It’s not a surprise that an entertainment venue like the Paradise Center for the Arts would see a decrease in revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But for Executive Director Heidi Nelson, it also isn’t a surprise that the Faribault community helped the venue keep its doors open for the long run. The revenue from ticket sales and concessions may have dropped 70% in 2020, but thanks to generous donations, city and county resources, volunteers, and the flexibility to offer entertainment and classes in a different way, PCA continues to move forward.
Throughout the year, Nelson said the Paradise Center received multiple donations from individuals. Whether it was an extra $10 added to a membership or $1,000 more, the community recognized PCA needed all the help it could get. Little notes of encouragement, saying “Keep going” and “We can’t want to get back to seeing shows” gave Nelson and the PCA staff an emotional boost as well.
“I really want to make sure the community understands how much that meant to us,” Nelson said.
Nelson’s positive outlook came in handy during her first year as Paradise Center executive director, which has coincided closely with the pandemic timeline. She served as interim executive director beginning in November 2019, and her official hire date was March 19, 2020. Staff worked from home after the PCA’s doors closed due to government orders, but Nelson said, “It was very disheartening to not be at the Paradise.”
“It was difficult for me to learn how to maintain a positive attitude, but I had complete faith in the people of this community,” Nelson said. “So I was never afraid the doors would close [permanently], but it was definitely a challenge.”
Kelly Nygaard, who serves on the Paradise Center of the Arts Board of Directors, commended Nelson for her work as the new executive director during the pandemic.
“I think she navigated the challenges she faced in a way that showcased her skills around organization and efficiency,” Nygaard said. “She was able to eliminate excess spending, organized a fundraiser, and pursued grant opportunities to help the organization remain in the green during this challenging time.”
Both Nygaard and Nelson use the phrase “silver linings” to describe some of the unexpected byproducts of COVID-19, including increased digital techniques and greater access to classes for out-of-state participants. With that might also come a deeper appreciation for live entertainment.
On Friday, the Paradise Center hosted its first live performance in months. Country performers Mario Caroboni “The Honky Tonk Rebel” and Norm Hamlet “The Stranger” brought just the right energy to the building, according to Nelson.
“We couldn’t have asked for two better guys for putting that together,” she said. “It was such a gift to be able to start 2021 like that.”
Added Nygaard: “People were so thrilled to have the opportunity to see live entertainment again; it was really a fun evening.”
Paradise Community Theater found a creative way to make performances accessible when in-person events were restricted. Two radio style shows — one around Halloween and the other during the Christmas season — familiarized the Paradise with doing livestream recordings. Even after the pandemic, Nelson said the Paradise will continue this offering so relatives outside the community can tune in to performances.
Looking at more silver linings, Nelson noted that COVID-19 gave the Paradise Center an opportunity to highlight art education and galleries in a new way. Thanks to the ability to host classes online when in-person education had limitations, PCA offered 63 classes to 560 students in 2020. Those online classes will continue when resources are possible, even after the pandemic.
Featured artists met with the public in person during their gallery openings, as they did before COVID-19. The Paradise closed between March and June, but when the gallery was open, the community could view the art in person. Through Facebook live events, artists also had a chance to reach a virtual audience.
Behind the scenes, Nelson said the Paradise couldn’t have made it through 2020 without its volunteers. Last year, 151 volunteers contributed 453 hours to helping out at the Paradise Center, whether that meant shoveling the sidewalks in the winter, opening up the pottery studio, or cleaning the building.
Nygaard also credits the PCA staff as a whole for making the Paradise Center more successful than it could have been during a uniquely challenging year.
To keep the venue in operation, the city of Faribault and Rice County staff kept the Paradise Center in the loop about available funding. PCA took advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program, which has helped small businesses survive during the pandemic. The State Bank of Faribault helped the Paradise put its mortgage payments on hold until December. Before COVID-19 started, PCA was a recipient of an estate gift from the Mary Ellen Thomas Estate. Sporadic funds from the estate amounted to just over $30,000, which really helped the Paradise navigate financially trying times. Nelson said she would like to see a true endowment fund for the Paradise to help sustain the organization for the long term along with committed programming sponsorships.
Nelson is also grateful to those who renewed their Paradise membership in 2020, without knowing if or how performances and classes would continue the rest of the year.
“What’s wonderful is people are so forgiving and so understanding, whether it’s affiliates or performers that come to the Paradise,” she said. “We’re so lucky people are so understanding because they want the Paradise Center for the Arts to thrive.”