CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Chris Hillman (left) with Ivor Davis; Joy Harjo (photo by Matika Wilbur), Tracy K. Smith (photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths) and Juan Felipe Herrera (photo by Carlos Puma/UC Riverside); Makena Hammond; Opera Santa Barbara’s Don Pasquale (Photo by Zach Mendez); Charles Ross, One-Man Star Wars Trilogy (Photo by Dean Kalyan).

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

From a rough winter to a brighter summer, the local art and culture world followed the path of the pandemic in 2021. The beginning of the year continued to see virtual performances and outdoor productions, but as temperatures heated up (and shots found their way into arms) the great indoors welcomed visitors once again. 

Early in the year, the Museum of Ventura County played it safe with its Up Close and Personal Zoom series, hosted by Ivor Davis and featuring local notables such as folk-rock icon Chris Hillman and actor Malcolm McDowell. California Lutheran University brought together three U.S. poets laureate, who took part in the college’s webinar series Voices of the Nation. Interesting things were happening beyond the computer screens as well, with open-air events like Art City’s Fitness Palooza, held in the Stone Garden, and Studio Channel Islands’ drive-by exhibit of photos projected onto the outside of the art center’s walls. Pamela Pilkenton brought Ventura County Ballet dancers onto the porch of her Midtown Ventura studio for a performance she playfully called “Peep From the Street.” 

Theater companies followed suit. Conejo Players Theatre staged its production of Last Train to Nibroc, performed live with actors on stage but streamed for audiences at home, while Concerts in Your Car opened its 2021 season in April with Opera Santa Barbara’s Don Pasquale. Clue Live! brought immersive theater to Downtown Ventura, with an all-ages production that let participants play detective on a walking tour/whodunnit puzzle inspired by the popular board game.

But by then, the tide was beginning to turn. As a wave of vaccinations swept across the county, galleries and museums started allowing guests inside once again and even the Oxnard Film Society headed back to the theater. Many special events were back on as well: Art in the Park resumed at Libbey Park over Memorial Day Weekend, the Ventura Art and Street Painting Festival was back at Ventura Harbor in September and, in October, dozens of vendors set up booths at the Ventura County Fairgrounds to sell their handmade items at the Harvest Festival ® Original Arts and Crafts Fair. Mask mandates, reservations, social distancing and other health and safety protocols were in place, but for most, it was a small price to pay to for these live, in-person experiences. 

By the summer, we were able to enjoy live theater once again, with nearly every stage hosting a drama, comedy or musical. Directors and actors explored thorny familial relationships (Eleemosynary, Family Furniture), generational, sociopolitical and racial divides (Wrench, The Last, Best Small Town, Severance Play) and more. October saw both the Women’s Voices Festival (at NAMBA Performing Arts Space) and the Ojai Storytelling Festival, while in November, the Bank of America Performing Arts Center was the setting for a one-man Star Wars trilogy. And of course, December was filled with a variety of holiday entertainment countywide.

One spot in particular enjoyed an exciting 2021: The Channel Islands Maritime Museum in Oxnard celebrated its 30-year anniversary with an entire year of programming, something new every month. It kicked things off in January with a Grub and Grog recipe contest sponsored by Black Bart Navy Rum, encouraged people of all ages to think about the environment with an ecologically designed boat contest in April and, once visitors could attend in person again, welcomed them with a whole series of new maritime art exhibits, including Art of the Sailor over the summer and 1991: Celebrating 30 Years of Art That Sails, which featured some never-before-displayed pieces in the museum’s collection. We also interviewed Executive Director Adri Howe in June.

The year wasn’t without its losses, however. We mourned the passing of local artists Norman Kirk (January), Carole Milton (March) and Margaret “Margy” Crawford Gates (June). And the Ventura Film Society, which had been “bringing people together in the dark” since 2008, finally disbanded in 2021, citing venue closures and a growing reliance on digital media as contributing factors. 

The vision for public life in general, and arts institutions in particular, is brighter as we gaze into 2022. Nevertheless, artists of all kinds continue to struggle with the loss of income brought on by mandated shutdowns of performance spaces, galleries and venues where artwork can be seen, enjoyed and purchased. This year, I hope we can all find ways to support the painters, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers, musicians, dancers and other artists in (and beyond) Ventura County. During the pandemic, they continued to be there for a community hungry for art and engagement. As things improve on other fronts, it’s a good time to return the favor.