Last year, the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center kicked off their Fall season with a variety of performances and programming including the reopening of the University’s art galleries after being closed due to the pandemic.  

Zydalis Bauer speaks with Jamilla Deria, Director of the Fine Arts Center, to learn how the local arts scene is prevailing during the pandemic as well as to hear about the rest of the season’s upcoming events at the FAC. 

Explore some of the show coming to the FAC this spring in a digital exclusive clip.

This interview originally aired on January 20, 2022.

Read the full transcription:

Tony Dunne, Connecting Point: Last year, the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center kicked off their fall season with a variety of performances and programing, including the reopening of the university’s art galleries after being closed due to COVID-19.

Zydalis Bauer spoke with Jamilla Deria, Director of the Fine Arts Center, to find out how the local art scene is prevailing during the pandemic and learn about the rest of the season.

Jamilla Deria, UMass Fine Arts Center: We’re so happy to be able to let everyone know that we’re open, that we are welcoming audiences back.

And you know, the campus, as well as the Fine Arts Center, has safety at the top of our agenda and we are making — we’ve just completed some extensive planning to ensure that everyone can come to our campus, be safe and enjoy events.

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: So, Jamilla, you started at the UMass Fine Arts Center in 2019 and just one year after you began boom, the pandemic hits.

So how were you able to navigate that and what have been some of the challenges that have come with that?

Jamilla Deria: It was certainly a baptism by fire! I don’t think anyone saw it coming, and certainly no one was really prepared for a global pandemic. Certainly, not in my very first year here at the Fine Arts Center.

But I will say that I was so fortunate — and I am still so fortunate — to have an amazing team who is resilient, resourceful, and just can pivot on a dime. We got the official notice that our buildings were closed on March 16th of 2020, and by April 4th, we were back up and operating virtually.

From April 4th, 2020, up through this — this academic year, we’ve put on seventy five virtual shows.

So obviously, you know, it was a lot of figuring out as we were going, but I think that this team has become so adept at not only in-person presentations, which we all love to do, which is why we got into this business, but now we are wonderful producers of virtual programs, and now we’re also going outdoor and having more outdoor events and public art events, and you’re going to see that in our in the warmer months of the semester and next.

Zydalis Bauer: Speaking of the 75 virtual events that you all put on, like many of us, this was a new avenue for you to explore during the pandemic.

What were some of the successes that came out of those virtual events? And do you think it’s something that will continue on beyond the pandemic?

Jamilla Deria: Well, I think that the great thing about virtual events is that they’re actually a bit more affordable, which means that we have more money to invest in the artists and the development of new work. So for the first time in a very long time, we were able to really partner with artists and present a number of world premieres.

We also expanded how we present arts education programs. So for example, we partnered with the Jazz at Lincoln Center and Wynton Marsalis. The weeks leading up to the election, we invited them to teach a six part course on jazz as a tool of liberation, because there’s something really kind of fantastic — whether you’re a jazz lover or not, there’s something really fantastic about how jazz is created in real time.

I mean, a lot of jazz is improvization and it’s improvization at a masterful level. So, you know, the players are not only so in-tune with the — their own instrument and the sound that they’re developing, but they’re also in real time listening and co-creating with their ensemble mates.

And so the democratization of jazz and in that anyone can kind of have a moment to have their voice articulated, I think that that theme was something that we wanted to explore through this course, and as well as jazz has been activism music since its very beginning. And so it’s not only speaking voice to the people, but it also — in it’s form, you know, expressing how democracy works.

And I think that that was an exciting new model for us, in terms of not only presenting exciting works, but really bringing you into these — these masters workshops to really kind of hear their perspectives, hear their voices, look at how they approach the development of new work.

I was also excited about the Fine Arts Center was a part of a team of presenters across the nation to present and premiere a new opera by a composer named Daniel Bernard Roumain. It was to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre.

And we were able to really give voice and space to this — this wonderful composer to get his work out there. And we had a national conversation about sort of the state of race relations in America, and what we what we hope for and what we want to see in the years ahead.

Zydalis Bauer: Your emphasis has been re-engaging the live audience, getting people comfortable to be back in person.

What has the response been so far from the audience, as well as the local art scene?

Jamilla Deria: Everyone is, you know, really excited to gather again. Obviously, the Omicron and its emergence really slowed some momentum.

But before our holiday break, we saw — we sold about 700 tickets to a wonderful family performance, and it was the energy in the room can’t be replaced on the screen. And while I definitely love our virtual offerings, I think it gives you access and brings people from all over the world together and really special ways….you know, that collective “ahh,” that collective breath that we take as as an artist reaches the pinnacle of their performance, that you know, you can’t –you can’t replace that.

And so for those who’ve come back — and we’ve had quite a few come back — I think they’re just so thrilled to be together again.

Zydalis Bauer: Now, the saying is always “the show must go on.” We hear that all the time.

Why is that exceptionally important during these challenging times that we’re going through?

Jamilla Deria: You know what? Art not only helps us learn better, but it also helps us live better. I mean, we are — we are meant to be together experiencing, you know, the highest expression of human creativity, ingenuity, wonder.

And I think that…I think that there’s — I think now more than ever, as we as a society kind of socially isolate, as we deal with such serious issues as a global pandemic, the reckoning of sort of race relations in the country, growing economic inequality, more than ever do we need to come together through the arts to help really create bridges — because we’ve lost a lot of bridges in the last few years as we’ve polarized.

And I don’t think of any better form than sort of a rich art experience to remind people that we are not, you know, digital enemies. We are neighbors. We are, we are community, we are friends, and — and the arts are here for all of us.

Zydalis Bauer: Jamilla, as you know, artists, performers, and even venues like the UMass Fine Arts Center have all had to be creative and rethink how artistry is presented.

What are some of the prevailing trends that you are witnessing in response to local and national ordinances and put in place during the pandemic?

Jamilla Deria: Thank you for that question.

You know, I touched on the need for all arts organizations to become more versatile — to not only be in-person presenters, but virtual presenters, and then also outdoor presenters. I think another sort of challenge that I think COVID really brought to the fore for all of us — and we’ve been talking about this for decades now — but I think Covid really brought us to sort of a reckoning point, is that we need to open our doors to more audiences.

We we certainly love the audiences that come now, those who have been with us from the very beginning. We’re forty six-years-old as an organization. Some — some of our — some of the folks who came to our very first performance in October of 1975 are still around today, and they come back and we love them.

But, we also know that there are groups of people that we don’t yet serve. And I think that for the future of the arts, not only in terms of the Fine Arts Center, but nationally, we need to be able to not only reflect a full range of cultures and communities on our stages, but we have to turn the camera and look at the audience to see if we are reflecting that in the house. And if we’re not, then there’s so much work that needs to be done, because our communities are here.

This is a very diverse area. But then if you go into some of our theaters, you don’t — it doesn’t reflect that diversity. And we understand that our great lesson coming out of COVID is that that is no longer an issue that can be sidelined, that it needs to be our central work, that the Fine Arts Center and our building has been renamed after our very first African-American chancellor, Dr. Bromery, so the Bromery Center for the Arts.

We’re here not only to present diverse arts, but for diverse audiences.