How do we move toward recovery in the arts? Cultural leaders weigh in

How do we move toward recovery in the arts? Cultural leaders weigh in

As the arts and culture world begins to crack open its doors, what lies on the other side remains to be seen. The landscape, as painted by data gathered in recent weeks, is daunting. Though innovative strides have been made, the COVID-19 pandemic not only cleaved a massive cut into organizations (many of which were operating near or with a deficit before the start of the crisis), but has also possibly changed the way we will navigate cultural institutions in the future.

“There is still, I think, a lot of shock and denial about how potentially long this could go,” Dale Franzen, producer of the blockbuster “Hadestown,” said, noting that all forces (including institutions, unions and the government) must be on the same page to turn toward recovery. For when she sees major theaters being able to reopen, she said, “My guess, if I had to bet, I would say later rather than sooner, because I really don’t think people are going to be comfortable.”

Franzen is among the panelists joining Karen Brooks Hopkins, ALL ARTS advisory board member and former president of Brooklyn Academy of Music, in a moderated talk with arts leaders about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on cultural fields and what steps must be taken for recovery. Set to take place May 12 at 4 p.m. on the ALL ARTS Facebook page and website, “ALL ARTS Talks: Arts in Recovery” will bring together Hopkins with Franzen; Anne Pasternak, director of Brooklyn Museum; James King, managing director of Harlem Stage; Diane Paulus, artistic director of American Repertory Theater at Harvard University; and Adrian Ellis, director of AEA Consulting and chair of the Global Cultural Districts Network. Pasternak, King and Ellis also serve as ALL ARTS advisory board members alongside Hopkins.

“Loss of both earned and contributed income is the primary concern for us at the moment,” King said of issues currently pressing Harlem Stage. “Like many organizations the spring season is when our major fundraisers or annual galas happen. Those have now either been postponed or shifted to a virtual space in an effort to realize some income and minimize the impending deficits a lot of us are facing in this fiscal year.”

The early effect of the pervasive loss in revenue across disciplines has resulted in dire numbers. In a recent study last updated by Americans for the Arts in early May, research shows losses for nonprofit arts organizations estimated at $4.98 billion, with 95% of events canceled, 31% of workforces reduced and 10% stating that they do not see a path toward recuperation. The effect of the crisis on artists and cultural workers is also monumental. Of those surveyed, 62% of artists and creative workers have become fully unemployed, with 80% reporting that they do not have a recovery plan.

“It’s admittedly hard to plan a path forward with so many unknowns and no cavalry in sight,” Pasternak said. “The issues range from the loss of revenue to providing a safe environment for staff and visitors to return, and how to serve the needs of a community hit hard by COVID-19.”

In the interim, many institutions have found ways to invigorate their digital offerings. Museums have highlighted archival materials and virtual tours of exhibitions. At the Brooklyn Museum, for example, virtual First Saturdays and online art history resources (including quizzes and Kaws “companion” app) connect patrons to the institution from afar. Others, like the Whitney Museum of American Art, have created a slate of immersive experiences. Theaters and performing arts venues have also made use of live-captures and digital resources, adapting full-length and new works for a virtual platform.

Then there are the special one-time-only events that have taken the place of major fundraisers. Last week, American Ballet Theatre announced that their spring gala, which would have taken place as part of their season at the Metropolitan Opera House, moved online. At Harlem Stage, the performing arts organization will similarly host their 2020 gala virtually. The event, hosted by LaChanze, Tamara Tunie and Celia Rose Gooding, will include a lineup of performances and special guests, while also serving as a fundraiser to provide critical support for the institution.

“We are also focusing on a shift into the digital programming space,” King said, explaining the additional offerings available outside of the gala. “How do we remain connected to our community of artists and supporters while continuing to deliver the socially and culturally relevant, often disruptive, programming we’ve been known for these past 37 years?”

For Franzen, who works both within the Broadway world and as a consultant for artists at-large, outdoor spaces might also serve as an alternative for nimble performing arts venues — especially as large theaters with high seat capacities (and overhead) continue to grapple with how to financially weather the current crisis while also not endangering audiences, performers and crew.

“If things were outdoors, and you had the space to move around, I think that might come back much sooner, and is feasible,” Franzen said, explaining that in Southern California, where the weather is more-or-less tame, spaces like parking lots present possible opportunities as commuters stay at home. “People are looking at drive-ins; we used to have drive-in movies. What if we had drive-in theater?”

Going forward, the financial stability of the arts remains critical. The first steps to recovery, Hopkins stated, rotate around organizational leaders completing five “essential” tasks: cutting expenses “to the bone and beyond as long as necessary”; keeping the “family close” with “strong, forthright, ongoing communication and interaction with constituents — board members, donors, audiences and artists”; gathering data; developing flexible contingency plans for three, six and 12 months out; and creating plans for a “brilliant, remarkable project that, at the right moment, will define who you are as an institution.” She says this last step may be “small and quiet and profound or large and powerful and profound,” but advises organizations to “start cooking this idea so that when [they] return [they] do so with all the creative fires blazing.”

While the path for each organization will look different, the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) announced in late April that Paulus and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School assistant professor Joseph Allen will be working with researchers at Harvard to launch “The Roadmap to Recovery and Resilience for Theater” plan, which will be presented as a living resource on the A.R.T. website for theaters worldwide to access.

“These are extremely challenging times,” Paulus said. “Theaters around the world have shut their doors, facing existential questions about the future of our art form. On the forefront of our minds is how we can safely reopen and responsibly welcome back our audiences.”

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Consisting of a “dynamic approach that responds to changing conditions” that puts health and safety first, the project will lay out new methods for presenting theater, including “outdoor experiences.”

“While the timing of when we can reopen is uncertain, there are steps we can take in the meantime that address overall healthy building strategies in our facilities,” Paulus said. “As far as planning scenarios for the future, it will be more important than ever to stay flexible and nimble as the landscape shifts and evolves. We are in a field known for our creativity — we need to embrace a spirit of adaptability and ingenuity, and, in the short term, be willing to pivot to new models.”

In addition to alternative modes of getting art in front of audiences, the panelists stated that cooperation from the government with arts organizations will stand as a crucial first step in sustainable recovery for the industry.

“I believe that we must be bold in our assertion that the arts play a vital and, more often than not, transformative role in our society — providing a salve for the soul in times of crisis, acting as an important cog in the economic engine and serving as a testament to and example of the fortitude and ingenuity of the human spirit when faced with adversity,” King said. “We must demand a seat at the table with policymakers as the new normal is being framed.”

Pasternak, who explained there are many important steps that need to be taken, said institutions need the “government to step in with creative ways to help secure jobs longer than the eight weeks of the [Paycheck Protection Program] and create new incentives for cultural organizations to partner with businesses and public agencies to participate in recovery.” She added: “It’s time for the New New Deal.”

Rhyming with Pasternak, Franzen stated that she hopes this time will prompt the federal government to evaluate ways to integrate artists into various aspects of the community, similar to how President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned employment through the Works Progress Administration.

“Let’s look at cross-ventilating more,” Franzen said. “Let’s look at science and art. Let’s look at the different ways that artists can be employed to make the society better, and also give them more value so that they’re not just something that gets tossed out the minute there’s a crisis, because that doesn’t work.”

More information about ALL ARTS Talks: Arts in Recovery” and the panel participants can be found here.