Just about a year ago, Mary Heathcott and her team were giddy following another successful First Friday event, hosting hundreds of people strolling gleefully through their art galleries all evening long.

Heathcott and staff at Blue Star Contemporary were at the time also knee-deep in planning for “Red Dot Art Sale,” their top annual fundraising event scheduled for May.

Art by Laura Gonzalez, a graduate of Harmony Science Academy and now a professional artist.

As it turned out, that fateful First Friday – the massively popular monthly evening outdoors arts fest in Southtown, anchored by Blue Star – in mid-March 2020 turned out to be the last one held. The Red Dot fundraiser, which was expected to draw around 600 participants, had to be scratched.

The pandemic was the culprit. In fact, the year-long wrath that COVID-19 has had on San Antonio’s arts community has been nothing short of devastating.

That’s because that community is people-centric – for venues such as museums and galleries, it’s all about bringing folks together to take in and enjoy the arts up close. Essentially overnight, organizations had to shut their doors and thus impeded from offering their traditional in-person programs.

Yet even facing such dire and daunting circumstances never meant throwing in the towel. It did mean having to tap into their inner resilience like never before.

“We are creative thinkers and problem-solvers,” Heathcott explained. “We’ve always been nimble. We’re used to having to change, respond and re-envision as necessary to showcase the conversation of the day in our community.”

Virtual Innovation

Change, they did. Thanks to arts grants for nonprofits provided by the COVID-19 Response Fund (started by the Area Foundation in conjunction with the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County), Heathcott said her organization immediately pivoted to online programming. Examples include shifting instruction to Zoom workshops and artists leading studio tours through Facebook Live streams.

Art by Savannah Plaza-Flores, a junior at Harmony Science Academy.

Limited, socially distant activities such as in-person wearing masks art viewings were brought back in the fall – allowing 10 people an hour tops, compared to the regular 800 to 1,200 an hour typically seen during First Fridays.

Education programming also shifted to the virtual workshops, with artists creating curriculum through recorded, downloadable videos. The MOSAIC Student Artist Program for high schoolers, for example, has been a staple for training and motivating the next generation of local artists.

“Being a teen who does not have a lot of money to buy the things to practice art and improve as an artist was a very big struggle in my household,” explained Savannah Plaza-Flores, a junior at Harmony Science Academy who’s part of MOSAIC. “This program was able to help me in so many ways and provide opportunities I never thought that I would have.”

Innovation also became part of the “new normal” for Blue Star Contemporary, such as partnering with the San Antonio Food Bank to include art-making materials in bags during the Food Bank’s mass distribution events. 

It all goes to show that it very much remains a relevant player as the San Antonio visual arts scene looks toward a hopeful post-pandemic rebound.

“Blue Star Contemporary was founded by artists and continues to be a bedrock of support for artists creating new work,” said Stephanie LaFroscia, Senior Program Officer at the San Antonio Area Foundation overseeing the Cultural Vibrancy impact area and an expert on arts nonprofits in our region. “Their galleries are a site of exchange between local, national and international voices and provide a space of great beauty as well as a platform for difficult conversations.”

Artist Jorge Villarreal (right) poses with a friend in front of his current exhibition at Blue Star Contemporary.

Yet when and how that rebound will take shape remains to be seen. Of course, much depends on when the pandemic will truly be brought under control. Until then, even with support last year from our COVID-19 Response Fund and other philanthropic efforts, local arts programs are far from being out of the woods.

Heathcott clarified that her team is still very much on survival mode, still unable to return to regular, full-fledged in-person programming. “We’re still on the ropes,” she said. “It’s all very tenuous.”

The ripple effect has gone beyond Blue Star Contemporary’s gallery walls. Nearby businesses and vendors can only lament the cancellation of Blue Star Contemporary’s monthly events, which brought about increased foot traffic that presented a tremendous boon to their bottom line.

Art-Loving Donors Step Up

Recognizing the reality of the pandemic’s lingering economic impact, the Area Foundation once again is stepping up to help preserve and strengthen our local arts community by launching the Recovery Fund for the Arts, started with $25,000 from Donor-Advised Fund holders wanting to lend a hand.

As its name indicates, this new funding opportunity is geared toward helping arts nonprofits get on the road to recovery from the lingering impact caused by the pandemic.

“The arts sector has been particularly vulnerable to the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic,” affirmed Laura Giacomoni, Philanthropic Advisor in the Area Foundation’s Development and Donor Services Department.

“The need to support local arts remains acute. To that end, we have launched the Recovery Fund for the Arts to encourage investment in the arts as a key driver in our collective recovery from the economic, cultural and social impacts of the pandemic,” Giacomoni added.

The Area Foundation and its generous donors who helped launch the new art fund now invite the community at large to help it grow in order to help as many arts nonprofit organizations as possible. Donations can be made here.

As Heathcott at Blue Star Contemporary made it evidently clear, the need is still there. As she pointed out, arts and culture is at the heart of San Antonio’s centuries-long existence. We can all do our part to ensure that heart keeps beating so the next generation can enjoy our cultural vibrancy as much as preceding generations.

Click here to learn more how the San Antonio Area Foundation imagines a vibrant arts and culture community that increases connectivity, empowers all San Antonians, and reflects the cultural diversity of our city.