When Karen Dillon took the reins of the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph in May 2019 she knew there were challenges ahead. The staff were just two, competition was fierce with many other arts organizations in the region, and filling the 575-seat auditorium would require outreach beyond Randolph’s 4,000 residents.
What was not on her “to do” list was dealing with a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic that would significantly change the way Chandler Arts, and every other arts organization’s approach to presenting quality entertainment to the public.
Dillon, whose résumé is impressive with stints as a teacher, a filmmaker and experience in urban and foreign arts, said her role as the head of Chandler Arts was going to require new approaches, but she was not expecting to reinvent the wheel.
“Much of my background in filmmaking was in New York and L.A., in those situations adapting to a new culture, being enormously curious, helped me with Chandler, which has so many different aspects,” she said. “We provide a breadth of services to the community and Vermont isn’t that provincial.”
While Dillon has lived and worked in hotbeds of entertainment and culture, she said, “Vermonters get a sense there is a world out there. Vermonters want to preserve their sense of community, volunteer to help others, and make things happen. We shouldn’t take it for granted — it’s a zealous attitude.”
As a film writer, producer and director, Dillon was ready to wear many hats in Randolph as “filmmaking is a collaborative art form, I’m prepared to collaborate.”
The challenges she took on as she began work in May 2019 were not unique. Chandler Arts is essentially herself and Seth Stoddard, the technical and operations manager.
The Chandler competes with the Barre Opera House, the Lebanon (New Hampshire) Opera House and to some degree, The Flynn in Burlington. Her challenge is to bring in an audience to Randolph of either local people or tourists. The Chandler, she said, was overbuilt from the start in the early 1900s.
“There was much less competition back then,” she explained.
Chandler’s capacity also can be problematic when trying to book popular acts. She said country music shows, which she wants to schedule, are costly for the capacity of the auditorium “Country singers are used to performing to more than 2,000 seats. What they charge is more than we can afford.”
Dillon instituted programming changes to bring more people to the venue. She started Live & Up, a by-donation event series that brought small ensembles to the 140-seat upper gallery of the center.
“We were aiming to widen reach of local participants, trying to change highbrow-lowbrow perception,” she said of the new programming. “I think it worked, people started to see we were programming lots of styles. And people love having a by-donation option.”
“We were on the right trajectory before COVID hit, audiences were coming and donations were growing,” she said.
Dillon also wanted more film presentations. “We did a series of films exploring intersection of music and film.” A monthly film was presented until the pandemic hit.
When the pandemic closed or greatly diminished attendance at arts venues in the spring, Dillon, like others in her position around the state, had to quickly pivot to a new reality.
“None of us imagined the worst case scenario would hit us in a few months in January during planning,” she said of the problems she and her board of directors faced early this year.
As a result of COVID-19, programming has significantly changed at Chandler. There were some live performances with limited seating through the late spring, summer and fall. The popular New World Festival, held on Labor Day was mostly streamed with a small limited in-person audience for the evening show.
Then, on Nov. 13, with COVID-19 cases growing to more than early spring levels, Gov. Phil Scott imposed strict limits on indoor gatherings.
“We are limited in what we can offer to a live audience,” Dillon said.
Currently there are just two events scheduled for the holidays: One features the Leahy family from Canada streamed in “A Celtic Family Christmas”; and the other is the Artisans Holiday Market.
“We have our annual Holiday Artisan Market, retail in-person version with retail regulations, eight shoppers at a time and an online market with shipping or curbside pick-up. It supports us and the vendors,” Dillon said.
Chandler will also present a free family performance by No Strings Marionettes, in a streamed version of the show. While free there will be a donate button.
For now, Dillon is “looking to the spring wondering what will be possible.” She is trying to retool a planned February comedy event now rescheduled for May. Also in the re-planning stage is “Mutts Gone Nuts” a family dog show. “I’m hopeful we can reboot in late spring.”
A major problem limiting music in Vermont is that under current restrictions imposed by Gov. Scott, touring musicians can’t travel into the state without quarantining first.
Valuable lessons are being learned from the pandemic.
“I think it’s forced us to be more honest about our mission, to build community,” Dillon said. “We have to reassess whether we need to have people in the space. We need to diversify the audiences we are serving.”
“We’ve tried to be nimble with live-stream events, Zoom pride events this summer, live stream New World Festival, which was not the money maker the festival usually is, and we depend on that revenue,” she said.
Dillon labeled the current situation, “a challenging experience. We will come out more nimble, more diverse, and able to pivot in new directions.” While income at Chandler Arts is much lower than planned, reduced by more than 50% this year, Dillon thinks the organization will survive. “I believe we have a good shot at it.”
“I hope that people understand that there will come a time when we want to come out again to see events,” she said. “They have to support us now in order for us to still be here on the other side.”