by Mary Alice Franklin, ArtsNews Editor
When COVID-19 arrived, Hudson Valley Writers Center (HVWC) shifted its programming to an online platform at a moment’s notice. The result was a rich schedule of programs that expanded its audience. Programs Director Jennifer Franklin explains: “[When the state-mandated lockdown began], I wanted to make sure we had robust programming in place, so I worked hours into the night for the first couple of months.” Franklin reached out to old friends, writers with whom the center had relationships, and authors both near and far. She adds: “I also felt obligated to try to help those who lost teaching opportunities or became unemployed due to the pandemic.”
One-day classes exploded with interest. The Center’s audiences at readings more than doubled. “Now people know what is possible with Zoom, but in the beginning, they didn’t. Our audience really took a leap with us,” says Franklin. That audience, she says, consisted of the Center’s dedicated “regulars,” as well as a subset of individuals who are younger than their typical demographic. It also included an array of people that HVWC was not able to accommodate previously, whether because of an individual’s disability, their lack of transportation, or because they lived too far away to visit. In fact, new audience members tuned in online from Australia, Paris and Canada.
Explains Franklin: “The pandemic has had people seeking out the arts more than ever… So much of it is free, including our readings, so it’s been a real solace for people.”
A recent donation of $10,000, which HVWC set aside for a new set of scholarships, also helped the center to expand its reach. The new Altman Persons of Color Scholarships reserve two free spots for people of color in each one-day class they offer. These spots are typically claimed within a day or two, sometimes within hours. Says General Manager Krista Madsen: “These scholarships bring in people who otherwise may not have been [at the Center]. We’re working to develop a need-based scholarship next.”
HVWC’s audience wasn’t the only asset to grow during recent events. The lineup of writers that the Center has been able to present also expanded. Zeeshan Pathan will read live from Turkey via Zoom on October 9. That event will also include Diannely Antigua, and Joshua Bennett, whose roots are much closer to home. The award-winning writer grew up in Yonkers and will return for the launch of his second book. Meanwhile, accomplished poet and essayist Chen Chen did a reading at HVWC, but hadn’t been able to travel from Boston to teach a class. Now Chen will teach “The Art of Telling” on October 4, also via Zoom. Other readers have participated from Trinidad, London and across the United States.
Franklin remembers reading about the way many works created during the 1918 flu epidemic were not properly documented: “I don’t think that will happen this time, but even if it does, [the arts] are sustaining people now, in the moment… During this time of upheaval and uncertainty, we look to literature to remind us we are not alone and to help us understand ourselves and empathize with others. We hope people leave our readings inspired.”
Upon considering whether HVWC will continue online offerings once the Center officially reopens, Madsen said that, for her, the answer is obvious: “A resounding yes.” This may be in the form of online classes, or maybe recordings or livestreams of in-person readings. She adds: “When we can return [in person to the Center], we want to keep providing something for all of these new people who are part of our community now.”
A version of this article first appeared in the October issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNewsis distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.