The Conroe Art League, a nonprofit art gallery, has occupied a brick store in downtown Conroe for the past nine years, President Brett Hall said. The gallery, located in the former Madley Brothers’ Meat Market building, has outlasted Hurricane Harvey in August 2017 and Tropical Depression Imelda in September. The building itself even survived the 1911 fire that wiped out most of downtown Conroe.
But for the first time, the league—along with Conroe’s other arts and performing arts groups—has been forced to temporarily close its doors. Unlike floods and hurricanes, the effects of coronavirus, or COVID-19, are less predictable, local art representatives said.
Over the span of several weeks, Montgomery County has enacted increasingly stringent measures to limit the spread of coronavirus—first encouraging individuals to limit social interaction, then mandating it. On March 19, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced an executive order limiting social gatherings to 10 people, prohibiting eating and drinking at restaurants and bars and closing gyms and schools until April 3.
The Conroe Art League has had to chip away at its offerings—cancelling artist receptions, shifting classes online—as new mandates roll in, Hall said.
“We have really been ... flowing with this as it happens,” he said. “It’s been step by step.”
Other arts and performing arts groups in Conroe shared similar stories with Community Impact Newspaper: a loss of revenue due to reduced foot traffic and cancelled events, as well as efforts to transition online to maintain a sense of community. But there is no telling when things will return to business as usual, representatives said.
“This is a lot different than hurricanes because somebody can't point at a hurricane and tell it it’s going to last till April 3,” said Craig Campobello, a local sculptor, who has had major projects postponed due to the uncertainty of the stock market. “There’s no way to know [how long business will be delayed].”
The show must not go on
Formed in 1963, the Conroe Art League hangs and sells art from any local artist for a small fee. It also coordinates with local teachers who offer classes ranging from ceramics to oil paintings in the gallery’s upper room.
Although the gallery is mandated to be closed until at least April 3, Hall said he thinks it will likely be closed for all of April—which could mean a loss between $3,000-$6,000, he said.
But the closing of the gallery has an intangible effect too, one which would be felt most strongly by its senior members, who constitute about 35% of Conroe Art League’s members, Hall said.
“Because a lot of our members are retired and they don’t interact with others at a job, the gallery has become something of a meeting place for them, and taking away that social interaction can be difficult, especially for those that live alone,” he said.
The league has been able to modify some of its offerings. In lieu of prize money for its monthly People’s Choice Awards, the league will showcase the artwork on its Facebook banner for a month, Hall said. And one teacher is also streaming her classes online, he added.
“A woman in class had said ... ‘I have waited my whole life to learn how to paint, and no virus is going to stop me now,’” Hall said. “Whether it’s online or one way or another, they’re very committed.”
But some experiences cannot be recreated online. Officials with the annual Young Texas Artists Music Competition, a three day event held at the Crighton Theatre, had to cancel the last day of the show, which would have culminated with the grand prize and audience choice award, President and CEO Susie Pokorski said.
The prestigious competition is a chance for young musicians to receive feedback from judges and win prize money. But more importantly, aspiring musicians want a winning title on their resume, Pokorski said.
“It's tough being an artist, even when you’re really talented,” she said. “We try to give our competitors and our winners a boost in their career.”
Similarly, Jazz Connection, a nonprofit jazz ensemble in Conroe for junior high and high school students, was forced to cancel upcoming gigs—a blow for students who spent hours rehearsing, said secretary Lauri McGuyer.
“It's hard for them, and it's hard for me as a mom, because I know this is their last season,” she said through tears. “It is what it is ... They are resilient.”
Art representatives said the community has remained supportive during this time. Many donors have waved off refunds for cancelled events. Sponsors have been understanding. And arts groups said they are hopeful the community will rebound.
Hall compared the efforts by local art groups to small theaters in California putting on plays after wildfires ravaged the state.
“The arts are the first signs of light that rises out of disaster,” he said.
Andy Li contributed to this story.