Above photo are examples of the artwork created for the "Sign of the Times" project.
MIDDLETOWN, NJ: With tears forming in her eyes, Maggie O’Brien walks the empty halls of the Middletown Arts Center (MAC). Executive director O’Brien has seen the center grow from its humble beginnings to a vibrant thriving arts community. The tears according to O'Brien, are mixed emotions, "Missing the way it was prior to the pandemic, but thankful for all the in-person classes happening again, as well as continuing virtual options started last March, for the community."
Over the last 10 months, the Middletown Arts Center, located on a beautiful piece of park like property near the Middletown train station, has faced major obstacles due to the pandemic. While reeling from the business loss of a pandemic, a major flood that destroyed multiple classrooms, musical instruments, art supplies, sheet music, costumes and more, O'Brien never paused in her work. If the pandemic and the flood weren't enough, an HVAC malfunction caused moisture in the theater that caused the wood floor to raise and buckle.
Even before the flood, O'Brien had a large tent set up outside during the summer where art and dance classes were held through the fall, with social distancing and many other safety guidelines in place. Artists could paint while listening to music and enjoying beautiful views of the pond. On Sept. 15, the center resumed in-person fall classes on its outdoor patio, which overlooks the Middletown Memorial Gardens. Since then, indoor classes, including children’s painting, theater and dancing, have returned at a space the non-profit is leasing from the Middletown Reformed Church on Kings Highway, which they are referring to as “The Annex.” O’Brien said they wanted to provide a place for programming while the MAC is being repaired. There were no excuses of why classes couldn't continue, she quietly moved forward and found solutions to major problems. The Middletown Arts Center is renting space until the damages to the building are repaired. DONATE – BACK THE MAC!
O'Brien comments, "We are so lucky to have found beautiful big space to move our classes over to. It's wonderful to see how happy everyone is, especially the children, to have in-person arts back in their lives. It's a beautiful thing to witness."
Regardless, of what is thrown her way, O’Brien smiles and remains resolute as she never stops working in her quiet steady way, guiding the center to overcome its challenges, and do well in spite of all the hurdles. At a time when many would have given up, bunkered down and waited until the pandemic was over, O'Brien kept moving forward and creating new space to use until the 'storm' is over.
“It’s my baby,” O’Brien said. “I’ve been here since the beginning and I’m going to see the center through this. I’m convinced we’ll come out stronger on the other side of it.”
O’Brien, who had previously owned a local children’s art studio, said she was part of a group of people who volunteered to design the Middletown Arts Center in 2002. The township bought the property and building in 1998. After five years of renovations, the Middletown Arts Center officially opened in 2007. Many locals refer to it as the gem of Middletown, as on any given day under normal circumstances the center is alive, full of creativity, singing, dancing, acting, painting. It's a community hub where festive events are held, live shows, summer camps, theater, talent shows, ballroom dancing, arts and crafts and so much more!
While the township owns the building, the center is actually run by the Middletown Township Cultural and Arts Council. O'Brien said the nonprofit is responsible for operating the building and raising money to support their programming. Although the township’s and nonprofit’s budgets are completely separate, the township makes a large financial contribution to the center, including in-kind services and utilities, according to O’Brien.
“We are extremely grateful for the township’s commitment to the arts,” O’Brien said.
When they were designing the center, O’Brien said the nonprofit became involved with the community by putting together events and introducing programs at schools. Over a decade has passed, and she still believes that one of the center’s greatest qualities is its relationship with the community.
“Even in this devastating time, we’ve really tried to continue our mission,” O’Brien said. “It’s when the power of the arts is needed most.”
The center only had one day’s notice before their closure in March, but she said some staff members began uploading videos and classes within a few days. “The staff was working diligently to create an online presence, so we really didn’t miss a beat,” O’Brien said. “We just kept going and doing what we could to make the best of a difficult situation.”
In March 2020, the center launched its “Virtual Arts Center,” a platform that gives students access to virtual classes. The classes vary from live video chats on Zoom to pre-recorded content that allowed students to participate whenever they want. The Middletown Arts Center also found other ways to engage with the community during the height of the COVID-19 crisis. Over the summer, they created a project called “Sign of the Times,” where they provided people with blank poster boards and encouraged them to create a message or image related to current events. Some signs are currently being displayed in the building’s front windows.
“It wasn’t only professional artists who signed up for this project,” O’Brien said. “It was the child around the corner or the neighbor down the block.” The signs were full of inspiring messages and creative expression.
O’Brien said they offered most of the virtual programs for free since many people in the community were struggling, and looking for entertainment. The Middletown Arts Center faced financial obstacles as the revenue went down to a trickle. Donations are very much needed and any amount is appreciated.
“All the events and classes being canceled was financially devastating,” O’Brien said.
She said she expects the center to lose more money in the future due to new safety guidelines.
“We have to accept the realization that we have a 240-seat theater and, chances are, we’re not going to be able to have 240 people in the theater for a very long time,” O’Brien said.
On top of losing money from their closure and spending money on additional safety equipment, the center's flood in July was destructive.
Despite the difficulties the center has faced, O’Brien has remained positive through it all. She said many members of the community have donated money to the center, taking part in their initiative “Back the MAC (Middletown Arts Center).”
“It’s a tough time for the arts,” O’Brien said. “Every donation helps keep us going.” According to O'Brien, the MAC sometimes receives donations from former community members now living in other counties and states.
O'Brien continued, "I am so proud to have a community that extends throughout the state and beyond, and I am thankful for all the love." In addition to artists and members of the community, the Middletown Arts Center supports other arts organizations like the New Jersey State Youth Orchestra and Dunbar Repertory Theater Company.
“Our strength has a ripple-effect in the arts community,” O’Brien said.
Rosemary Pappa, a longtime painter and participant at the MAC, immediately signed up for in-person classes once they returned. She even wrote O’Brien a thank-you letter to express her appreciation.
“I was so happy when I went back because this isolation is very challenging,” Pappa said. “Just to have this place that you feel safe to go to, and to be with other artists, feels very uplifting.”
O’Brien said the staff is taking extra precautions, like providing students with their own supplies and space while limiting the number of participants. They also sanitize in between classes. Masks are required.
She said the staff plans to continue virtual classes, add more in-person classes and host events.
“It’s frustrating that right now we’re not operating at our fullest potential, but I know what our potential is and I know we’re going to get there,” O’Brien said, with an easy smile.