Forced to close doors shortly after opening, the Canandaigua venue is planning for the future once performance venues can open

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There was the fundraising campaign, and the renovations on the old Canandaigua Academy building’s circa-1928 annex auditorium. There was the grand opening gala in January, and then that sold-out show in March featuring 13 area musicians performing Chicago hits. Canandaigua’s newest performance venue, the Fort Hill Performing Arts Center, was off to a great start.

Enter the coronavirus.

FHPAC officials in March closed doors and canceled scheduled shows — the Finger Lakes Concert Band, the Rochester City Ballet, the Youth Chorus of the Finger Lakes and more — while negotiating rescheduling with performance groups. They hoped for a best-case scenario: a quick resolution to the public-health crisis, and a reopening in mid-May. Hoped for the best, anyway — while realizing the best doesn’t always happen. Which, of course, it didn’t.

“The whole thing has been a moving target,” said Sueann Townsend, executive director of FHPAC, housed in the old Academy building on Fort Hill Avenue and North Main Street, also home to Fort Hill Apartments.

Performance venues like Fort Hill are in Phase 4 of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s four-phase process for reopening New York’s economy — and Phase 1, which includes manufacturing, construction and retail (with curbside delivery) just got underway last Friday in the Finger Lakes region. Should nothing go wrong — with no setbacks or case spikes or circumstances in which the region no longer meets reopening criteria — Townsend said they’re looking at possibly opening doors by early August.

That’s possibly, she emphasized. She and her colleagues are paying close attention to the governor’s briefings, along with information collated by industry groups like the Association for Performing Arts Professionals and Dance USA on what they’re hearing as the industry navigates the pandemic, as well as what might be best practices for when and how reopening can happen.

There’s an upside to being all the way in Phase 4: They’re not going in blind. Performance venues will have seen what worked and didn’t work in other sectors: those currently opening up in Phase 1; professional services and real estate, among others, in Phase 2; restaurants and food service in Phase 3. (Schools are in the same Phase 4 boat with arts, entertainment and recreation groups.)

“I think it’s going to be lessons learned from the first three phases, so I certainly expect everything to change as we go,” Townsend said. “I am making plans for a best-case scenario because I want to be prepared for a best-case scenario.” Assuming two weeks between phases — again, if there are no setbacks — and adding “a little bit of wiggle room” in Townsend’s words brings Fort Hill to the beginning of August to roll back the curtain.

What might that look like? Also a moving target, contingent on a number of factors: what level of social distancing will be recommended and required at the time, for instance. (FHPAC almost certainly won’t be able to sell the auditorium to capacity due to distancing; Townsend is running the numbers on projected revenues should they sell at 50% capacity, 25% or other figures.) Whether a vaccine is developed. Whether there might be technological developments to aid in sterilizing.

“Everything is fluid,” Townsend said.

What’s almost certain to be involved, based on best practices recommended throughout the industry: Enhanced cleaning procedures, and hand sanitizers at multiple points in the building. Then there are possible approaches being considered — for instance, discouraging shows with intermissions, to reduce traffic in the facility. Whatever happens, Townsend said policies would be clear and transparent to the patrons.

Obviously, maintaining an empty venue for more than four months means some considerable loss in revenues — but Townsend cites some tremendous community support. It’s been heartening to see how the community has taken the new venue to heart, she noted.

“We have just been bowled over,” she said. “We had our grand-opening event in January; everybody got really excited.” The sold-out Chicago tribute followed. “There was a whole lot of buzz — everybody was feeling really good to have that asset in the community — then the world fell apart.” She added: “It’s been communicated to us through a number of different ways that the community is really behind the long-term success of this organization. … We are incredibly appreciative of that enthusiasm and that support.”

Among those expressing support have been the performance groups the venue books. A number of artists are already lined up who are interested in taking the stage soon after Fort Hill reopened — and some of them have expressed a desire to offer their first performance at Fort Hill as a benefit for the venue.

“They’re local musicians who have a vested interest in our survival,” Townsend said — noting she and colleagues believe strongly that performing artists should be paid for their services. But “I think it is incredibly generous that the artists would want to perform for us as a benefit at the outset.”

It’s a reciprocal relationship, she said: “They take care of us now — we’ll take care of them.”

Those artists who were already scheduled before the pause cleared Fort Hill’s schedule are being offered their pick of dates once the reopening takes place.

And the labor for that day is already underway, as it involves more than just entering items on a spreadsheet. For example, Townsend said they’re working with the Flamenco Society of Western New York to bring in some flamenco dancers from Spain for an October performance, which means a lot of prep work through the U.S. government to get clearance for visas. Ultimately, they’re trying to operate with “as much nimbleness and flexibility as we possibly can” to make things work best for both the venue and the artists, she noted.

The nuts and bolts aside, there’s the big question of what the future may look like, short- and long-term, for performing arts venues in a post-pandemic world and its impact on people’s pocketbooks and, perhaps, willingness to risk congregating in groups.

The challenge is real, and there will be changes, but Townsend believes that the arts — live arts, performance before audiences in the moment — will survive, must survive.

“I truly believe — and this is the way I direct any arts organization — that there is a fundamental need for shared artistic expression amongst people; that art is truly necessary in life, it’s not just a luxury, it’s not a lace doily,” she said. “It’s a fundamental aspect of humanity, and it needs to be experienced collectively.”

And while arts professionals necessarily need to explore alternative ways of making that experience happen in the short term, "I don't think it will negate the need to offer that experience," she said.