How A NonProfit Plans to Outlive COVID
The Bronx Arts Ensemble won’t hit “pause” waiting until normal life resumes
By Anna Deen
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Bronx Arts Ensemble was faced with a difficult choice.
Artistic director Judith Insell says the education organization in the Northwest Bronx debated whether to halt operations until normal life resumed or take the risk of pushing forward to serve its community.
In a typical year, it hosts 60 to 70 free concerts and provides arts education to hundreds of thousands of Bronx students across public schools.
With in-person performances halted and the city slashing its arts-education budget by 70%, the nonprofit had to strategize new ways to reach its audience.
If we can make more of an impact with these more-enhanced concert presentations or teaching-artist classes with graphics and computer programs, then it’s not such a bad thing that we have to work this way.
The organization developed robust online offerings and a collaborative approach that has expanded its outreach beyond the Bronx. The group plans to add a new division in anticipation of digital programming becoming a permanent aspect of its work in the post-pandemic world.
“We’re a small, scrappy nonprofit organization in the Bronx,” says Insell. “If we can make more of an impact with these more-enhanced concert presentations or teaching-artist classes with graphics and computer programs, then it’s not such a bad thing that we have to work this way.”
This year’s Summer Arts series marked the start of the initiative to assemble more digital content. The group has hosted free online courses on everything from African drumming and dance to Capoeira martial-arts movement and also has streamed live yoga sessions each Friday.
Amparo Santiago, 62, who teaches yoga, says that online classes provide access to those who typically are unable to afford yoga or who don’t have classes in their neighborhoods. Santiago says she even had a student based in Hawaii take a class.
The organization plans on livestreaming one concert per month through the end of the fiscal year, unless the city opens up sooner.
In October, “Sembrar,” an original performance by Angélica Negrón, was presented through a Facebook livestream. With “Sembrar,” Insell says the the nonprofit had the opportunity to go above and beyond, collaborating with Four/Ten Media to create a performance that felt like a multimedia art piece.
Evelyn Petcher, 32, a violinist and teaching artist with the ensemble who performed in “Sembrar,” says she has been surprised by how meaningful recording and sharing music remotely has been.
“I know it will reach people, because it’s one of the only outlets right now for musicians,” she says. “I have very much missed being live, because I love being able to make that personal connection with an audience—interacting with them, doing silly little clapping exercises.”
Jane Palmquist, 63, an associate professor at the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College, watched the premiere from her home in Brooklyn. She has been teaching online classes for five years.
“The BAE is one [performance organization] I can depend on. I know it will be a good experience for music neophytes, and it will be quality music performed well,” Palmquist says.
Though digital performing has allowed the organization to reach wider audiences and incorporate accessible elements like closed captioning, there are drawbacks to not being in person. Palmquist notes that some of her students don’t have the use of quiet spaces or reliable Wi-Fi.
“Sembrar”—which was originally going to be presented at Pregones/PRTT, a Bronx venue seating roughly 150—has received around 1,400 views, with more coming in. Despite the potential to reach global audiences, Insell says that she’s not sure whether her group is still reaching its community in the Bronx, where 18.6% of households were without internet, as of 2019.
To stay connected in the Bronx residents, the ensemble is expanding partnerships with organizations such as Mosholu Montefiore Community Center and Riverdale Neighborhood House.
In the new year, the ensemble plans to develop an online library of arts education courses in ranging from music production to movement. Mini courses will cater to specific age groups, like middle school or high school students, and won’t include assessments. Classes will be pre-recorded, though partner organizations may have the opportunity to present live classes.
Developing the online library will bring arts education directly to Bronx residents without having to go through other organizations or agencies.
That direct connection will be vital to maintain, Insell says, because city arts budget cuts mean “there will be a lag in learning. There will be students who were learning skills that are going to be lost.”
The nonprofit hosted its first holiday benefit concert on Dec. 17, a show that will continue to be available online.