Modernism Week organizers hope a move to April will make in-person events possible—albeit with masks and hand sanitizer. Credit: Courtesy of Modernism Week

Last February, the team in charge of Modernism Week celebrated its 15th year—and another record-breaking success.

Total attendance at the 375 events scheduled over 11 days was 162,000, an increase of roughly 10,000 over 2019. According to the event’s organizers, an estimated $61 million was generated by attendees for hotels, shops, restaurants and other businesses throughout the Coachella Valley.

As the week ended on Feb. 23, organizers started planning the 2021 event, which they figured would again break records. But, well … you know what happened next.

Now, with Modernism Week’s usual February dates approaching, the board of directors and staffers found themselves trying to figure out how to best stage a worthy version of the homage to mid-20th-century architecture amidst the pandemic-induced uncertainty.

“It’s like juggling balls in the air,” Modernism Week Board Chair William Kopelk told the Independent via telephone. “Which route (to presenting a compelling lineup of activities) is going to keep going, and which will not? It’s almost like playing the lottery, and hoping that your numbers come in. But always, the board of directors has been very respectful in agreeing that we will follow what the science says, and what our governor says, and what the health standards are for Riverside County. That’s really all that we can go by.”

As of now, the route Modernism Week has chosen is this: Modernism Week proper has been moved to April 8-18, 2021, while February will host a month-long Modernism Week “online experience.”

The pandemic already altered Modernism Week’s fall preview in October. The four-day program usually includes various in-person tours, sales and events, but this year, all but one of the events were presented in a “virtual” form. Guests viewed some of the most historically important houses in Palm Springs, or learned about the future design challenges and opportunities now facing the Coachella Valley, via video tours or lectures—often paying a fee to do so.

“We had a lot of success with our virtual online events in October—more so than we had predicted,” Kopelk said. “So we were very happy about that, and it was very encouraging. Given that information and that success, we continued forward into planning for February.”

Of course, nobody knows for sure what 2021 will bring.

“The virtual aspect came into our event meetings, and we started to imagine three different scenarios: A, B and C,” Kopelk said. “Scenario A was everything remaining totally all-live—in-person events like we’ve typically had. B was a hybrid of both virtual and in-person, with C being all virtual. So, for a few months, we had to plan for each one of those scenarios, (while reacting to) where we were statistically within the county of Riverside. Also, we set deadlines for when the board would determine which path to take.

“We had always been aware that the doctors and the science were predicting that the winter would be worse, with more outbreaks, while we were planning for February. … We were planning some live in-person events for February, but in recent months, we kept thinking that this wasn’t going to work.”

Therefore, Modernism Week officials decided to take advantage of the anticipated delay of Coachella and Stagecoach from April to October. (While no official announcement has yet been made, multiple reports have indicated that a move is almost certain.)

“It turned out that our executive director, Lisa Vossler Smith, found out that there was availability at the (Palm Springs) Convention Center in April,” Kopelksaid. “What was advantageous about April is that one, it is in the spring; two, both Coachella and Stagecoach have (apparently been delayed), so the hotels have availability; and now, most recently, there’s the advent of the vaccines, which gives everyone a more optimistic feeling of hope, and so we thought that April would be better.”

If the April schedule takes place as hoped, Kopelkpromised that all necessary precautions would be in place.

“The staging of in-person events will be altered for safety,” Kopelksaid. “There will not be the same number (of events) that there have been historically. But there are some events that we can have, because we’ve been able to figure out how to do them. We can move the crowd in one direction, and supply masks and hand sanitizer. So, something like an outdoor garden tour is going to be OK, as well as certain house tours. But there are certain other house tours that will not happen, and we may do them virtually. It’s a slow dip of the toe in the water for us, so to speak.”

A schedule for the April 8-18 slate of events will be released on Jan. 1, when tickets will also go on sale. However, Modernism Week organizers didn’t want to leave February behind—hence the “online experience,” with tickets going on sale and a finalized schedule being released on Feb. 1. Organizers are also in the process of developing an online auction.

“The auction is a brand-new idea,” Kopelksaid. “We’ll be offering very unique, high-end items that are very Palm Springs-oriented. It’s going to be really quite something, and I believe it will run for two weeks in February. People can consult our website for more information on it—but some of the items are really quite wonderful. We’re not doing baseball caps and tote bags.”

Despite all of the planning and flexibility, it’s unlikely that Modernism Week 2021 will bring in the level of revenue that the 2020 event did—and that will have an impact on the funds available for the various neighborhoods and charitable organizations that have benefitted from Modernism Week’s generosity in the past.

“The fact is that we are a machine, and we need to pay salaries, and we need to maintain funding in order to continue moving onward, so those are our first and foremost priorities,” Kopelksaid. “With our partner organizations, they are positioning themselves to hold events in February and April that will be promoted on our website. And as has happened in the past, they then make money from being listed as part of the Modernism Week umbrella.”

If you would like to support Modernism Week, the organization is selling gift cards via the website. The value of each gift card can be used to pay for any Modernism Week event or program.

For more information or to purchase gift cards, visit www.modernismweek.com.

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...