Note: Authored by David Menconi, this piece has been produced in partnership with Raleigh Arts. Menconi's "Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk" will be published in Oct. by University of North Carolina Press.



When Chatham County Line kicked off the North Carolina Museum of Art’s new Offstage Live: Music at the Museum performance series on Sept. 1, museum director Valerie Hillings could have watched in-person from front and center. But she opted to experience it the same way the public would.

“Yeah, I watched it from home on the livestream like everyone else,” she says. “Just to see what that experience was like, and it was great. There really was this ‘Night at the Museum’ feeling to it. It really brought that area to life, with the antique sculpture as backdrop. So Hercules got a lot of play.”

 

COVID-19 brought on widespread nationwide shutdowns back in March, forcing a radical rethink of the live-entertainment business, especially live music. With concert venues and nightclubs still closed for the foreseeable future, artists and presenters have had to improvise. Online livestreams have been popular, such as Raleigh’s @OakCitySongs series. And drive-in concerts are popping up across the state.

Following a quarantine hiatus of nearly six months, the North Carolina Museum of Art reopened to the public with a limited capacity and new health initiatives early this month. But live in-person concerts still aren’t feasible there. The museum’s 2,800-capacity outdoor amphitheater has been a popular concert spot for more than two decades, hosting the likes of Rhiannon Giddens and Andrew Bird in recent years. Museum management had hoped to find a way to do in-person concerts in 2020, but it was not to be. 

“We studied how to conceivably do it in so many different ways and we all hoped we’d be able to get there,” Hillings says. “But we realized we could not have a regular season this year. Then we started looking at things that were out there, like the Arts Council’s Come Hear North Carolina program, and we were in touch with UNC-TV. We saw a window of opportunity so we decided to do this with both of them. We all had this feeling that the more things the museum can do to support artists from the state, whether visual or performing, that was right for this time.”

Offstage Live will continue this fall with Durham modern-jazz band Dreamroot on Sept. 15 (link to watch below); Chapel Hill’s atmospheric dream-pop artist S.E. Ward on Sept. 29; and Pittsboro-based Senegalese immigrant Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba on Oct. 20. The shows stream live on the museum’s YouTube channel at 8pm on their respective evenings. They’ll also air in early 2021 on UNC-TV, with additional content. 

 

As for when in-person concert gatherings might resume at venues like the museum amphitheater, that’s the big question right now.

“I tend to be an optimist,” says Hillings. “As with all things right now, how it unfolds may end up looking different from what we expect. We’ve known all along that music is a fundamental part of our programming. During the strategic plan last year, there was talk about how we should be concerned with ‘arts’ and not just ‘art.’ Music is at the heart of what people associate with us as a significant part of our programming. By next summer, I am confident we’ll find a way to make live music part of the experience again at the museum.”

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