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Through virtual learning, East End Arts finds ways to keep classes going

Art wasn’t the foremost thing on Diane Burke’s mind when, stricken with COVID-19 and battling severe symptoms, she received distressing news from a doctor at an urgent care facility.

The East End Arts executive director recalled: “A doctor there was literally crying to me and said, ‘I don’t know what to do with you. I feel like, if you go to the hospital, if you go there, you’re not going to make it. People are dying there.’ ”

With a hospital considered too dangerous for her, Ms. Burke was advised to go home and do some things to try to raise her blood oxygen level. At one point, she sensed she was at death’s door, a possible coronavirus casualty at the age of 52. “I had one day where I thought that was it,” she said.

About six weeks after first not feeling well, Ms. Burke said she had recovered and was back to 100% by April. She had survived. Her survival has come with an even greater appreciation for the value of art. “I thought I had a very strong appreciation for the arts before, but it’s even stronger now,” she said.

Like Ms. Burke, East End Arts has also survived, first a financial crisis that greeted Ms. Burke when she joined the organization in December of 2018, and now a different sort of crisis — a global pandemic.

East End Arts, a Riverhead-based, not-for-profit organization that has served five East End towns since 1972, has several art galleries on the East End that it manages either directly or remotely. “They have all but been closed because of COVID,” said Ms. Burke.

However, East End Arts has adjusted to the demands of 2020 by offering virtual art classes in addition to in-person instruction. Because of that, Ms. Burke said, tghe organization has been able to retain 95% of its private music students since the pandemic’s arrival.

“Art has a way of healing and bringing the community together, and it was our job to make sure that we didn’t forget that during the pandemic.”

Diane Burke

Ms. Burke said she saw what was coming down the pike early in the year with the COVID-19 threat. “I have a very lean staff here, but everyone’s really good,” she said. “We were like, ‘OK, this could happen. We could shut down.’ ”

East End Arts prepared by pairing students and teachers with different platforms: Zoom, FaceTime, Google Meet. “Whatever they were most comfortable with, the student and the teacher, they kind of had it all figured out a few weeks in advance,” she said. “We went virtual. It was like clicking a switch.

“Nobody missed a class. That’s a testament to the dedication from the teachers, from the staff here to get that organized, and the willingness of people to try something new.”

A plethora of virtual classes began in March and continue, along with a variety of other virtual activities, some of which are free. They include an awards gala, an art gallery, a Harvest Gospel Concert, a Martin Luther King portrait program, a talent show and “Art With Kat,” a weekly class combining art history and art projects overseen by Kathleen Ruscick, East End Arts’ education director.

“There’s so many things we’re doing,” said Ms. Ruscick, who officially joined East End Arts three days before the coronavirus-related shutdown. She said, “You have to think out of the box.”

Ms. Burke said Ms. Ruscick and Monique Parsons, director of marketing and development, join her in what is essentially East End Arts’ “management team.”

“Art has a way of healing and bringing the community together, and it was our job to make sure that we didn’t forget that during the pandemic and that we made sure that people had access to it,” Ms. Burke said. “We’re working harder than ever before to make sure that we don’t forget that part of our job here is to not only bring creativity and have a creative outlet for people, but to be a place for the community.”

Ms. Burke said art has taken on a new meaning for COVID-fatigued people during the pandemic. “You need to be able to pop in glimmers of light and glimmers of hope into people’s lives,” she said.

Reflecting on what has been achieved during these trying times, she said, “As hard as this year has been, and definitely it has been hard, there has been a lot of good that has come out of this.”