I’ve been staring at this screen for several days (weeks, actually, if I’m being honest) trying to write about what the pandemic and the lockdown means for the arts. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say — it’s the opposite. Anything I begin to write seems reductive. There’s too much to say and where to start? So this is maybe the start of a series of pieces on the topic.
When everything shut down there was the panic of uncertainty. First, the virus is scary; it’s killing lots of people, and we don’t know enough about how it works and how it spreads. Fear of the unknown is the worst — my imagination can quickly go to dark places. But it turns out that there are plenty of amazing people in our midst — those you expect: medical workers and first responders, and those you might not have thought of: grocery clerks(!) and bus drivers(!) and many others — who heroically continue to perform essential jobs to keep us going.
As the shock set in and our public life shut down, survival instincts kicked in. For weeks, my email inbox has filled up with fundraising pleas. Our global arts supply chain went down overnight as theatres, concert halls, museums, bookstores, production studios, rehearsal facilities and support services shut down.
Foundations kicked in quickly to try to help. Some — like Colorado’s Bonfils-Stanton — tore up the usual rules and quickly distributed money to existing grantees without much red tape. A group of national foundations put together a $75 million fund. Cities such as Seattle moved to waive rent in City-owned spaces. After considerable debate, Congress included $300 million for culture as part of its $2.2 trillion bail-out bill, including $75 million each for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities.
Despite these and many other heroic attempts, the help is completely overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis. Americans for the Arts reported $4.5 billion in economic losses for the arts by the first week of April. The Metropolitan Opera alone estimated $60 million in losses. Whatever financial aid arts funders could muster is swept away by the size of this tsunami. To put the scale of the problem in perspective – the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, one of the few remaining national funders of the arts, could throw its entire $7 billion in assets at the problem and be broke in a few months having failed to “save” America’s arts organizations. The size of the problem facing the arts sector is simply too massive for our existing cultural infrastucture to cope.
And it’s unlikely that significantly more help will be on the way. While the city of Berlin quickly made $320 million available to its cultural workers and Germany’s national government added €50 billion (yes with a “b”), with its culture minister saying that “artists are not only indispensable, but also vital, especially now,” America’s national and state governments have been for the most part indifferent at best and even downright hostile. Republicans in Congress pointed to the $150 million for the NEA and NEH in the $2.2 trillion bailout bill (about .07% of the whole) as wasteful spending in a time of national crisis. Former Trump administration ambassador Nikki Haley mused that the money for the arts should have been spent on something useful instead (“It could have helped so many people.”). This, even though we know the arts account for $763 billion in annual economic impact and more than five million jobs nationally. To put this in perspective, commercial airlines employ about 600,000 and earned $240 billion in 2018 and just got $25 billion in the bailout bill after spending $48 billion in the past two years buying back their own stock after a generous Republican tax break.
Now, it must be said that in addition to direct government aid to the arts, the bail-out included the Paycheck Protection Program, which many arts organizations applied for and some got. So there’s that. But most artists are self-employed or contract workers and many weren’t eligible.
Given the scale of the national crisis facing all sectors of the economy in the months and years to come, the pandemic is a historic disruption that represents an existential crisis. What to do?
I’ve come to think of it in the following frame:
Restorationists versus Opportunists
The world is settling loosely into two camps: Restorationists, who believe that this was a catastrophic event we have to survive until we can resume the important work we were doing before, and Opportunists, who believe that everything has changed going forward and that we have an historic opportunity to reinvent.
Restorationists are deeply invested in their business models and want to rebuild as quickly as possible. They have built, often painstakingly over generations, pipelines to talent and support and the means to reach audiences. They’re terrified that the infrastructure that supports them will collapse and they’re desperate to shore it up and get back to work.
Opportunists have long seen cracks in the cultural infrastructure and suddenly find themselves (along with the rest of us) in a place where all the usual rules and structures have been turned upside down. They see a world that could look considerably different AV (After Virus) and perhaps opportunities to rewrite better rules going forward.
A Crisis of Infrastructure
What the pandemic has exposed is the shocking impoverishment of our infrastructure at every level: medical, political, financial, industrial, media, logistical, and yes, cultural.
Our cultural infrastructure has been a mess for years. Technology has detached the making of cultural goods from the ability to get paid for them. The non-profit model, created in the 1960s to address 1960s funding realities, hasn’t been up to the task for decades. Old institutional models haven’t adapted to keep up in the internet age. Delivery of arts education has been frail for long time, in spite of heroic attempts to make it better. Our arts institutions are badly under-capitalized. Artists can’t afford housing or studio space in many of our cities. Equity and diversity are still big problems. We’ve lost most of our arts media. We have significant and persistent leadership failure issues. And while we’re at it — after all these years of tech innovation, why is it still so difficult to just find out what cultural events are going on around us?
Restore? Really? Why would we want to restore infrastructure that has been sputtering and misfiring for a very long time?
It’s instructive to look back at the 2009 financial crisis. When the bottom fell out, those who were already vulnerable had to struggle just to stay alive. Those who were secure saw opportunity to invest while the bottom had fallen out. In the years since, those investments rose spectacularly, powering a historic gap between the wealthy and everybody else. This gap also opened up in the arts, I would argue, where superstar museums and mega-galleries and giant film studios grew at a furious pace, while small and medium arts organizations and most especially average artists, never recovered. Now, it has been observed, you can do fine as an artist if you are superstar. You can be okay if you’re content to subsidize your work with some other employment. What you can’t be, increasingly, is a successful middle class artist whose work as an artist is full time.The economics mostly don’t work. A broken system.
So think of the economy as a giant puzzle where the pieces fit together. The pandemic has thrown all those pieces up in the air and it’s not clear yet how they will be reassembled. Those with means are busy trying to grab as many pieces as they can. Those who are focused on simply surviving are waiting for the pieces to come back together, and will inevitably get stuck with the leftovers and a smaller share even than they had before. It shouldn’t have to be that way.
Every sector is in the same boat right now. Higher education spent decades on a building spree while under-investing in their actual product (shifting teaching from tenured, employed faculty to poorly-paid adjunct contract workers), leading to unsustainable tuition burdens and an expensive infrastructure that is no longer supportable. Students are demanding refunds for their newly-virtual classes and enrollment this fall is likely to plummet.
Commercial real estate is likely to crater as companies decide they don’t need workers to come in every day to a physical office. Retail shopping — already hanging by a thread — will collapse. The industry estimates fifty percent of America’s malls could be closed by next year. Airlines are preparing for radical downsizing. Cities and states are bracing for smaller tax revenues and the need to rewrite their tax codes. The movie industry has to rethink release strategies as audiences are reluctant to go into theatres. And on and on.
You can see this as nothing but loss. Or perhaps some of our most intractable debates are now suddenly shaken free of their old moorings. That everyone should have medical insurance is a moral good. But arguing that it is didn’t win the argument. If instead, medical coverage is now a public safety issue because the uninsured are a risk to us all, and 30 million newly unemployed means a whole lot of people just lost their medical care, it’s an entirely different debate going forward. Suddenly Medicare-for-All doesn’t seem so scary to a newly-terrified populace.
Climate change will make the pandemic seem like child’s play, and yet it’s been difficult to get voters to focus on it. But the taste of this global threat makes the next one palpable in ways it wasn’t until now. The cleaner air and lack of congestion that has resulted from this lockdown reframes the debate. Paris has already announced it won’t let cars into the downtown when it reopens. “We can no longer let Paris be dominated by automobiles,” says the mayor. It’s a quality of life issue. The fossil fuel industry, shattered by collapsing demand, is teetering on the brink. Given the choice, most governments will now invest in renewables.
Global supply chains shown vulnerable in this crisis have industries rethinking where they make things and how they get them to markets. The legal profession is rethinking how it hears arguments and hold trials. The medical industry is rethinking tele-medicine and how it charges for services. Everywhere you look the pandemic is now an opportunity to rewrite the rules of the road — not just to address those things that have broken, but to take advantage of new opportunities to do better.
And the arts? If we only focus on rebuilding, we’ll get stuck with a lesser version of a model that already didn’t work very well. Theatres are likely to be shut on-and-off for much of the next year or so, and besides, the first research indicates it will be considerable time before audiences are willing to go back. Performances will resume, but if we have to keep social distancing, does that mean 200 people in a 1000-seat hall? How does that work – both as a supportable business model as well as aesthetically?
Our funding system is stretched and broken. Do we triage and let a high number of institutions and an untold number of artists fail? The Association of American Museums says one third of America’s museums could go out of business this year. Or do we figure out a better system?
Do we continue with our under-performing non-profit model or design a new hybrid? Can we finally figure out a virtual content model that pays, now that we have a significant audience for it? Can we rethink the relationships between artists and institutions that make both more sustainable? Can we design a more equitable education model that enriches non-artists and prepares more versatile artists for successful careers? These and dozens of other issues are there to be addressed. In the old world all these issues were urgent. In the new they’re existential.
I would argue that the cultural sector will fail if it tries to figure this out on its own, let alone just the non-profit arts sector which is an even smaller subset. Looking around, I see many other sectors with similar issues, many which might benefit from learning from the arts, just as we could learn from them. The question is — can we look up long enough from trying to survive to think bigger?
NEXT: leadership and opportunities