Arts and Innovation: Music in the Wild at Wildwood Park for the Arts
Early in 2020, like every arts organization in Arkansas, the small staff at Wildwood Park for the Arts found themselves in the position of postponing, then cancelling much of their programming for spring and summer. From a main stage production of Godspell that was only a week from opening night to a Jr. Naturalist Spring Break camp, everything came to a halt. As Wildwood's Executive Director, Dr. Bevan Keating says, "I'm sure many can identify with this, but it was incredibly difficult to let go of the existing plans we had for this year at Wildwood. But at the same time, you have to figure out what to do next."
What was next, for Wildwood, was some creative thinking and rapid planning to meet the needs of the community while ensuring the safety of park staff and visitors. "Wildwood is lucky - in addition to the Cabe Theatre, we have 105 acres of trails and gardens. We had to close the doors to the building, but we we not only kept the grounds open, but expanded the hours the public could visit the park and opened the lake to fishing. While, at the time we didn't have the resources to provide our usual programming, we could provide our community with a much needed break from being stuck at home." Keating adds.
And while programming was cancelled, the park staff was busier than ever. The five staff members shifted their duties, all of them researching Covid-19 safety precautions, worked on applications for Covid-19 Relief grants as a team, and set about the task of revamping planned summer educational programming and brainstorming ways to safely provide live arts events for the public again.
The first programming that reopened, though in a drastically different format from previous years, was the Wildwood Academy of Music and the Arts (WAMA), Wildwood's Summer Music and Arts Education Intensive program. "WAMA is usually a six week program that includes anywhere from 100-200 students a year," says Wildwood Arts Administrator Elizabeth Riddick, "Obviously, that wouldn't work this year. We did an huge amount of research and preparation to rework the program and decide what aspects we could keep, what needed to change, and what had to go entirely to make WAMA happen."
Ultimately, Wildwood cancelled the difficult to distance vocal and visual arts portion, and restricted the remaining Advanced Strings, Dance, and Beginner Musician sessions to 10 students each. Each session was taught outdoors and in the spacious Cabe Theatre facility, allowing for frequent, aggressive cleanings by park staff and ensuring that masked students could maintain proper social distancing. Students were screened before entering the building every day, and no one but students, instructors, an park staff were allowed in the Cabe Theatre. Finale concerts, usually large affairs with families invited, took place virtually.
"Ultimately, the program was a huge success," says Dr. Keating. "We had great feedback from parents, students, and instructors. By that point, people were in desperate need of artistic outlets, and since we accomplished this, we knew we had a good start on figuring out what we could provide to the community from there."
What came next was the product of the combined efforts of Wildwood's board and staff - an outdoor, socially distanced concert series to feature Arkansas musicians. Fittingly, the new concert series was dubbed "Music in the Wild."
The first installment was in October, and featured The Rodney Block Collective. Even with social distancing, required masks, an at-the-gate screening policy, and the rapidly cooling temperatures of an Arkansas fall, the concert sold out two days beforehand despite worries that audiences weren't ready to brave live music or would balk at Wildwood's strict safety precautions. Park staff were thrilled. Dr. Keating recalls the magic of the moment, "I don't think I've ever received more applause for an introduction of an artist than when I got to say 'and now, Rodney Block, live and in person - not on a screen.' It was immediately obvious how ready people were for that outlet. But what was most exciting was when an audience member introduced themselves to me as a Department of Health employee and told us that this was the only thing she'd come out to do in months, and how grateful she was for the work we'd put in to create a safe, in person event."
Now with proof of concept, they began to plan for their November 14th, 2020 installment featuring The Atomicons, Charlotte Taylor, and Adam Faucett. They swapped between two outdoor spaces this time, allowing for changing out equipment between each artist, and moving the audience through the park to help encourage distancing. That evening, too, was a success.
"It hasn't been an easy year, for us or for any arts organization in the state," Keating states, "But I do know that the arts community in Arkansas is resilient and clever, and I know how much our communities value the arts. Music in the Wild has been a gift to us, too. It's a privilege to be able to provide a platform for the amazing musicians we have here in Arkansas, and it's been humbling to see the community response. We'll be taking a break in December in response to cautions from our health leaders about rising rates, but as we're going to keep working to provide audiences with access to the arts however we can, whether that's through our own programs like Music in the Wild or by providing space to other organizations who need it."
"Part of that is creating new partnerships with artists and other arts organizations, thinking outside the box of our usual offerings and programs, and not being afraid to take a few leaps of faith. We know that if we work hard and can keep providing safe access to the arts, that Arkansans will show up for Wildwood - in-person and online."
To learn more about Wildwood Park for the Arts, visit www.wildwoodpark.org or call Wildwood's Administrative Office at 501.821.7275