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President and CEO of Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County looks for opportunity and positive things amid pandemic
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President and CEO of Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County looks for opportunity and positive things amid pandemic

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Chase Law’s first year as president and chief executive of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County seemed to go by quickly.

“I blinked my eye, and it was a year,” said Law, who started her job Dec. 1, 2020.

Previously the vice president of development at Blumenthal Performing Arts in Charlotte, Law changed jobs and moved with her family to Winston-Salem amid the pandemic.

“Overall, it has been a great transition,” Law said. “The one thing that I keep saying about all this is, ‘Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity. Where is the positive that’s coming out of the negative of the pandemic?’”

She has noticed that the pandemic is allowing people to be more thoughtful, “not only from the arts council’s perspective, but just across the arts and cultural sector, not only with each other but with the entire community.”

She said people are thinking differently and forming new partnerships.

“I’ve been very impressed with the arts scene here,” Law said. “I see a lot of exciting new projects coming out of the woodworks as we’re reopening.”

Rick Moss, chairman of the arts council’s board of trustees, said Law has done a terrific job.

“I led the (arts council’s CEO) search committee when we established our expectations,” Moss said. “She has more than exceeded them at this point. She has done a great job reaching out into the community and has established her credibility in the community as a really strong arts organization leader.

“I think a lot of donors and other constituents, organizations and our arts partners in the community have all responded really well to her. She’s been a great addition.”

The challenges

Despite some of the exciting things starting to happen in the local arts scene, Law said the challenges, especially those from the pandemic, are real.

“Half of my time here, we were still shutdown. But then as late spring and summer came, we started to reopen — to re-emerge, if you will — and more activity was happening,” she said. “But we still had to be safe and that was a challenge.”

In its complex on Spruce Street in downtown Winston-Salem, the arts council has three multi-function theaters — Hanesbrands Theatre, Reynolds Place Theatre and Mountcastle Forum/Theatre.

Law said that the arts council’s resident companies and several local theaters were ready to return for shows last year.

“Of course, I made decisions on how we were going to reopen and do things and stay safe, but I definitely didn’t do it in a vacuum. I called them and said, ‘This is what I’m thinking about doing.’”

She watched what other arts organizations and venues were doing locally, across the state and nationally.

The arts council was already following the City of Winston-Salem’s mask mandate for indoor events.

Then, on Aug. 30, the arts council started requiring that patrons, performers and stage crew members 18 and older who attended and worked events and performances at its campus show proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative PCR lab test result from 72 hours prior to a scheduled event.

“That was a hard decision for me to make,” Law said. “I’m not going to lie. It still is. But at the end of the day, the question was, ‘Is this the right decision?’ And my answer was always, ‘Yes.’”

She said her decision was not about her but about bringing the arts back.

“Every city, especially Winston-Salem — the City of Arts and Innovation — needs to have a thriving arts and cultural sector,” Law said.

The arts council got pushback from some people about its COVID-19 safety policy, but Law said the majority of people were happy about it.

She said she has been fortunate to develop relationships and talk regularly with the leaders of organizations such as Greater Winston-Salem Inc., the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership and Visit Winston-Salem.

“I listen and learn what they are doing and what their goals are, and I say to myself, to my staff, to the board, to the community, ‘How can we help all of these groups and others achieve their goals as we achieve ours?’ Because it’s a collective. No one is in a silo. We’re working together for the greater good. I think that as we want to attract and keep businesses here, bring in visitors and residents, the arts and cultural sector can help with all of that.”

Law has found the local arts community to be resilient during the pandemic.

“Every organization had a different experience during the pandemic,” she said. “Most of them had to cut back. They cut back on staff and operations and programming.”

She said organizations pivoted to a virtual space in an incredible way.

Then when they came back to in-person events, organizations had plans and were ready.

“I was so impressed with the fact that folks didn’t sit back and wait for this to end,” Law said.

Now, the local arts community is rebuilding.

“You’ve got large organizations that have big staff,” Law said. “Then you’ve got the smaller ones who don’t have any staff and everything in between.”

A big help, Law said, is the fact that the local community is generous with donations and understands and supports the arts.

Successes and changes

During her first year at the helm, the arts council exceeded its campaign goal for its 2020-21 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, by raising $2.1 million, up from $1.9 million in 2019-2020.

“That was a big achievement ... Fundraising is hard for the arts right now,” Law said.

In early March 2021, the organization teamed up with the Forsyth County Health Department to bring musical performances to the health department’s COVID-19 vaccination site at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds. Originally, the performances were to last one month but were extended for an additional month. Performers received honoraria from The Arts Council’s Artist Relief Fund.

“Not only was it a great way for us to pay those artists and get them working again, but it provided such a respite and some comfort as folks were out getting their vaccinations,” Law said.

In mid-October 2021, the arts council underwent a restructuring of its staff.

Law said that some positions were eliminated, some will be eliminated as people leave the organization, while other positions were restructured and realigned based on organizational needs accessed over the last fiscal year.

She said the decisions were made “based on the needs of the organization as Arts Council tightens its operations and reduces overhead expenses.”

The arts council had 16 full-time positions budgeted within the organization when Law started her job. As of Jan. 1, there are 11 full-time positions and one part-time permanent position on the administrative staff.

“These decisions were made with the community in mind and to show how Arts Council is being a better steward of the support we receive and how we can best serve Winston-Salem and Forsyth County,” Law said.

She said the organization has also ramped up its marketing efforts to put a spotlight on offerings in the local arts and cultural sector.

On Dec. 15, the arts council announced it had made Organizational Support Grants to 20 arts partners and Wells Fargo Arts-In-Education Grants to 17 awardees for fiscal year 2022. In addition, Reynolda House was a Sponsorship Grant winner for the same year. The 38 winners received grants totaling $689,183. Recipients include Authoring Action, Bookmarks, N.C. Black Repertory Company, Sawtooth School for Visual Art, Piedmont Opera, Piedmont Wind Symphony and RiverRun International Film Festival.

Authoring Action has been a grant recipient from the arts council for a number of years. The nonprofit arts and outreach organization is dedicated to developing youth as articulate authors and advocates for social change.

“We appreciate the consistent communication, the streamlining of the grant process and the support for operations,” Lynn Rhoades, co-founder and executive director of Authoring Action, said.

Rhoades said that Authoring Action officials sense a commitment by the arts council to racial equity and inclusion, listening to the voices of all organizations, providing arts and education programs, as well as an interest in responding to the community violence challenges in the community.

Nathan Ross Freeman, co-founder and artistic director of Authoring Action, said he is impressed by the proactive relationship that Law is developing with nonprofit organizations in Forsyth County.

“She’s done that not only in a strategic way, but she’s created another platform,” Freeman said. “She’s created a strategic planning task force.”

Freeman and Rhoades agreed that the arts council is making systemic change through the task force.

“As for systemic change, to actually make the arts more accessible and beneficial throughout the community,” Rhoades said.

Next steps

As 2022 starts, the arts council is working on a new strategic plan.

“We’re envisioning and trying to understand and discuss the direction of Arts Council,” Law said.

She said the organization has received feedback from the community and will announce its new goals and trajectory in early spring.

“It’s the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, so my goal is to make sure that we are truly serving all of Forsyth County,” she said.

Law said she wants to know from people what is needed in the community and not assume what is needed.

“It’s understanding. It’s listening. It’s learning and then responding accordingly,” she said.

The fatal shooting of a Mount Tabor High School student in September 2021 led the arts council to have conversations about ways to respond to such incidents through the world of arts and culture and creativity.

Some of those conversations were with Authoring Action.

Law said the conversations included talk about how the immediate response to a shooting might be to put up barriers in a school. But other possible responses to consider are helping with literacy, history, heritage, science and math.

“The arts can play a role in lifting that up and providing a strong foundation for families and kids that don’t often have that,” Law said.

The Arts Council estimated at least a $20 million loss in revenues for the arts and cultural sector in Forsyth County from March 2020 through August 2021. The organization is hopeful it will receive some of the coronavirus relief money through the American Rescue Plan Act funds awarded to Winston-Salem and Forsyth County.

“We are hopeful that we will receive additional funding to help with the relief, recovery and revitalization of our community, as well as programmatic expansion throughout our area to address a variety of community needs through the lens of arts, culture and creativity,” Law said.

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