The art of recovery: How artists are grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic

The art of recovery: How artists are grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic
Photo: Paola Prestini.

ALL ARTS Talks Recovery: The Artists

When concerts, performances, shows and events ground to a halt this spring, the dust that arose enveloped the art world in uncertainty.

“In general, as composers, we create from the ether; music extrapolated from thoughts, fragments, and eventually the abstract becomes composing,” Paola Prestini, composer, co-founder and artistic director of National Sawdust, told ALL ARTS recently. “I’ve always believed ‘we must build as if the sand were stone’ (Borges) but this is another level of instability.”

At the time the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the composer was faced with the loss of income and the cancellation of two operas. Like many artists, she also met the issue of “trying to create in this moment of great uncertainty.”

As the weeks have worn on, she explained that “now the challenge comes from regaining my writing practice and reconnecting with my creativity.”

Prestini will join ALL ARTS on May 27 for the second installment of our live virtual conversation series about how artists are grappling with the effects of the coronavirus. Moderated by ALL ARTS artistic director Jörn Weisbrodt, “ALL ARTS Talks Recovery: The Artists” will feature Prestini, ALL ARTS artist in residence Taylor Mac; choreographer and founder of Aszure Barton & Artists, Aszure Barton; and author, choreographer, creative director and filmmaker, Du’Bois A’Keen.

The conversation will stream from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the ALL ARTS Facebook, YouTube channel and homepage.

Ahead of the live event, we asked Prestini about the issues she is facing right now as an artist and the steps that can be taken toward recovery. Read on below and be sure to tune in May 27 at 4 p.m. for the full discussion.

[More information about the inaugural talk, hosted by Karen Brooks Hopkins, can be found here.]

How Prestini is adapting as an artist:

I’ve restarted the work I’m doing for Atlanta Opera (a project on AI and disability) and am finishing dramaturgical work on the libretto; the work has a large community angle as well, and I’ve been fortunate to work with a research lab in Copenhagen called EnactLab. So this work is continuing and beginning to take new twists due to the online realities we’re in.

My Minnesota Opera was postponed so I’m taking more time on it (who doesn’t want more time on their first grand opera?!), and I’ve been lucky to have a few smaller commissions that are helping unlock me.

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Finally, like everyone else, I’m taking the time to learn how the technology helps the music get out there. Recently I worked with Young People’s Chorus on Maria Popova’s “Universe in Verse” project. It was amazing to capture their voices as they were captured at home. To work and stitch it together through film was a new craft for me. And it’s so important to give voice to kids and to choirs who are so affected by this shutdown.

And speaking of kids! I have a son. So trying to make this ok for him is another important angle.

What steps can be taken toward recovery as an industry:

I think there have been several healing steps taken already. First off, learning how to create in this new/reduced medium will affect the form both creatively and financially. Meaning distance art will take on a new importance and streaming will and is being reassessed financially.

In the long run, large scale work will suffer for a while. I don’t love this as I’m a lover of large scale work. I think that next season will look different: mostly digital, and I think for us here in the US, it may look more international in terms of curation, which is a good thing! The internet can be an equalizer in that sense.

Photo: Paola Prestini.
Photo: Paola Prestini.

I imagine that for the legacy institutions there is a lot of reprioritizing (and it’s practical in terms of financial loss and audience loss), and I find that a touch scary in terms of new work and obviously working in the field as a composer. We were in a moment where gender equity and inclusion, in general, were beginning to be a natural part of the discussion. I hope this doesn’t set that back.

In terms of small institutions like National Sawdust, we were fortunate to receive an immediate angel donation for our digital discovery festival, so we’re able to pay performers well, and train them, for their online in-home performances and masterclasses. We’re supporting over 100 artists and launching a composers’ competition next week with Jack Quartet and the National Sawdust Ensemble, led by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, for over 20 composer commissions at $3,000 each. These pieces will see an online premiere in the fall, and the composers will have mentorship from both ensembles and will have masterclasses with the judges (Ellen Reid, Marcos Balter, critic Steve Smith and Pamela Z).

We’ve switched to an online model and are rethinking next season to be able to continue our model of mentorship and residencies but not physically. So we’re continuing our programs like the Hildegard Competition (our female, trans and non-binary competition) and the Blueprint Fellowship (our commissioning program with the Juilliard School) but online.

We’ve lost momentum, but for us and where we were in our trajectory, it’s forced us to ask hard questions of why and what we’re doing and pivot. And aside from losing real human capital in terms of our team, which was incredibly hard, the rest is a challenge that we can face. It’s easier when you’re smaller and flexible.

I would say that all digital platforms will form a huge part of the healing for artists and audiences. What about radio formats? Film operas? Platforms like WNET … I find this exciting.

Lastly, I think that models will change, a bit. We were already well moved into a more independent model in terms of publishing [and] management, and I think these terms will continue to evolve as scrappiness and a more economic reality emerges.

This interview has been slightly edited.

Top Image: Photo: Paola Prestini.