As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, artists chart careers outside the performing arts
A month before COVID-19 entered the lexicon, classically-trained oboist Rachel Van Amburgh was “sitting in the pit, watching all these lovely dancers performing for this lovely audience,” during a presentation of “The Nutcracker” when the idea of leaving music coalesced. “I just kind of had this moment where I was like ‘My entire life is just performing for rich people.’”
While she acknowledges that wasn’t truly all that she was doing as an artist, Van Amburgh recognizes the moment as an inflection point. She soon started thinking she would pivot to arts administration or producing. But as COVID-19 ravaged U.S. cities, including her own Los Angeles, she feared that “no one is going to hire in the arts for the next one to two years.”
The pandemic was the final push for Van Amburgh, who was pining for more stability, to explore something outside of the arts completely. She’s currently in a paralegal certification program while working at an immigration law firm.
Even as Lincoln Center’s Restart Stages and other live art initiatives prepare to launch and vaccine eligibility broadens, throngs of performing artists like Van Amburgh are defecting to new fields. Though reasons for leaving differ, the trend overlaps with the pandemic. Artists interviewed for this article are now applying to medical, law and business schools. They’re becoming paralegals, physical therapists and doulas. Creatives from all over — from Canton, Ohio, to San Francisco, Calif. — are trading gig life for a chance at a steady paycheck and paid vacation time. Some are simply ready for something new. At this juncture, it’s unclear on the severity of the exodus. Several reports and articles point to a shift, portending that the performing arts ecology will look different in the foreseeable future.
Published in March, Dance/NYC’s second Coronavirus Dance Impact Study, which surveyed almost 800 individuals in fall 2020, found that 43% of dancers are considering long-term career options outside of dance. Similarly, in a December 2020 Music Workers Alliance survey, 33% of approximately 300 participants responded that they’re considering finding new jobs in other areas. Career Counselor Supervisor Patch Schwadron at the Actors Fund confirms that she is witnessing an uptick in performers utilizing the center’s career counseling services, whether it’s to explore adjacent professions or ones unrelated to their artform.
In New York City alone, arts, entertainment and recreation employment declined by 66% in December 2020 when compared to from 2019, according to a February report by New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s office, which also notes that this decline is the largest among the “City’s economic sectors.” Likely, this number is higher. As noted by writer Garnet Henderson in a recent Daily News op-ed, the report may not capture the work that independent artists have lost due to how their labor is classified for taxes and the amount of compensation they receive for their artistic employment.
In the best of times, hustling from gig to gig doesn’t leave a lot of time for self-reflection. “For anyone, it’s easy to continue traveling a certain path or working toward a certain goal simply because it’s what we’ve always done,” said therapist Catherine Drury, LCSW, who provides individual and group counseling for adolescent and adult dancers. “The busyness of life often does not provide opportunities for us to step back and ask, ‘Is this actually what I want?'”
Pivots and Reflections
The reasons for creatives leaving their fields are as varied as to what propelled them to the arts in the first place. Tara Sheena, a freelance dancer and art administrator, always knew that she wanted to experience a profession outside of dance one day. But she didn’t expect to make the shift when she did.
Sheena spent the 2018 and 2019 seasons as an in-demand dancer with choreographers Catherine Galasso, Ivy Baldwin and Gillian Walsh, among others. She augmented her performance work by providing administrative support to artists like Jaamil Olawale Kosoko and Yanira Castro.
Despite finding successive and paid gigs — a combination that is considered a coup for experimental dancers — in the last few years, Sheena found herself, during the shutdown, engaging in “a lot of self-reflection” on her multi-hyphenate career and the ways in which it forced her to be entrepreneurial. This led her to consider getting her MBA.
“I started pursuing this track once I realized that it could be a welcoming space for me,” she said. In her research into programs and in conversations with current students who didn’t come from traditional business backgrounds, she discovered that — while a small sect — gig and nonprofit workers and those who studied the humanities, like herself, also made up business school classes. Sheena applied to 11 MBA programs, all of which are top 20 schools, and to date has been accepted to four.
Before making the switch to become a paralegal, Rachel Van Amburgh also felt the exhaustion of gig life. After moving to Los Angeles to pursue her master’s and then doctorate in Oboe Performance at the University of Southern California, she soon found herself juggling multiple jobs.
“It felt kind of impossible at a certain point,” she said. “Even when you’re really good, savvy, entrepreneurial, and you make good connections with people, it’s still really, really fucking hard.”
Harmony Jackson, a dancer and 2018 Goucher College graduate, also found the balancing act of gig life difficult. While she enjoyed being an apprentice with Elisa Monte Dance, having up to five other side jobs — from pilates to dog walking — proved unsustainable. “Emotionally, I wasn’t able to keep that going and could not continue my contract,” she said.
Prior to the pandemic, Jackson thought that another dance opportunity would present itself while she pursued a fellowship in user experience design. But as spring 2020 waged on, she decided to leave tech temporarily to move back home to Miami. Shortly thereafter, while teaching pilates, Jackson launched Hmoneyfactory, a clothing line that also includes fiber arts tutorials on its website. In January, Jackson shared on Facebook that she was leaving the dance field professionally, a post that elicited over 100 comments filled with encouragement and commiseration.
While some artists have been able to consider school or training programs to explore new fields, others have to make quick pivots in order to pay the rent. Rachel Brumfield and her husband Mike were full-time musicians at dueling piano bars in the Chicago area when both of their careers came to a simultaneous halt. The couple, who have a young son, received some unemployment benefits, but they weren’t enough to keep them afloat. “Because we were independent contractors, it got very tricky,” Brumfield said. “There was a lot of stress and anxiety. Our house went into forbearance.”
To make ends meet, Mike took a job at his brother’s painting company, where his role within the business continues to grow. “We started thinking, ‘What happens when our son is a little older and has a baseball game or a recital? Are we going to miss them?'” Brumfield said, believing that the pay cut is worth more flexibility and steady security.
When cities across the United States shut down and performance venues shuttered, some artists used the time to turn to other aspects of their field that were in better alignment with their current value systems and stage in life. This was true for New York City Ballet principal dancer Lauren Lovette who, after an intense performance season, found herself burnt out. “With the time off, I realized that I needed to make a decision for my mental health and overall happiness in my life,” Lovette said, sharing that during this time she didn’t dance for 10 months.
In March, Lovette made an announcement that, after a decade with NYCB, she was leaving the company. The dancer, unlike the other artists interviewed for this piece, will still make most of her living from her art form, but will focus on other areas of the discipline, including choreography, teaching and writing, while continuing to dance on a freelance basis.
“It’s going to be less about perfecting my fouettés and more about just creativity,” she said, underscoring that agency and choice is paramount to her.
The pause was also illuminating for comedian Jake Fromm, who, through working with a therapist, recognized that “so many parts of my life were completely out of line with the things that I started to realize that might make me happy.”
Fromm, who went by the stage name Sherm Jacobs, was on tour with comic Steve Hofstetter in Florida only days before many states shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic last year. “It was the most legit that I had felt as a comedian,” said Fromm, who was doing an opening set each night. At the time, the young comic didn’t know that the experience was the beginning of the end of his budding career.
Fromm is now redefining his relationship to his art form, noting that he can “just be a funny person” while pursuing a solutions engineering position.
To some extent, attrition in any industry is natural. Goals shift. Identities recalibrate. Yet, the pandemic brought to light issues — such as unfair contract practices, unemployment benefits for freelancers and access to healthcare — that, if left unaddressed, will lead to a smaller and more homogenized workforce in the performing arts. Communication between organizations and artists during the health crisis could also have an impact on who will populate the field after the pandemic. In a February 2021 Return to the Stages survey, 48% of respondents who reportedly had “negative separation experiences” with employers at the start of the pandemic indicated they might leave the field in the next five years.
Luckily, artist-led groups are coming together to address the sector’s unsustainability. And their advocacy may convince those who are still on the fence to stay in the arts. Groups like Dance Artists’ National Collective (DANC) and those who have created documents, including Creating New Futures and We See You, White American Theater, are advocating for better wages and more equitable work environments.
Despite the vital advocacy of artist-led groups and the incremental shifts that are happening at the organizational and city levels, some performers remain resolute in their decisions to move on. And some good could come out of more artists populating and traditional careers in this unprecedented moment; after all, they’re walking embodiments of the ubiquitous phrases that litter job postings. Artists are focused under pressure, excellent multitaskers and self-starters — all skills needed to survive the ups and downs of their competitive fields.
What makes these individuals uniquely equipped to enter new careers — even more than their can-do attitudes — are the tools that they’ve honed from practicing their crafts. Performers are astute improvisers. Their training has led them to have exceptional spatial awareness. From years of storytelling, they’ve developed strong listening skills and empathy. These very same creatives will bring their expert abilities to corporations and industries that are questioning and redefining what makes a workspace and worker successful post-COVID-19. Who better to help make this shift than artists?
“The idea of labeling myself a dancer while going into another field is really funny,” Jackson said, sharing that it took time for her to understand that her identifying as a performer wasn’t yoked to making a living from it. She now feels in many ways “more solidified,” realizing that she has the agency to access her artform whenever and wherever, no matter her path.