In the early Spring of 2020, Mardi Gras celebrations were not hampered by the impending pandemic. The weather was perfect; mild and comfortable. Celebrations continued throughout January and February. In March, however, much like the rest of the country, the threat drew closer to home.
On March 9th, the first reported case of COVID-19 was announced in Louisiana. By March 16th, all schools were closed and by March 23rd, a stay-at-home initiative was enacted. For a state like Louisiana, with a distinct cultural tradition of gathering, it was devastating to the community.
Four hundred fairs and festivals are held in a normal year in Louisiana. Many of Louisiana’s food traditions are rooted in communal gatherings – the crawfish boil, Cochon de Lait (pig roast), and Boucherie (butchering of pig). Music and art are also important components to festivals and gatherings. These events are important in educating locals and tourists alike on unique cultural traditions. Yet it became clear that these gatherings helped spread COVID-19. So much so that at one point, Louisiana had the highest number of cases in the Country.
In a recent session at the Society for Applied Anthropology Annual Conference 2021, Justin Lemoine, Executive Director of the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area in South Central Louisiana, discussed how cultural tradition has managed to stay relevant in the absence of gatherings.
The key: increasing connectivity, partnerships, and networks to approach the solution together.
Artists and musicians felt the impact of the pandemic immediately. Many arts organizations pivoted to providing information to artists on grants and other resources and virtual opportunities for artists to showcase their work. Musicians and artists turned to arts organizations initially more for survival than for the public entertainment value. However, this engagement has led to a realization that these partnerships are key to future success and more artists are seeing the value of this connectivity.
Here are some examples of interesting pivots from Louisiana arts and cultural organizations:
Festival International, a large music festival organizer, quickly transitioned to an online platform. Their live music turned virtual and they highlighted artists that made up the vendors market and encouraged participants to get take-out from their food vendors. Virtual visitors could shop and listen to live music from their front porch.
MidCity Makers Market, a live market featuring artists, makers, bakers, painters, and creators developed a virtual event, focusing on Instagram stories featuring artists from the market. This event was well-received and successfully maintained, and in some cases increased, artist sales.
The Old State Capital developed a virtual field trip, complete with interactive coloring and design projects and even a virtual puzzle, to allow students an opportunity to engage while attending school from home.
West Baton Rouge Sugar Fest is an annual event that features living history demonstrations, food, music, and other activities related to life on a sugar plantation. This typically hands-on festival shifted to feature demonstrations through a live video series where people could engage from home.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is an annual celebration of jazz music and Louisiana culture. Since the music could not be enjoyed live, the festival organizers created a Spotify playlist. Some community restaurants, in honor of the cancelled Jazz festival, organized serving prepared lunches to those in need during the eight days the festival would have ran. They dubbed this ‘Faux Fest 2020’.
Baton Rouge Gallery Center for Contemporary Art developed The Flat Curve Gallery to encourage artists, and emerging artistic youth, to produce art related to staying home to flatten the curve. Online streaming events, like sessions with artists and an online auction and fundraiser further engaged the community.
Festivals and events are the outward expression of a culture. They are a means for sharing cultural traditions with people outside of the community as well as reinforcing cultural values with group members. The artistic expression demonstrated through the sharing of music, art, and food bonds participants and engages members of the community. Nothing can replace the in-person, hands-on experience, however, showcasing traditions virtually does have some benefits, such as the longevity and accessibility of content. Participants can experience the event from all over the world and at any time, revisiting music sessions or demonstrations at their leisure and repeatedly. And this better connectivity allows for people to have increased access to information, resources, and opportunities at their fingertips. It will be interesting to see how the virtual world and real world intersect moving forward with the relaxation of prohibitions on gatherings.