Spivey Hall reimagines anniversary season amid pandemic

When Sam Dixon, executive and artistic director of Spivey Hall, announced the organization’s 30th anniversary season in early March, he had no way of knowing that, by the end of the week, the performing arts center would be shuttered indefinitely. Season 29 effectively ended March 15 due to closures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, eliminating a host of spring performances at the 400-seat recital hall on the campus of Clayton State University.

Dixon has released a new strategy for the venue’s 30th birthday season, which was to begin in September with classical pianist Kenny Broberg. For the coming season, Dixon will produce concerts a la carte, with a heavy reliance on video, reconceptualizing the season lineup with public health constraints.

“There is no concert experience that is worth anyone’s life,” Dixon said. “As much as we want to be enjoying concert performances the way we have, going forward, we have to consider so many other things in order to figure out how we can create opportunities that are safe and practical to enjoy music.”

Dixon said new artists may be subbed for originally scheduled performers who either can’t travel to Georgia to record performances or are not able to submit exclusive video for a Spivey Hall broadcast. (The university doesn’t currently have the bandwidth needed for live concert streaming.) Concertgoers will be welcomed back to the hall when it is safe to produce a live show while adhering to social distancing guidance.

“Physical proximity has been our greatest strength. In the era of COVID-19, we have to reconsider how to develop that sense of connection, and do it safely,” Dixon said. “The real issue is … how willing people are to pay for experiences other than going to a concert hall and sitting in their favorite seats and being 20 feet from the artist.”

The 15-piece Italian chamber ensemble Europa Galante was one of the first groups to pull the plug on a scheduled Spivey Hall performance. When the scale of the pandemic became clear, the group’s Vermont-based manager, Kerby Lovallo, canceled the ensemble’s entire fall tour. Lovallo said safety considerations, and the U.S. government’s decision to no longer issue visas, made temporarily scrapping the concerts the only option.

Europa Galante’s tour will likely take place next year. By that time, Lovallo thinks audiences will be clamoring for live music.

“When things do open up and people feel safe, I expect there will be an explosion of interest in attending concerts,” he said. “It’s a deep need that’s not being met. There’s a real hunger that I can feel.”

Developing the path forward for Spivey Hall’s 30th season involved numerous Microsoft Teams meetings among Dixon’s staff, Zoom consultations with the leaders of other performing arts organizations in the University System of Georgia, and a close look at Spivey Hall audiences. From the responses of nearly 200 Spivey Hall patrons to a survey sponsored by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Dixon learned that a third of his prospective audience would either not return to Spivey Hall until there are no new COVID-19 infections in the area or would put off their visits for the “foreseeable future.”

While Dixon is disappointed the programming can’t proceed as planned, innovations created while social-distancing could have a foothold in future Spivey Hall seasons. Dixon said recorded concerts could be accompanied by extensive artist commentary and after-performance roundtables to create new, fulfilling experiences.

Through the pandemic-necessitated shutdown, Spivey Hall has remained on solid financial footing. Ticketholders have received refunds for canceled concerts, but the artist fees saved from those performances helped soften the monetary blow. Dixon hasn’t yet had to think about furloughing his staff, but planning is ongoing to meet the governor’s budget-reduction goals for university system funding. Dixon will ultimately only know more once the legislature approves a budget for the next fiscal year. But as long as the university is open, Dixon is committed to producing a season of concerts, and celebrating Spivey Hall’s third decade, in whatever manner is necessary.

“Thirty years is important for us, but I also want to be around for 31 and 32 and 35,” he said. “This is not going to be the 30th anniversary that we wanted, but — thank you Stephen Sondheim — we’re still here.”