In mid-March, when it became apparent that the COVID-19 crisis was on a collision course with BOOM, Manoj Kesavan temporarily pulled the plug on Charlotte’s biggest, best and riskiest arts festival. But you can’t defuse an arts explosion for long. BOOM had built a reputation for flexibility, says Kesavan, the founder and executive director of the three-day grassroots avant-garde arts festival that takes place each year in Plaza Midwood.
“Unlike [other] organizations that are set in what they do, we are able to adapt quickly,” Kesavan asserts.
A Call to Create, BOOM’s latest adaptation to swiftly moving events, goes up in July. The event invites artists and performers to respond to the current state of affairs, specifically the Black Lives Matter protests that continue to sweep Charlotte and the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer. From 4-7 p.m. on July 11, artists will express themselves live and online to a virtual audience.
As videos documenting Black lives lost to oppressive policing and systemic racism continue to surface, BOOM pledges to amplify community voices in this time of crisis and transformation, Kesavan offers.
“The conversation starters and thought provokers not only lead demonstrations, they also move masses, provoke and inspire reflection and action through their performances,” reads BOOM’s June 12 press release for A Call to Create. “They put brushes to canvas to share different perspectives. They immortalize moments with their camera shutters. They use art to give voice to the unseen and the unheard.”
The model for A Call to Create, Kesavan says, is much like the one BOOM established in April for BOOM in the Living Room, a live showcase where artists who had been scheduled for the canceled BOOM festival took the opportunity to share their work with online viewers.
True to their clarion call to creatives, BOOM is not launching A Call to Create without collaborators.
“The great thing is that we are not doing it by ourselves,” Kesavan says. BOOM is partnering with BLKMRKTCLT, the Camp North End gallery and studio space featuring artists such as Dammit Wesley, Will Jenkins, and others; Charlotte is Creative, the inexhaustible duo of Tim Miner and Matt Olin who’ve launched aspirational projects like the monthly breakfast series Creative Mornings; and The Roll Up CLT, an arts, economic strategies and economic growth residency in west Charlotte’s Camp Greene community that was founded by artist and entrepreneur Jessica Moss.
“We reached out to people like BLKMRKTCLT and the Roll Up CLT, people who have been a part of BOOM [in the past], because we thought we needed to make [the event] more of a grassroots collective,” Kesavan says.
In fact, two of BOOM’s partners have already heeded the call to make their mark in the city in light of the protests. BLKMRKTCLT and Charlotte is Creative were involved instrumental in planning — and in Dammit Wesley’s case, painting — the Black Lives Matter mural on South Tryon Street between East Third and East Fourth streets in Uptown Charlotte.
“The mural project includes many of our collaborators,” Kesavan maintains.
So, what will the arts advocacy ensconced in A Call to Create look like?
“Art is a broad term, so it could be performances or artists sharing their work and talking about it,” Kesavan offers. “Or it could be their response to what’s going on in the streets right now.”
Most likely, A Call to Create will be an online showcase much like BOOM in the Living Room, Kesavan says. There will be a series of six-minute performances or presentations by the artists, which will be live-streamed by BOOM and its partners as well as all the artists involved. There will also be a yet-to-be-determined live host curating the event.
“We are still figuring out what exactly it will look like,” Kesavan continues. “It depends on how people respond to our call. [Each artist] will get six minutes. Then we need to figure out how many six-minute slots we have to make up the hour.”
During A Call to Create, BOOM organizers may also be asking for donations to fund future projects, including a revamped BOOM 2020 festival tentatively scheduled to take place this fall. BOOM and its partners will also be encouraging people to donate directly to the artists.
“We are providing a platform, and we’re offering help to the artists in a direct way,” Kesavan maintains. If A Call to Create is successful in engaging and empowering the community, he adds, BOOM and its partners might just launch another Call in a few weeks or a month.
In the spring, Kesavan had big plans for BOOM 2020. The festival had always been a forum and amplifier of voices and viewpoints that fell outside of the mainstream, but the fifth annual arts explosion was going to forge further out to the fringes of Charlotte’s arts scene while paradoxically sticking closer to home.
“We were going to work with artists in underserved neighborhoods,” Kesavan says. Artists including award-winning playwright Stacey Rose, standup comedian Tyrone Burston and novelist and dramaturge Rae Mariah MacCarthy were on deck. Organizers had laid out plans to surpass the previous year’s festival, which featured 120 performances, including fringe shows staged outdoors plus ticketed events at indoor venues.
But when community concerns turned to staying at home and flattening the curve, it looked like BOOM had gone bust due to COVID-19. Instead, BOOM rebounded.
In April, Kesavan and his crew of collaborators invited the artists and performers that were originally selected to be a part of the canceled festival to share their work live online with BOOM in the Living Room.
BOOM sent inquiries to artists and groups they had already selected for BOOM 2020, asking them if they’d like to do something live from their homes, Kesavan reports. The majority of them enthusiastically said yes, so Kesavan and his team created a three-hour time table and asked the artists and performers to sign up for slots.
“We were directing [viewers] to their own websites or social media or ZOOM,” Kesavan offers. “We just complied and hosted [the program]”.
For an eclectic program hosted by poet and spoken word artist Boris “Bluz” Rogers, an online audience jumped from platform to platform — Facebook Live, Instagram Live, YouTube, Twitch, ZOOM and the artists’ own websites — to experience art.
As BOOM in the Living Room proved that the festival — or at least some aspects of it — could thrive in an online space, Kesavan and his crew of collaborators started making plans for a relaunched BOOM.
One speed bump hindering a retrofitted-for-quarantine BOOM is that the business model established by the festival for four years may no longer be feasible.
“A lot of our big supporters [in the past] were breweries, restaurants and local small stores,” Kesavan says. “That’s been the hardest hit sector [of the economy], so we lost pretty much all our sponsorship.”
With the specter of rising infection rates fueling speculation that Governor Roy Cooper might initiate a second shutdown, Kesavan’s economic assessment is sobering.
“We’re still looking for a new operating model,” he says.
What the festival will look like in a post-pandemic landscape is anybody’s guess right now, but Kesavan says wheels are turning. One scenario is a hybrid BOOM, a festival that includes outdoor performances with sufficient social distancing coupled with live online presentations.
What’s certain is that BOOM will continue the practice that helped build their reputation as a grassroots community showcase in the first place. They’re adapting to a changing performing arts landscape.
“We’ve been forced to deal with it,” Kesavan says. “It looks like some of the outdoor gatherings might be possible in the fall. It won’t be the BOOM everyone knows, though it might have some of the street performance aspect. We are looking at a lot of options.”
That said, Kesavan has no doubt that BOOM has proven how vital a grassroots arts and performance festival is for a growing and changing city.
There’s a reason that BOOM took off, Kesavan asserts, growing exponentially from year to year.
“It grew really fast because we are filling a void,” he says, noting that BOOM has been the leading edge in an historically risk-averse city, where corporate-sponsored art has tried (and failed) to be creative without pushing the envelope.
“There is a big need for this,” Kesavan says. “And with the Black Lives Matter protests that are happening, I feel that the need is greater than ever.”