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Art Camp Is Needed Now More than Ever

By Palmer White l March 3, 2021

Creative expression — translating and sharing private human experiences through art — provides a connection to the greater community while also providing an outlet of release. Artists know this. The pandemic, with all its turmoil, ignited a greater need to create art within artists, and a strong desire from society to consume it.

This signaled to local arts organizations that it was crucial they found a way to continue to provide their young artists with instruction. They realized it was not just a matter of maintaining their businesses through the distress of the pandemic, but also providing a way for artists to connect, while alleviating some of that distress through the art they offered the community.

The Allegra School of Music & Arts, Princeton Photo Workshop, and the Westminster Conservatory of Music are three local organizations that transformed their teaching models upon the rise of the pandemic: Zoom screens became stages enhanced by technologies like “Stop Video” to indicate the actors’ entrances and exits. They also became studios to facilitate digital and technical collaboration between students, and palace chambers for the composition of classical music by small groups of instruments.

Piano camp at Westminster Conservatory of Music

These schools worked to reimagine and rebuild their artistic instruction in ways that still encompassed their organizations’ missions, all of which are centered around the transformative nature embedded within artistic expression. Donnetta Bishop-Johnson— founder and president of Allegra, and Drew Brennan—assistant director of the Westminster Conservatory, commented on the difficulty of simulating in-person artistic experience as a result of its reliance on each of the five senses.

Their students were used to being in the same room as each element of the performance on which they were working, so they had to become comfortable with performing solo—at least in regards to their physical space. The virtual format eliminates— or alters—the use of some senses, which ultimately changes the overall experience and reception of the instruction.

“We’re not playing the same game anymore. Nothing will replicate an in-person experience,” Brennan said. They were surprised by their students’ adaptability, however, and their eagerness to practice art, despite that it was a virtual experience. Bishop-Johnson often found her students in front of their cameras socializing with others even during their snack breaks, for example, and Brennan found some of his students to master their pieces in shorter amounts of time than usual.

Their goal became to offer their students high quality instruction while fostering authentic social interaction—which is comparable to their goals before COVID-19, though they now had to do so in a virtual setting. These schools were not required to reinvent the wheel, but they did have to greatly transform it. From these three schools’ interviews with The Montgomery News, it was revealed that each art form encompasses a natural degree of adaptability to the virtual format.

Barbara Cuneo— founder of Princeton Photo Workshop— expressed their success with online instruction, which she believes to be supported by photography’s pre-existing digital qualities. Photo processing and editing programs already exist on computers, so it was advantageous to teach them in the digital realm.

Princeton Photo Workshop Camper at work during an in-person summer session in a previous year.

On the contrary, performing arts do not have this existing reliance on technology, or at least not to the same degree as photography. Additionally, performance incorporates both auditory and visual elements, which increases the complexity of this transformation to the screen. While photography already existed in the digital realm—at least partially— the visual arts had to enter it.

Some art forms are more readily transitional to virtual settings, while others require a greater sense of restructuring in order to mimic an in-person experience; however, this transition ability holds no freestanding significance. Just because photography encompasses some digital elements does not mean the change was effortless compared to those of the visual arts. It must be complemented with a strong determination to succeed in the transition.

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Each of these three schools were able to execute remote instruction that they believed to be of the same quality as their in-person lessons, which was an obvious product of their desire for success. Dialogue between actors became conversations between Zoom screens, photoshoots were experienced individually—in one’s home or yard, and ensembles continued to make music together, though from afar and in smaller groups. Allegra, Princeton Photo Workshop, and the Conservatory wanted—and felt an obligation— to continue to provide artistic outlets for their students to help them combat the happenings of the world, which required their creativity.

As Bishop-Johnson said, “when things get tough, creative people create.”


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