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Agata Popęda here, looking back at the year in arts and entertainment. When it comes to cultural gatherings, 2021 started slow because it had no other choice. During the first half of the year the events section of this paper was filled with recommendations for homemade, indoor and often solo entertainment options—through winter and spring we were reading books, listening to music and consuming culture on Zoom from the comfort and safety of our homes. 

Before the year picked up steam in earnest, we often went for half-solutions or pandemic-era variations—desperate to get out of the house (even if only in our cars). This is where the spacious venues of Monterey County Fairgrounds came in handy—playing host to drive-in movies (a throwback!) and concerts. Some venues, like the Salinas Sports Complex, were in use for vaccination clinics first, and after shelter-in-place orders were lifted, went back to opening their doors for events, like the California Rodeo Salinas.

It was summer that brought us back to the streets—or at least tried to.

After the state of California opened up on June 15, most local theaters tried to re-open in some form or another. Pacific Repertory Theatre put on a two-show summer run, performing Julius Caesar and Shrek the Musical. PacRep Executive Director Stephen Moorer said the performers were very aware how precarious it all was: “Every weekend we’re like ‘OK, we got through another weekend.’” 

July ended with the first edition of the Carmel Dance Festival—an in-person, outdoor performing arts experience that, for many of us, was a welcome return. 

Events continued to pick up from there—Aug. 1 brought TED back to its roots in Monterey. Conference tickets ($1,200, invite-only) may have been out of the price range of most, but it brought singer Lizzo (and many other interesting scientists, entrepreneurs and more) into town. Then, on Aug. 5, the art park in Sand City officially opened, introducing a new outdoor community space ready for the return of the 20th West End Celebration and second annual we.Art mural festival

In terms of music, the year belonged to Patti Smith, who visited Henry Miller Library in Big Sur in September and, by all accounts, rocked the crowd. That was followed by the long-awaited and well-delivered 2021 Monterey Jazz Festival, with Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny as two of many legends present—and many more in making. Both music events were sold out long before the actual performances (also because both events were conducted fully outdoors). Jazz Fest organizers went head over heels ensuring public safety—selling only half of the usual number of tickets and screening people at the gates to the Fairgrounds, checking vaccination cards or proof of negative Covid test—practices that have since become the norm. 

Of course, this year taught us that Covid’s viral momentum doesn’t go in just one direction. As new variants loom, and other parts of the country and world are experiencing renewed lockdowns, there’s the possibility that all the tentative fun might disappear again. 

That said, venues and performers and event producers have also learned skills and tools to help us adapt. It might not be quite clear what the immediate future of arts and entertainment looks like, but it is clear that there’s the will and creativity to figure it out. As Beth Bowman, managing director of the Sunset Center, told the Weekly in September: “We’re all willing to do what it takes.”

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