Pandemic is the mother of invention

New York artists designed new work and new venues for interacting safely with audiences, businesses innovated with new methods to serve customers and creative citizens placed their own stamps in unusual places across the city.

Out of the Bathtub, Into the Zoom

When Meta is better: Siobhan O’Loughlin takes an interactive journey through a real-life romance forged over Zoom. (Courtesy of O'Loughlin)

A creator immerses herself in theater at a distance

By Jo Constantz

Since 2015, Siobhan O’Loughlin had performed across the country in “Broken Bone Bathtub,” an immersive show held in strangers’ bathrooms. As audience members gave her a bath, she explored themes of vulnerability and connection, making a space communal that’s usually deeply private.

In March, her upcoming tour was cancelled, and the Brooklyn-based performance artist, 33, traded the tubs for a laptop. “In a state of panic, I threw myself into Zoom performances,” she said. “That was just me throwing darts at the wall.”

Widespread cancellations decimated revenue for arts organizations and artists, with nearly 3 million jobs lost across creative industries in four months.

“I lost not only my income from upcoming performances, but I lost my sense of relevancy as an artist,” O’Loughlin wrote.

Yet artists continue to create—finding new ways to adapt to online mediums and connect with audiences.

In March, stuck in a Ditmas Park apartment loaned by a friend and patron, O’Loughlin launched headfirst into her first online performance: a reading from her diary. Her early experiments with Zoom were improvised and free of charge, with the option to donate through Venmo or Patreon, the crowdfunding platform.

It was a dramatic departure from touring “Broken Bone Bathtub” from city to city. O’Loughlin was able to support herself through ticket sales and Patreon. Her nomadic lifestyle meant she wasn’t paying rent elsewhere.

As the lockdown continued, she developed more sophisticated shows, which evolved into a Zoom series “Please Don’t Touch the Artist.” read more >

Many people are finding new dramaturgical structures for the work that they’re doing, and new audiences. I can’t imagine that that won’t continue.

Erin Mee

Professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts

Million jobs lost across creative industries in four months

Booksellers Rewrite the Plot

Indies think globally online, act locally in communities

By Smaranda Tolosano

Leigh Altshuler was caught off guard when she was laid off early in the pandemic. With no job prospects, the 29-year-old decided it was an opportune time, despite clear hurdles, to follow her dreams and open a bookstore in the Lower East Side.

Altshuler opened Sweet Pickle Books — which doubles as a fresh-pickle store — in November, having spent the summer driving around the tri-state area amassing a collection of books. Looking toward the holidays, she encouraged shoppers to think of small businesses like hers and the impact buying from Amazon has on them.

“Booksellers really put everything into what they’re doing,” she said. “They’re not in it for the money. It’s not a cash cow. You’re in it for the love of books.”New York City’s independent booksellers were forced to close temporarily last spring as part of a citywide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. To recover from the decline in sales and survive the uncertainty, shop owners are embracing new business models.

Despite Amazon’s success in selling books, the American Booksellers Association reports independent bookstores have flourished across the country over the past decade. But the pandemic has restricted in-person shopping, forcing booksellers who weren’t online before to start competing with one-stop shops like Amazon.

“March was a little bit of a scramble to figure out how to keep going. We put together a website, an online bookstore in about a week and a half,” said Nicodemus Nicoludis, bookseller at Powerhouse Arena in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, who is also managing editor of Archway Editions, a literary imprint from Powerhouse that launched during the pandemic. The store mainly sold online into the early summer. read more >

March was a little bit of a scramble to figure out how to keep going. We put together a website, an online bookstore, in about a week and a half.

Nicodemus Nicoludis

Bookseller at Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn


Percent of American Booksellers Association survey respondents who didn’t expect to survive into 2021

Blueprint for an inclusive recovery

Neighborhoods Now connects local businesses to world-class design

By Anny Oberlink

Lynette Battle had a vision: an outdoor winter wonderland market at Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Marcy Plaza, where small businesses could re-connect with their Brooklyn community, just in time for the holidays.

To make it a reality, Battle, deputy director of the Bed-Stuy Gateway Business Improvement District, enlisted help from Neighborhoods Now, a new design initiative helping communities recover from the pandemic.

The project matches local organizations like hers with design and architecture firms to drive recovery efforts in neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Neighborhoods Now, launched by the Van Alen Institute and the Urban Design Forum, is aiming to help parts of the city that have suffered a lack of access to “resources and capital as a result of long-term structural inequity and racism.”

Proposals range from quick projects like multilingual signage promoting COVID-19 safety to long-term inclusive plans meant to transform the city into a place that supports its most disenfranchised communities.

In an October digital summit organized by Neighborhoods Now, representatives from firms working with the Bed-Stuy BID presented their plans to transform Marcy Plaza.

“It’s been a huge point of community activism and we see a lot of people meandering around the Black Lives Matter mural,” said Lisa Martinez, from Grimshaw Architects, a global firm with offices in New York. “We started to understand how we could program the plaza itself to capitalize on what’s already happening there but also provide community amenities and infrastructure.” read more >


A return to normal is not the goal. Normal hasn’t been working in these communities for decades. Normal has been what has created a system that excludes us. And that is not what we’re looking to recreate.

Barika Williams

Executive director, Association for Neighborhood & Housing Development


Decrease in active US small business owners, February to April 2020

Outdoor Art Finds an Opening

A future without walls is on exhibit

By Zachary Smith

When the coronavirus hit, indoor museums and cultural exhibits were not the only arts venues that were shuttered.

Installations by Arts in the Park, a city program that’s exhibited 2,000 temporary public artworks for more than 50 years, were cancelled until June.

But once Arts in the Parks was deemed safe to operate again, the Parks Department was offered with a new opportunity spurred by the pandemic: hosting Photoville, the annual festival that normally took place in Dumbo’s Brooklyn Bridge Park, as a citywide event.

Photoville founders planned to expand the festival to all five boroughs in 2021 for its 10th anniversary. COVID-19 fast-tracked the move.

“Everyone is enjoying the parks. People are going out to their public spaces” said co-founder Laura Roumanos. “So even if there’s another lockdown, people are still going to be outside.”

Pre-pandemic, the two-week outdoor event attracted more than 40,000 visitors a year. Now, instead of displaying photography in the shipping-container galleries synonymous with Photoville, galleries were installed in parks across the city. read more >

I was really excited about the fact that they still had it this year, given how everything else cultural and artistic has closed down.

Milap Patel

Photoville viewer in Brooklyn

Laughter is the Best Medicine, Even Outside

Comedians get streetwise for shows under the stars

By Brandon Futernick

It’s a seasonably cold autumn night in Brooklyn. There’s some tension in the air as coronavirus numbers start to rise again. People are tired and nervous.

But at East Williamsburg’s Cooper Park, there’s an unusual sight for these times: A sea of masked millennials, picnic blankets in tow, slowly filling up a set of bleachers. They’re here for “Comedy at Cooper,” a weekly showcase of New York’s top underground comics.

“Comedy at Cooper” was started by Brooklyn comedians Nathan Habib and Julio Diaz, who like many of their colleagues, have had to get creative this year to get their art out there with New York’s legendary comedy clubs shuttered.

The duo teamed up on a whim when Habib was thinking of starting a weekly show in his local park and Diaz had the equipment to make it happen. After doing a soundcheck in the park with the gear, Habib decided it was time to give his idea a shot.

“I got a bunch of comics, and I texted them like ‘This is either gonna be amazing or a complete disaster,’” he said.


I got a bunch of comics, and I texted them like ‘This is either gonna be amazing or a complete disaster.’

Nathan Habib

One of the comedians behind "Comedy at Cooper" in Brooklyn

The first night went off without a hitch and thus “Comedy at Cooper” was born. They’ve had over a dozen shows and created a devoted audience that keeps coming back for more. 

“One week we had to cancel because it was raining, and people were bummed out,” said Habib. “And that just shows you that you have something special.”

The sentiment is shared by their audience. “It just feels great to be around other humans, laugh, and for a moment forget there’s a pandemic around us,” said Emily Clark, an attendee. “It shows how lights can still shine. It’s special.” read more >