By Carin Enovijas
The Maui Arts and Cultural Center’s president and CEO, Art Vento, believes that Maui’s unique culture, expressed through the arts, has the power to strengthen and deliver hope to the community—in times of celebration and adversity.
The MACC has risen to meet many challenges imposed by COVID-19, providing new channels for artists, audiences, and educators to experience live performances and educational content.
“March 13, 2020 was the day we stopped. The day the world stopped,” Vento said. “We stopped programming. We stopped everything.”
In the weeks leading up to widespread shutdowns across the globe, Vento recalled, “The issues were so varied, it changed by the day, the hour, and by the minute. We didn’t know how long it was going to last, and quite frankly it was very daunting. But we took the safest approach from day one and tried to try to make sure that we were following protocols and being part of the solution and not a part of the problem.”
That day, Vento delivered a taped message via the MACC’s website informing the community that the venue was temporarily closed. He said the center’s familiar tagline “evolved” to reflect the need for safety during the pandemic. “If it’s happening on Maui, it’s happening at the MACC,” became, “When it can happen on Maui, it will happen at the MACC.”
To remain connected with the community, social media was utilized to share “MACC Flashbacks.” The clips of live events offered, “a glimmer of hope that those events are going to happen again, or something like that will be on the horizon. We’ll only do it when it’s safe,” explained Vento.
The “MACC at Home” programming invited local performers to post performance clips, encouraging fans to follow all safety protocols to keep each other safe and connected during the pandemic.
“We asked them to do a song in their living room, their bedroom, bathtub, wherever they were most comfortable,” Vento said.
From the beginning, the board of directors and staff at the MACC and staff wanted to be consistent with their message.
“We decided that what we are going to offer is hope. We’re going to offer joy,” Vento said. “We opted to do that every Saturday night at 7:30. And since the pandemic began, there was something streaming from the MACC. Something happening at the MACC that you could access for free, online.”
Over 200 diverse performers were featured during the shutdown, many via livestream from the Castle Theater. The performers used the theater as a backdrop. “One might say that’s backwards but it was a conscious decision because the world was backwards. The world was upside down. We’re going to face the stage instead of the audience.”
Vento credited the board’s careful planning, the generosity of donors and members, pandemic-related grant funding, and especially partnerships with the Office of the Mayor and the Office of Economic Development with helping keep the lights on. It also helped generate some of the only income many artists earned during the shutdown.
“It was heartwarming to be able to hand a check to performers and technicians,” Vento said.
“It’s one of the moments of the pandemic that makes you smile. When we could actually make a performer smile in addition to all the people listening and watching the performance,” recalled Vento.
Many artists walked off the empty stage filled with emotion.
“I forgot just how much I missed performing,” an emotional Henry Kapono told Vento, thanking him for providing a venue when it felt like the music performances had almost vanished.
In stark contrast, it was wrenching for Vento to furlough his employees. “It broke my heart,” he said.
A small number of essential staff continued to help deliver the message of hope, despite reduced hours and reduced pay. “They’ve weathered an incredibly difficult time. They’ve been incredible,” Vento said. He hopes to invite many former employees back to work when programming can once again support the venue’s fully-staffed payroll.
While many of the MACC’s supporters have grown comfortable with being entertained while at home—or anywhere—Vento notes that virtual programming is likely to continue expanding. It is an opportunity that allows artists to broaden their audience while also creating potential for more tech-related jobs.
“However, as an arts organization, we have to believe that human contact—celebrating together and gathering to experience live music—is a basic human desire. It’s one of the things that defines our humanity. And that’s not going to go away. But we’ll also need to be able to offer alternatives,” Vento added.
The MACC’s education department was able to smoothly transition regular programming into online content. During the school year, the MACC typically hosts 50 to 70 students daily for “Can Do Days.” It is an immersion program in visual arts, performing arts, and drama. They are able to deliver the same value and message in virtual content, according to Vento.
What can’t be synthesized virtually is providing local youth with what is often their first experience of either viewing or performing live for an audience of parents, peers and community members.
School music programs and performing arts groups look forward to annual performances on the MACC’s various stages, many which are free to the public.
In May, the MACC hosted and live-streamed the first Hawaii Youth Poet Laureate competition, featuring 11 finalists ranging in age from 10 to 17, from schools across the state. Lua Bowman, a junior at Punahou School, holds the state title and the potential to become a National Youth Poet Laureate, like Amanda Gorman. In January, Gorman gained worldwide recognition for her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” delivered at the Presidential Inauguration.
“The stories the finalist poets shared speak to the diverse identities, experiences, and challenges young people face in Hawaii,” said Dr. Moira Pirsch, Education Director at the MACC. “It is our hope that programs like this continue to support lifting the voices of young people to support leadership and civic development among them.”
While Vento is excited for the arts to return, he is serious about maintaining safety. Although more socially distanced outdoor events are being planned, indoor spaces at the MACC will not be open until restrictions are lifted and it is safe to move ahead with large numbers.
“When it’s time, it’ll be clear,” Vento said. “When vaccination rates go up and the infection numbers come down and with people’s willingness to find a way to take care of each other. Now is the time to begin that evolution and we’re happy to be moving in that direction.”
Photo Courtesy: The MAAC, crediting Matthew Thayer