Arizona arts poised to stage a comeback

Innovation, donations key to continuing local programs

Posted 7/30/20

With innovative approaches and support from area patrons and other sources, local arts groups are adapting to continue their missions in the community.

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Arizona arts poised to stage a comeback

Innovation, donations key to continuing local programs


Arts groups aren’t immune to the upheavals and travails faced by so many businesses and service organizations since the start of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

But with innovative approaches and support from area patrons and other sources, local groups are adapting to continue their arts missions in the community.

Connie Whitlock is founder and executive director at WHAM, the What’s Happening Arts Movement, a non-profit community arts program based in Surprise and serving the West Valley.

She said her staffers and volunteers have stayed busy though the year, despite the COVID-19 outbreak.

In April and May, Ms. Whitlock coordinated a volunteer drive to bring hundreds of handmade and decorated letters to shut-ins and other area seniors facing isolation during the ongoing public health crisis.

“There’s a couple of things that we’ve been doing. I think we gave handmade cards to 38 facilities in Surprise and Peoria and they all really loved it,” Ms. Whitlock said.

Her programs reach out to art patrons of all ages, as with their in-house summer program for young children, she said.

“In June and July, we had our summer art program, which wasn’t anywhere near as successful as it has been, but we did get some who came in, mostly home-schooled kids,” Ms. Whitlock said.

The summer program, hosted at the WHAM headquarters in Surprise, worked with one to eight participants at a time, who completed hands-on art projects, while observing proper social distancing and sanitation guidelines.

But with participation down across the board this year, WHAM volunteers — wearing face masks and protective visors — took their art directly to the artists, when they spent a day last week with children in the Verrado community in Buckeye, she said.

“If we can’t get people in, then we’re going out,” Ms. Whitlock said. “We did a project at a daycare school in Verrado, where we worked with one-year-olds up to six-year-olds.”

One of the projects completed by children ages 1-3 involved stamping hand prints on canvas with colorful paints. Those a little older created striking abstract designs by dripping alcohol ink onto tiles, Ms. Whitlock explained. 

“We’re doing that kind of stuff, just to keep ourselves afloat,” she said.

A quartet of WHAM facilitators worked with five children at a time to ensure social distancing and provide nearly one-on-one support. Throughout the day, they worked with 100 young artists, Mr. Whitlock said.

“It took us about five hours, but we loved it and the little kids loved it and the parents loved it,” she said. “It might be a new avenue for us.”

The WHAM galleries in Surprise are also still open for business, though the volume of visitors has greatly declined. The gallery has maintained a steady trickle of patrons, who seem to be taking the social distancing requirements seriously, Ms. Whitlock explained.

“Nobody is buying art, mostly. But they are all coming in with masks and we ask them to use the hand sanitizer when they come in and when they leave,” she said. “It’s been real easy going. We don’t allow any huge groups. We’re following the rules and it’s working out.”

Though the group has been fortunate to maintain a healthy contingent of volunteers, donations to the non-profit group have plummeted since the start of the pandemic, Ms. Whitlock said.

“We’ve got plenty of volunteers, but we can always use more donors,” she said. “We aren’t making the money like we used to.”

So far in 2020, WHAM has seen a reduction in donations of about 35% compared to previous years, she said.

Learn more about WHAM at

Emergency arts funding

Arts programs across the state have suffered this year, as have others, and legislators included funding to support them in the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion relief package passed by Congress in late March.

The Arizona Commission on the Arts explained early this month that funding through the National Endowment for the Arts included in the relief package will provide help to struggling local programs.

“Across the state, federal relief funds are coming to Arizona communities to support nonprofit arts and culture organizations experiencing significant hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” officials stated at the commission’s website,

Since the start of July, more than 100 grants have been awarded in Arizona totaling $1.7 million.

“Statewide grantees include a performing arts center in Wickenburg, a symphony orchestra in Yuma, Prescott’s Museum of Indigenous Peoples, Phoenix’s historic Black Theatre Troupe, and community arts centers in Bisbee, Kingman and Goodyear,” according to the commission.

Prominent local recipients include:

  • West Valley Arts Council in Surprise
  • HEAL HER Art program in Sun City, sponsored by the non-profit Veterans First LTD
  • Catitude Community Arts Center in Goodyear
  • Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation in Scottsdale
  • Scottsdale International Film Festival
  • Fine Arts Association of Arizona in Chandler
  • Childsplay in Tempe
  • Phoenix Conservatory of Music in Litchfield Park
  • Arizona Youth Ballet in Mesa
  • Theater Works in Peoria

Still struggling

Theater Works in Peoria — a non-profit community theater group, which has been staging shows for 35 years — will put its $5,000 NEA grant to good use, but the organization continues to struggle, according to the group’s artistic director, Chris Hamby.

“Every penny is important to us right now,” Mr. Hamby said. “Like most organizations we are still expending funds with no way to currently offset those expenses. This will allow us to continue to exist a little while longer. However, we have a $1.4 million operating budget, so while it a help, it’s not solving any major funding problems.”

The theater operates on a 60/40 model, with 60% of its money coming from earnings from shows and other programs, while the remainder comes from donations.

But this year has seen a serious downturn in support, he said.

“Up until COVID hit, we were on target to have the best financial year in the 35-year history of the organization,” Mr. Hamby said. “Our fiscal year closed at the end of June and we calculate the pandemic’s impact to us to be at nearly $500,000.”

He said information about the organizations various donor opportunities is available at their website — — under the “Support” tab.

With the cancellation of their March gala — their single-biggest fundraiser of the year — and no shows scheduled for the foreseeable future, theater officials can only hope community support continues.

“We had a major influx of contributions in the early days of the pandemic, March through April, and things have come to a screeching halt in the summer months,” Mr. Hamby said. “As people’s personal finances are affected and corporations are affected, we expect it to be years before we see giving return to levels like during pre-COVID times.”

He said the group has adapted its summer program to social distancing and they are planning some new programs, to be announced in the near future.

“We have had modestly successful virtual summer camp programs. About 20% of what we normally see. We are also working on a project that we hope to announce in the next few weeks. Theatre for the near future will look quite different for us and I imagine industry-wide nationally.”