We’re still working with very high quality artists. We’re still bringing those artists into Kansas City. We are still doing a concert format.”
According to Morris, the series has had an effect on young artists during the pandemic.
“We have concentrated mainly on young artists because that’s what we concentrate on [with] the discovery format, but also because we are particularly concerned about the young artists in our field,” Morris said. “Unlike a presenting organization like us, we have donors, and those donors are enormously generous, and they have continued to fund us, for the most part. That has provided amazing funding so that we can continue to operate and survive through this pandemic. Artists, they don’t have any income once, you know, the theater shut down and we shut down and so we’ve been very mindful of trying to do things that will provide work for them. We really wanted to create original content working with live artists in performances that we curated with the artist for our audience from Kansas City.”
Morris went on to explain that the livestreams are being broadcast from a concert hall by a production crew, allowing for a high-quality viewing experience. Livestreaming performances allowed the series to extend its reach while maintaining its quality of performance.
“We typically do these concerts in a hall that seats 1,000 people and that’s usually standing room only crowd, so sold out, but it’s the free tickets typically. So those are full audiences. We’ve been reaching almost triple, and quadruple in some cases, that number in viewership for our audiences. So our winter concert, just for example, had four thousand [views] just two weeks after the event itself and those aren’t current numbers to date,” said Kemp.
For Kemp, the generosity of donors and viewers has been what’s kept the series going. That spirit of generosity and a love for the arts is what prompted the series to continually adapt.
“We could not do this without people believing in us this year. So it [has] changed the way that we’ve done our work but the intent is still the same: to bring artistic experiences to Kansas City and how we’re doing that just looks a little different this year,” Kemp said.
Because of the effectiveness and increased reach of the livestream performances, the series can’t go back to doing things exactly the way it was. However, the series needs an income to stay afloat. Kemp spoke on the possibility of continuing virtual performances.
“I think that we know that we can’t go back,” Kemp said. “You know, the world has changed this year and we can’t really go back to the way that we were doing things entirely. We still value our product. We are going to have to charge a ticket price for our concerts to our patrons, they’ll still be free for Jewell students. But I think that we know that the world shifted and having our product and the performance and the artistic experience be available to more people is so valuable. The reach is so important. The educational component is so important, accessibility, all of those things allow us to reach deeper into our community and beyond so I think we’re going to have to carry over some type of virtual presence. We don’t know what that looks like yet. But it’s certainly something we’re talking about now. And really, every arts organization is talking about now because we’ve all had to change what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
Advertising has been a key component for the series success in increasing its reach. The Harriman-Jewell social media platforms and website provide important information for the series’ patrons. In addition to the increased social media presence, the series has continued to send out postcards and partner with other organizations in the city.
“We have a nice database for the series, you know, having been around for 56 years, we’ve established a following in Kansas City and so we certainly communicate with them both through digital means,” Morris said. “But also, like for these we’ll still drop like a postcard just to reinforce that in case someone’s not paying attention to their email or social media. But we do a lot of work on social media. We buy ads on social media, so we’ll boost things on Facebook and other platforms. We also try to partner with other organizations. We have a really talented staff that works hard to find creative ways to market these and get people paying attention to what we’re doing. It’s very high-quality work and actually tends to be quite enjoyable to get to watch these and participate in these concerts. But our jobs are to make sure that people are paying attention to it.”
While the series had a social media presence before the COVID-19 pandemic, it has increased its presence on the site, collaborating also with their artists on their respective social media pages. Kemp explained the increase in social media presence while also recognizing the importance to still send out reminders by mail to their patrons.
“Although, we’ve noticed that our long-time patrons and subscribers have really loved getting mail from us. They like going out to the mailbox because that’s one of the only trips they’re making outside of their homes right now,” Kemp said. “We also try to engage with our artist and their social media. So it’s kind of transitioned a little bit more from hard copy mailing for us this year into some more online virtual advertising and marketing and social media presence.”
While everyone is eager to return to live performances, the series won’t start them up again until they get clearance from the local government and feel they can hold in-person performances while maintaining the safety of the audience.
“We’ve forecasted that we might begin to work with an audience late spring, early summer,” said Morris. It really depends on the local guidance and how [the] instance of the pandemic with the virus is and how fast the vaccine roll out is. The nice thing about this year is we’ve been able to be flexible and we can make flexible decisions. We don’t really need to make a decision today about what we’re going to do in the late spring so we’re able to have a shorter planning cycle. Although, I think it’s likely we’ll have some other concerts yet this year but they’re probably more likely to be livestreamed than to have a live audience just based on what I know today.”
Morris mentioned the rollout of the next concert season, hoping that they will be able to have a live audience but still maintaining that the Series will remain cautious, waiting to see what guidance they get from local authorities before making a concrete decision.
“We’re anticipating having the live audience, although there will be some restrictions I’m sure. There’ll be some changes from before. I think it’s likely that at least in the start of the fall, people will still have to wear masks at our concerts,” Morris said. “And it’s likely that we’ll be restricted on our total amount of people we can have when we start in the halls. But, as I said, we’re flexible. We’ll adapt to whatever we need to adapt to. But hopefully next fall you’ll have a chance to get some Jewell free tickets and get to go to some really nice concerts downtown. We’re really looking forward to that.”
Until the series is able to return to in-person performances, Kemp and Morris anticipate more livestreamed events. The videos are shown on multiple viewing platforms that are on the series’ website. Performances will also appear on Facebook, YouTube and Vimeo.
“What’s nice about the live performance, the livestream, is that you can comment and send questions in and we do an Q&A with the artist afterwards so then we’ll take peoples’ questions,” said Morris. “So there is some interactivity associated with the live that doesn’t happen with the rebroadcast.
Morris and Kemp both spoke on why the series makes the effort to post the event on the website after the livestream.
“But we also, in order to rebroadcast,” Morris says, “we have to buy the rights to the music for things that are not in the public domain. So we do that, and that’s another adaptation that we’ve had to make, but we think it’s important to be able to, once we’ve created this content, to be able to continue to give it out to people.”
“It is so important to us to make these as accessible as possible,” said Kemp. “To make our work and the work that’s being done in a time when very little work is being done across the country, across the world. For this work to be accessible, to be able to reach people and serve our community, and communities beyond, with music, it [has been] so healing and empowering and we need it right now. So it’s very important for us that it’s free and open to the broader world that has interest in it.”
The reposted performances are archived and will be available to view for an extended amount of time.
During the broadcasting of the livestreamed performances, the series is careful to comply with COVID-19 restrictions and maintain a high level of safety for the performing artist and the production crew.
“We limit the amount of people in the space and so it’s a very limited amount of people. It’s just the artist, the production folks that we need to be able to film and put out the livestream and a couple of staff members and that’s it. There’s nobody else there and everyone that’s not the artist has a mask on so it’s a very protected environment and we’re really careful,” said Morris.
Morris then explained the series dedication to safety not only during the livestreams but also during other events the organization has been hosting and the importance of their safety precautions.
“We’re a crowd gathering kind of organization so you know we do a lot of social events and we do education events, we do donor events,” stated Morris. “All of those we’re doing on virtual platforms. So we’re doing education events through zoom, we do donor events through zoom, we do gatherings of our patrons through Zoom. And so we try to be very careful to protect our audience. We don’t want to put them in a compromised situation. As you might imagine, a lot of our audience, the core audience is older, so for them, the virus is a greater risk for their possible health.”
While being virtual, the series has been planning the performances one at a time, so currently there is no schedule of performances. However, the series announces upcoming performances ahead of time on their Instagram, Facebook and website. For those on the William Jewell College campus, there are also posters on campus advertising upcoming events as well as an announcement from the Harriman-Jewell Series in the weekly “View from the Hill.”