From Businesses to Students, Coronavirus Causes Critical Hits to the Local Art Community

As the number of positive cases and deaths exponentially rise across the United States and abroad, the COVID-19 pandemic has put the entire world on pause. New Paltz is just one of thousands of communities affected by the pandemic; the University has shut its doors for the remainder of the semester and has transitioned to distance learning.

The closure of SUNY New Paltz and the statewide advisement to social distance and stay at home carries major implications for both residents and students. The town is chock full of small shops that thrive on business from students, and students are deprived of the chance to learn and commune.

Students, SUNY educators and residents involved in the arts are some of those most heavily affected. Art students no longer have easy access to their studios at New Paltz, and their courses have been converted to a more discussion-based format. Art professors must alter their courses to work in an online setting. Many local artists that have nine-to-five jobs now find themselves with all the time in the world for creating — but without a steady paycheck.

Jamie Sanin, an artist, freelance web designer and head of the Hudson Valley art organization CelebrateWomxn845 has had to make changes to upcoming events, such as hosting open mic nights and exhibitions online. Sanin has noticed mass layoffs amongst her artist friends and a  significant decline in her own freelance work.

“I work with a lot of artists, and they’re being hit really hard. Their priorities are not fixing up their websites right now,” Sanin said. “Everybody’s obviously stressed, everybody’s getting laid off from their jobs, everyone suddenly has this downtime. The artists that I know are doing a good job of checking in on one another and just taking it day by [day] and making sure everyone is okay.”

At the Roost Studios and Gallery, the situation is different. While the gallery itself is currently closed, they are not at risk, at the moment, of completely shutting down. As they are a dues-based organization, they “will remain viable so long as our members express an interest” according to Marcy Bernstein, Roost co-founder and executive director. However, due to the pandemic and quarantine potentially lasting months, the future is uncertain.

“Ultimately, like every business, remaining open and viable requires payment of rent, salaries and other expenses, and government aid that focuses on these essentials is desirable,” Bernstein said. “Our board is hopeful that lawmakers will be mindful of the important needs served by arts organizations during a time of great concern and ensure that aid to them is a priority.”

Meanwhile, at SUNY New Paltz, art students and faculty are trying to adjust. Pam Ellick, a senior pursuing a BFA in painting, finds that her education has changed dramatically due to the pandemic.

“All of my classes are studio classes, so there’s been a huge shift in how I’m learning. My professors are just scrambling to figure out the best way to do it, but so far we’ve decided we’re all going to do weekly meetings on video chat,” Ellick said. “Our syllabus has changed and they have lower expectations for us, which is kind of a bummer because it doesn’t push us as much.”

Like many other art majors, Ellick no longer has access to her studio supplies due to the closure of the Smiley Arts Building for deep cleaning. According to emails sent on March 25, there is no set date for their reopening. All student exhibits for the remainder of the semester have been canceled, and many of Ellick’s friends within the major have been affected.

However, Ellick feels that the art faculty are doing the best they can given the dire circumstances.

“Most of my professors have been attentive to our emotional needs during this time and understand that their expectations must be lowered just by the nature of the situation and how being quarantined at home affects many student’s performance,” Ellick said. “I appreciate all of the effort that my professors are putting into making this stressful situation a learning experience that is just as good as an in-person class would provide, which seems impossible, but within the coming weeks we will all see how it goes.”

Professor Edward Felton, the Wood Studio Manager at SUNY New Paltz, is optimistic about the prospects of distance learning.

“The cancelation of all in-person classes is a compromise that brings rise to some exciting possibilities. What we’re going to be doing with the wood design classes in particular are things that we’ve done in the past for independent study students. Things that we would like to do more of but that there isn’t room for in the regular curriculum,” Felton said. “The scope of the course has changed to focus on the design process of the work rather than the hands-on aspect of it.”

As a professor, Felton feels that all levels of SUNY Administration have been supportive of one another during the pandemic.

“I feel grateful and proud to be a part of the SUNY New Paltz community. The administration, the faculty union, and all faculty and staff are functioning as a community to navigate through this crisis,” Felton said.

Ultimately, the situation for each person in New Paltz’s art community is unique to them, but as the pandemic and quarantine continues, it’s important to aid one another as best as one can.