2020: Looking back at a year in the arts like no other

Nicole Burgio performed in “xoxo moongirl,” outdoors at the Morris Museum in Morris Township in September 2020.

There will be no Top 10 of the Year lists, this year, on NJArts.net. But I still wanted to say something about the year, beyond the obvious facts that so much stuff closed down, artists found themself out of work and scrambling for things to do, and many remarkable people died.

The fact is, even during a pandemic, arts played a big part in people’s lives. Maybe bigger than ever, given that so many people found themselves with so much free time on their hands. But things were different. With no blockbuster movies and mega-concert tours, people had time to binge on TV series they previously missed, read books they have been meaning to read for years, or check out any number of low-budget livestreams of musicians performing in their home studios, living rooms and basements.

In some ways, the arts world became more disjointed than ever. Without big things to bring us together, we all went down rabbit holes of our own.

I’m an arts consumer as well as an arts journalist, and the pages of NJArts.net provide a kind of diary of what I felt was notable, in the New Jersey arts world and beyond, and also what I was personally interested in, in terms of art. So here’s a look back at the year, month by month (and including the pre-pandemic months), with links to the NJArts.net articles, plus some other memories of our annus horribilis.

January: Bruce Springsteen makes an unbilled appearance at the Light of Day festival in Asbury Park; he won’t perform before a live audience again until he’s the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” in December. The Two River Theater in Red Bank opens a lively, unpredictable and, at times, extremely funny production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” It is announced that Whitney Houston will finally be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, later in the year.

This wolf made of bullet shells is part of the “Animalia” exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum.

February: The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick presents a notable world premiere: “Midwives,” a riveting drama about a home birth gone wrong and its aftermath. Federico Uribe’s “Animalia,” an immensely creative exhibition of animal sculptures made out of junk, opens at the Montclair Art Museum.

March: Even though it is becoming apparent that the coronavirus is going to be a big deal, I go to four events (Friday, Saturday and Sunday night shows, plus a Sunday matinee) the weekend of March 6-8. The standouts are “Conscience,” a historical but timely-for-2020 drama about McCarthyism, at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, and “Radio Golf,” a solid production of the August Wilson play at the Two River Theater in Red Bank. I never write reviews for them, though, because both productions are cancelled before I can. On Mon., March 9, cancellations and postponements begin to be announced, starting with The Fest for Beatles Fans, in Jersey City. I email publicists — I think, on March 10 — letting them know I will not be able to cover the next weekend’s events; a couple of days later, they are all cancelled or postponed, anyway. (I had particularly been looking forward to seeing “Sleuth” at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.) For the next few weeks, I write mainly about the whole New Jersey arts world getting put on hold.

A lot of musicians begin writing songs about the pandemic, or covering relevant songs, and putting them online. In response, Cindy Stagoff and I create the Songs to See Us Through series, to spotlight these songs and bring some attention to out-of-work artists.

BUCKY PIZZARELLI, 1996-2020

April: The pandemic claims the lives of New Jersey musical geniuses Bucky Pizzarelli and Adam Schlesinger. Initiatives such as NJPAC’s “In Your Living Room” start to represent hubs for online arts activity. Bruce Springsteen starts his “From My Home to Yours” DJ series on SiriusXM satellite radio and he, Jon Bon Jovi and others join forces for the Jersey 4 Jersey online fundraiser. With people home and hungry for news, NJArts.net attains its best monthly viewership ever (the record still stands, by a large margin). This post, our most popular of the year, leads the way: John Stamos shares private video of Fogerty, Springsteen performing at 1995 party (WATCH HERE)

May: Many big summer concerts and festivals that had not been cancelled or postponed immediately are now taken off the schedule, as it becomes apparent that there is no end to the pandemic in sight.

June: There is a a glimmer of hope as drive-in concerts, including ones by Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, and by John Ginty and Friends at Fosterfields Farm in Morris Township, are scheduled, and Montclair Film announces that it will begin showing drive-in movies at Montclair State University. There will also be drive-in movies at the Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus and outdoor shows at venues such as Woodbridge High School, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, the Stress Factory in New Brunswick, the Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven, and the Stanhope House. The Lighthouse International Film Festival on Long Beach Island combines virtual and drive-in events.

JAY LUSTIG

Richard Thompson performs at Woodbridge High School on July 25, 2020.

July: Springsteen’s SiriusXM DJ show peaks with a show featuring him reminiscing and playing old records with Steven Van Zandt and Southside Johnny, and another one featuring him with Patti Scialfa. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey announces it will do outdoor shows in Florham Park. The Morris Museum in Morris Township and Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton announce reopening plans; the former will present outdoors shows as well as welcoming visitors inside. I see my first concert since the pandemic began — Richard Thompson at Woodbridge High School — and it is wonderful.

August: The Blu Grotto at Monmouth Park Racetrack in Oceanport begins presenting outdoor shows. Bobby Bandiera and The Smithereens’ Jim Babjak team up for a memorable concert at the bandshell of G. Thomas DiDomenico Park in Bayonne.

September: The Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown and the Montclair Art Museum announce reopening plans. The Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank announces that a new space, The Vogel, will offer socially distanced indoor shows.

The cover of Bruce Springsteen’s album, “Letter to You.”

October: Bruce Springsteen releases fine new album, Letter to You. The New Jersey Hall of Fame induction ceremony is held virtually. Kean University in Union mounts outdoor concerts and plays. The Growing Stage in Netcong resumes live, socially distanced children’s shows. Drive-in concerts at Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta feature Railroad Earth and others. Cape May’s Exit 0 Jazz Festival takes place at outdoor venues, with Wynton Marsalis, Eddie Palmieri and others.

November: NJArts.net attains nonprofit status. The historic Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs presents a tribute to the late Hank Mobley as a livestream.

December: The Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank announces it will reopen its main theater for cabaret-style, socially distanced shows. New Jersey musicians produce new holiday songs that reflect the uniqueness of 2020.

TV: I don’t usually watch a lot of TV. But I saw more than usual this year, for obvious reasons.

I enjoyed the new season of “Ozark” (Netflix) after catching up on the first two. “The Undoing” (HBO) was almost absurdly implausible, but I still got wrapped up in trying to figure out whodunit. I went back and re-watched all of “Westworld” (HBO), which I had previously attempted but grown frustrated with. I paid closer attention to its byzantine plots twists this time — really trying to figure everything out — and the effort paid off. I made it to the end this time, with pleasure.

Lee Pace plays one of the main characters in “Halt and Catch Fire.”

Even after moving to at-home taping, Jon Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” (HBO) and “Late Night With Stephen Colbert” (CBS) delivered deliciously barbed political humor. Week after week, “Weekend Update,” co-hosted by Colin Jost and Michael Che, was, by far, the most dependably entertaining part of “Saturday Night Live” (NBC).

I enjoyed the homey warmth and the culinary marvels of “The Great British Baking Show” (Netflix), which had been around for a decade without me previously seeing it. But my personal Find of the Year was “Halt and Catch Fire” (Netflix), which I missed when it ran on AMC from 2014 to 2017. The drama follows a group of friends, spouses, lovers and co-workers in the early days of the personal computer industry, and builds toward a surprisingly moving and deeply engrossing fourth/final season.

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One thought on “2020: Looking back at a year in the arts like no other

  1. I am 160 year-old New Jersey board and educated musician and photographer I hope to draw your tension by the buzz from my emerging work this year I found your site through WBGO.org. 160 should have been “a 60”!

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