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  • Writer's pictureBA Ciccolella

Spotlight Saturdays – Sponsored by Sandler Center Foundation

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

The Sandler Center Foundation

Interview by BA Ciccolella Images courtesy of the Sandler Center Foundation.

Each week, Spotlight shines on one of our local arts companies, as a reminder of their importance of their work to our local community. This week, because we feel like you should know a little about the companies that sponsor your media, we sat down with Lisa Baehre, the Executive Director of the Sandler Center Foundation.

For those who need the background, the city of Virginia Beach owns the Sandler Center’s building, the company Spectra operates the building (editor’s note: full disclosure- when I have a stagehand gig there, that’s who writes my check), and the Sandler Foundation enhances the building, a large scale example of symbiotic cooperation. Right now Spectra and the Sandler Center Foundation are working very closely together to get everyone through COVID-19.

About you and your company:

What is your mission statement, and how do you decide on a program that fulfills your mission statement? In a nutshell, our goal is to educate, enrich, and inspire through the arts, and work to instill an appreciation of the arts in the next generation through underwriting world class performances, supporting local arts organizations, and acting as a connector to the community within our region. That all boils down to educate, enrich, and inspire. Our job- we basically pay for the things that don’t make money at the Sandler Center. We have 3 pillars of service. Pillar one is education, pillar 2 is community outreach, and Pillar 3 is performance, underwriting and grants. Our main historical job was to do a lot of K-8 outreach as it relates to the performing arts.

What or who inspires/ influences your work? There are several that I could say, and I couldn’t pick out any one of them because of the way that they inspire me. On some level it’s watching the artists interact with the community and the beauty of the art that they are sharing, whether they are a musician, an actor/actress, or they are doing dance, whatever their medium. I’m not that person- I played flute/ piccolo/ bari sax, I sang, and was good enough to take that into college but not to take that on to a professional level. Seeing people who have invested the time and energy and dedication to their art form is incredibly inspiring to me because I know how much time it took.

The second is being around people that support the arts community. I give this speech periodically about how we tell our kids to become well rounded and to be artists and to learn to do things because it will enrich themselves, and get them into college, and then the moment that we spend years and years developing this in kids, and they say “Hey, mom/dad/parent figure, I want to pursue a career in the arts,” we tell them “Nope, you’re never going to make any money. I don’t want you to go into this area, you need a real job.” One of the things that I like to point out to people is that there are so many people who weren’t going to be the performer, per se, but they can still show their love of the arts through lots of different areas. Like me, my background is in labor and employment relations and fundraising- that’s what I studied in college, but I was able to tie it back to my love for the arts, and now I run the Foundation. It’s inspiring for me to see people looking at how they can be a part of the art world and do it in whatever way that may be, whether they are a stagehand, or they are creating sets, or they are on the business aspect, or the finance side.

The Sandler Center House, packed with students for a matinee

The third area is, of course, the audiences. There is nothing like watching the kids come into the Sandler Center and seeing thousands and thousands of little kids, especially, in our case, from underserved communities. The energy that they bring to that space- I wish we could bottle it.

Their enthusiasm and the excitement, and just seeing their faces- these are kids that sometimes have never left their neighborhood, whether that’s a low income neighborhood in one of our cities or they are living in the middle of rural somewhere and they can’t even see their neighbors. That kind of excitement and energy coming into the building, and then getting to see and experience all those other things I just explained is truly inspiring.

Tell me about your education programs? What’s important is that they are all aligned with the SOL’s. We are providing critical arts education that wouldn’t be able to happen in the schools without our support. We just completed a study about a year ago with Purdue University. We can’t really talk much about this, we’ve only gotten the preliminary results back, but the impact of the performing arts on children’s literacy is profound. It’s not just, “we’re exposing kids to the arts”, but we are exposing kids to the arts so that they can do better in school, and how are we making a difference in their ability to comprehend things. We really look at a lot of different levels of how we bring kids in from an education standpoint.

A collage of students learning about STEAM related topics.

What makes your work unique to our community, and why is that important? I always view us as the community’s living room. We end up with a lot of the social challenges that face our community in lots of different ways, and we have to figure out a way that is a great equalizer for that. A quick example- if we change the time of our student matines, which typically happen in the morning, we impact those kids that are on free and reduced lunch, and might be having breakfast and lunch in school- they don’t get a chance to eat. So they come to the Sandler Center, and they may not have had breakfast, so they are going to act out, and they’re going to be upset, and they’re not going to absorb anything. We see a lot of things that you wouldn’t expect.

COVID-19 Response:

How have you/ your staff been handling COVID/ what have you been doing since the shutdown? About three years ago the Foundation was set up to operate entirely in the virtual space/ cloud. So, long before COVID, I wanted people to have the ability to work anywhere at any time and be able to do their jobs. I’ve never believed that you have to be in an office to be able to do your job. (In some cases, you absolutely do, the stuff that we do, not really). I wanted that flexibility for us, so the transition to a work environment where we weren’t going into the office every day was pretty seamless. I shut the student matinees down on March 13 and we had our first teams video conference on the 16th, so the following Monday.

I think the bigger challenge has been how do you manage and work with a team that needs to reinvent itself. How do you take an organization that completely supports a bricks and mortar building, and reinvent it in the virtual space? We have done that, we are continuing to do that, and we will continue to even broaden that moving forward. We created the Virtual Stage, we had that up and running in two weeks, long before most of the other arts organizations on the national level had anything like that out. That was a monumental undertaking- I think I worked 90 hour work weeks almost six weeks in a row, but we did it, and we’ll continue to do it. We knew that we needed to stay relevant, and we want to be a positive force for people at this time.

What adjustments has the virus caused to your schedule? There are no boundaries- no boundaries whatsoever. Working remotely is great on a lot of levels, and I really enjoy it, but we’ve had to as a staff and a team, as a response to the community, recognize that people connect with us at all times of the day or night. We get questions on the virtual stage that come across at 3am, and how do we respond to those in a timely manner? Then, how do we as a team manage our own mental health? We’ve come up with a way to do that and I won’t say we totally solved it, but I would boil it down to there are no boundaries, and so we have to figure out how to create what those boundaries become.

What’s the biggest change to educational programs? We can’t have them. The schools have told us that they won’t be doing field trips in the fall, and that means the 20,000+ kids that go through the student matinees won’t be doing that this fall. The likelihood that we are able to do it in the spring is maybe 50/50, because schools typically book their field trips in November. In theory if there’s a vaccine, and that doesn’t come around until January, that means the schools have already said “sorry, we can’t do field trips”.

We are working now with artists and content providers to provide digital SOL aligned arts programming. It’s not easy because everyone’s basically inventing it from scratch, including us. We’re working with the school districts to say “What do you need, and how can we make this happen?” Knowing that you can’t bring them into the Sandler Center and see that excitement in their face, what can we do to make that happen remotely in the short term and then bring them back once it is safe to do so. It’s completely changed everything we do.

A collage of students waiting to get to their seats in the Sandler Center, including a photo of the school busses.

What’s the most encouraging thing you’ve learned during this time? That peoples’ resilience is so inspiring and profound. I’ve watched some of my staff members do things I had no idea they were capable of. We have a really strong work team, and watching how others have coped with really difficult stuff in this time period- not everybody has- but some of those people who have just taken on this stress and said, “You know what, you’re not gonna win, COVID. I’m going to be here on the other side of this,” it just brings tears to my eyes when I think about it.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced? I’m a planner, so people that know me well know that I have plans A-F, and then various iterations and they stretch 2, 5, 10 years out. When COVID first hit I was happy that I could plan 2 days out, I would say now I can plan about 2 weeks out, and I’m starting to look at longer term stuff. The ability to plan and respond is very much real-time and it changes almost daily, sometimes hourly, on what we can do. That’s probably the greatest challenge- I’ve got plans, I’ve got tons of them, it’s just what can I actually do, given what’s happening in our environment right now.

What are some passion projects that you hope to work on while we are “paused”? Without giving too many details, we are exploring heavily augmented reality. It is a blast! I’m getting to do some passion projects right now because they are relevant, whereas before it was “We have a theater, why do we need augmented reality?” Well, now we don’t!

What advice do you have to artists trying to work on their craft? The advice i’ve been giving to people is “stay relevant, whatever that may mean”. For us it’s our YNot wednesdays- we can’t have the live performances, but we are hosting virtual performances. They aren’t making money, but every week we do a meet and greet in advance so that people have a chance to connect with the artist, and they are gaining online exposure. The artists are developing an online repertoire of their work.

To me it’s “keep doing things”. Keep putting the energy into it. Don’t give up on what you are doing. Think of how you can stay relevant in this time. [This meme (below or above- insert image)] spurred a conversation via text at like 11 at night about how we need to convert ourselves to “essential” during this time- and we’ve been trying to do that ever since.

What do you need during this time? Money. I mean, who doesn’t. It’s hard right now, there’s been a 73% drop in fundraising nationwide- to everything, not just the arts, and the little money that is going out is going to COVID direct support, foodbanks, that kind of fallout. I don’t begrudge any cent of that- I think that’s exactly where it needs to be going right now. However, my concern is, as I think all artists right now are thinking, how do we sustain through this time period and then come out on the other side? Especially versus people saying, you know what, maybe now’s that time I go pursue that nursing degree, or into the more hard sciences or lucrative fields because they just need to survive. I know money sounds like such an easy thing, but it’s not right now. We need to support our arts organizations. It costs a lot of money to keep the Virtual Stage running, because it’s so labor intensive, and to create new content. I have to pay people with the inability to plan and know when we’re going to come out of this.

The more altruistic thing is love. We need people to say what you are doing matters, what you are doing is helpful, what you are doing is inspiring, because at the end of the day, there is no money there for us, and there’s no money for the artists, so you have to do it out of love or it doesn’t really happen.

The logo for the Virtual Stage.

Looking to the Future:

In what ways are you being proactive for re-opening? I believe very strongly you shouldn’t do something just to do it, I’d rather do something that’s sustainable and long term, so everything we are putting into place and we’re investing our energies in right now is with an eye towards the future. I mentioned the augmented reality- I don’t want that to disappear at the point that we can reopen. Everything that we are developing now, I see a role for it in the future, it just may take on a different role. Perhaps for schools out in rural areas where it takes them an hour and a half to get to us, so they are losing three hours of their day just in travel time, and the trip doesn’t make sense for the school- what if what we’re developing can continue and reach those schools? Right now it’s with an eye towards COVID, to me it’s also “ok, how can we use that in the future.”

Where are you in your planning for next year? What’s your plan for subscribers or members if you know that already? We’re doing continuity planning on David’s side of the house (editor’s note: for those who don’t know, David Semon is General Manager of the Sandler Center), planning what it looks like in terms of having PPE available, how do you seat patrons, how to protect the performers, do you put giant plastic screens on the stage, air filtration systems. There’s that very practical side of things, and that planning is happening.

There was a New York Times article within the last few days that basically said we can plan all this, but until people really feel safe, and really feel safe, they’re not going to come back. That’s been our feeling all along.

Yes we’re planning things, and yes we’re rescheduling our artists, but I was speaking with someone this morning who was saying we’ve already rescheduled one round, now we’re starting rescheduling second rounds, and as you know in the theater world, there’s only so far you can push out before you run into another season that you already planned six months ago, and we are running into that right now- it’s going to be an interesting logistical nightmare, how we go about doing that.

What do you hope to return to? What do you hope the future of the arts looks like? Are there specific changes you would like to see when we come back? I really hope that this forces artists and organizations to collaborate more. I love how we are collaborating directly with the Sandler Center- we did before, but we are doing it on extreme fronts these days. We have staff overlapping, they are involved in our daily meeting, we are involved in theirs, and I hope that kind of collaboration continues. Regardless of when we come back and how we come back, there are limited resources, and we will all have to share in those in some way shape or form, and there will probably be even fewer resources to start when we come back. So I hope that collaboration continues, and I really have enjoyed that a lot.

What conversations do we need to be having right now? Are you seeing those happening? This is a different platform of mine, but in general, the face of the arts have been changing for a long time (pre-COVID). Our subscribers are primarily “of a certain age”, and that demographic is shifting. The conversation I had, probably two years ago, about whether we ever expand the building at the Sandler Center is “how do you design a performing arts venue for a generation that doesn’t see walls?” That is a conversation that pre-dates COVID, and COVID has sped it up, because all of a sudden we can’t have walls, and we need to attract new audiences, and how are we doing it?

I’m not seeing that yet, I’m seeing a lot of survival mode, but I hope that in the coming months and years we start taking a look at how we really answer that question, because it’s coming, in my mind, and it’s already here in a lot of ways. We love our artform, we love our craft, and we love our venues, but that’s not what succeeding generations are seeing the world like.

What are you, personally, most looking forward to after the shutdown? I love beach volleyball. I love the social interaction that happens during beach volleyball, and then afterwards we go to some bars along the oceanfront that have live music, and we drink and eat because we’ve just burned a thousand calories playing beach volleyball and I love it. I can’t wait to do that- and it’s hot and sticky, and that time of year, and I’m really going to miss that this summer.

Is there a specific upcoming project you would like people to know about? Join the virtual stage! (Links are provided below.) If you miss and love the arts, that’s what we are finding has been a great connector for people, and what I wish is that more people would share what they are seeing on the Virtual stage- that’s really what we intended it to be. So watch for that, we have Music Mondays, Ynot Wednesdays, Family Fridays, we have all kinds of stuff that goes on there, it’s a pretty active page, and it’s fun!

Where can people find you (for classes, donations, etc)? Join Virtual Stage Coastal Virginia Facebook Group. The content from the Virtual Stage can also be found on the Sandler Center Foundation website. Ynot Wednesday concerts can be viewed live at 6pm on Wednesdays through June via Facebook Live or for those without facebook, Ynot Wednesday concerts can also be streaming live on the Sandler Center YouTube Channel. You can also check out the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts website.

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