By Elizabeth Nonemaker
The seismic challenges facing the performing arts extend beyond a speedy vaccine rollout for COVID-19. Here’s what today’s artists must do to prepare for the “next normal.”
It was like a time capsule from 2019: an invitation from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to collaborate in a multiday tour of concerts all over the city. But this wasn’t from pre-pandemic days, nor was it an ill-advised fever dream. Pianists Susan Zhang (GPD ’18, Piano) and Nick Luby knew that when they pulled out of their driveway in Baltimore, they would make their way to Texas without rubbing elbows (or exchanging air) with fellow travelers, and it was unlikely their concerts would put audiences at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Why? Zhang and Luby are the duo behind The Concert Truck: a 16-foot box truck painted a glossy concert black, its interior converted to a foldout stage complete with wood flooring, lighting, a sound system, and a digital mini-grand piano. After initially enduring a slate of canceled performances during the first months of the pandemic, it occurred to them, as outdoor events proliferated, that their setup already conformed to the limitations brought on by the coronavirus.
In June, “everything took off,” Zhang says. “I basically cold emailed every CEO of every major orchestra and presenter in the country that I could get contact information for. Some things panned out, and [we’ve] been gaining momentum since then.”
You might chalk it up to luck — the duo’s growing success during a time so hostile to live performance. But is it sheer coincidence? Dig into any of the conversations artists and presenters are having about adapting to COVID-19, and the answer would be no. When Zhang and Luby launched The Concert Truck in 2016, they wanted to democratize the concert experience. They wanted to meet their audiences on their home turf — literally — and to play for people who might not ordinarily attend concerts of classical music. And as the pandemic has ripped through the performing arts — decimating artists’ immediate ability to make a living as well as their long-term financial stability — it’s become clear that the challenges facing live performers extend beyond a speedy vaccine rollout. The entire industry is facing a need to restructure itself: to assess its values, to ask not just how it creates art, but for whom, and why.
“I feel strongly that apart from COVID-19, there’s an incredible amount of value that something like The Concert Truck can bring to our communities,” Zhang says. “It’s that opportunity to be closer to the people [presenters are] trying to reach out to, I think, that’s really important.”
Should all musicians, then, go out and buy a truck? Not necessarily. But the pandemic has underscored just how important such audience-first thinking is — and how flexible it can prove, even in the face of unprecedented setbacks.
To be sure, wide-scale recovery among the arts won’t come from outdoor performances alone. Last August, the Brookings Institution published a report that estimated the financial losses suffered by the country’s creative economy. Authors Richard Florida and Michael Seman calculated that from April through July 2020, creative industries lost 2.7 million jobs and more than $150 billion in sales.
The picture is even grimmer when you isolate the fine and performing arts. Occupations in these fields have been “disproportionately affected,” suffering the loss of 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales, according to the report.
As part of his research, Seman consulted past economic recessions to compare the different kinds of recoveries the arts economy might anticipate. “There’s a V-shaped recovery,” he explained in a January 2021 interview. “It means you’ve lost a lot quickly, but it quickly comes back.” There are also U-and W-shaped recoveries. Some creative industries, like design and advertising, have already started to recover along these lines.
“Then there’s the L shape,” Seman said, “where everything drops off and continues to stay down.” That is the shape that describes the recovery — or lack thereof — for the fine and performing arts. It’s “a crisis,” he said.
Is there hope? Yes — but in the views of the study’s authors, it requires national recognition that the arts do so much more than provide a night’s worth of entertainment.
Seman pointed to a proposal put forth by Americans for the Arts as “the way forward.” It outlines 16 actions the Biden Administration can take to revitalize the creative economy, ranging from creating positions within the executive branch to advise on arts and culture issues, to incentivizing states and private sectors to employ artists. Broadly, the proposal calls on the government to capitalize on artists’ existing roles within their communities: as educators, entrepreneurs, craftspeople, healers, organizers, and more.
In the meantime, what can artists and presenters do for themselves? Most arts professionals would acknowledge that this is a service industry. But is this aspect of the work emphasized enough in the way the performing arts are conceived, marketed, and taught?
It was that dire Brookings Institution report that moved Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein to create the Peabody Post-COVID Think Tank, a collective of the Conservatory’s faculty and staff members dedicated to preparing Peabody students for the challenges that will linger in a post-COVID-19 world. Many of those challenges, like adapting to changing technology and courting wider audiences, have already been top of mind in Peabody’s introduction of the Breakthrough Curriculum. The Think Tank “is sort of a natural continuation of that conversation,” Bronstein says. A key feature of the collective is a belief that the changes necessitated by COVID-19 are “not all bad. The Think Tank is not just to ask how are we going to fix this? But what are the opportunities here? How can we be even more bold in thinking about what we do?”
Opening that conversation to the public, Peabody held a free, daylong symposium in February inviting arts professionals to imagine the “Next Normal” — the way artists, and specifically musicians, should approach their work after the pandemic has subsided. Along with more than 1,300 attendees from all over the country, a who’s who of practitioners, presenters, administrators, and funders gathered virtually to reflect on the seismic shifts of the last year and to strategize for the future. During breakout sessions, participants put their ideas to work, engaging in rapid design thinking workshops — a process to address complex problems in five steps: empathizing, defining the problem, ideating (or brainstorming), prototyping, and testing solutions. In these workshops, participants — who were themselves arts practitioners and presenters — developed projects that would allow their organizations to address other pressing matters in their communities: Think partnering with a food bank or animal shelter.
Overall, the symposium reflected participants’ broad desire to make arts institutions less siloed, and more responsive to community concerns. “While we could barely scratch the surface in just one day,” Dean Bronstein said, reflecting on the symposium, “certain things were deeply felt. The need for our field to diversify our administrators, performing rosters, board members, audiences, and more, is urgent and existential.” Along with that, conservatories “must train creative artists with the kind of orientation that rewards and values the journey to who is being reached and how, as much as what is produced by the artist. And we all must approach our work … with a sense of humility.”
During the arts funders panel, Ben Cameron, president of the Jerome Foundation, echoed the idea that the pandemic has in fact created the opportunity for artists to rethink how, and why, they work. He described two mindsets artists and presenters might have toward the disruptions of the past year. One mindset, he elaborated in written comments, asks, “‘How can we return to and resume our former practices?’ It’s a mindset that often looks inward, springs from a deep, passionate commitment to an art form — and reflects a desire to share that art form with the world.”
There’s a different mindset he’s seen emerging that “begins by looking outward, and asking, ‘What is it my community needs that our work can serve?’ My sense is that organizations that are going to reinvent are the ones looking at the external world and asking, ‘What is it in the outside world today that mandates us to go forward?’”
Judging by the panel conversations (which are available to view on Peabody’s YouTube channel), it might seem that the predominant event of 2020 mandating artists to go forward was not, in fact, the pandemic, but rather the racial protests brought about by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans — and how institutions have been called to reckon with their own histories of inequitable practices and cultures.
“I think we can agree that we’re all eager to get back to live performance,” Deborah Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center, said in her opening remarks to the music leadership panel. “But the recalibration of priorities is really around the issue of anti-racism — addressing this not just within our organization, but in the field.”
Of course, the pandemic, racial inequality, and institutional responses are all intertwined. Just consult the data: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black, indigenous, and Latinx Americans are roughly three times more likely than white Americans to be hospitalized for COVID-19, and roughly twice as likely to die from it. The pandemic has not created social inequalities, but it has exacerbated them. A comprehensive public health response would require targeted attention on those inequalities and the policies that have created them.
A parallel can be drawn to the racial reckoning in arts institutions. Prominent classical musicians in the United States have always been overwhelmingly white. Many institutions have always had implicit or explicit exclusionary policies. And, in recent decades, musicians have struggled to expand their audiences — even when concert halls were still open. The 2020 racial protests did not create these circumstances, but they did highlight how urgently artists must respond to the inequities in their fields, should they hope to continue making impactful art in the years to come.
It follows, then, that responding to inequities in arts and culture should also provide a blueprint for sustainable art making once concert halls reopen. After all, as the Americans for the Arts’ proposal indicates, live performance is just one of the many services artists and musicians provide.
Out Into the World
How, then, do you create a truly equitable arts practice? That’s the million-dollar question — and there are a million possible answers. Holding free forums to discuss solutions and generate ideas is a good start. But, as President and Artistic Director of the Sphinx Organization Afa Dworkin pointed out, artists and institutions mustn’t mistake conversation for action: “Until we set ourselves numeric, measurable, accountability-infused goals” — and practice them for multiple years — “I don’t think much will change.”
In June, Peabody outlined specific steps the institute will take to continue building an inclusive arts practice, including supporting early music education for Black and Latinx musicians, recruiting more faculty members and students of color, and broadening the scope of musical practices taught in curricula.
The Peabody LAUNCHPad assists students in building skills in entrepreneurship — vital in a field that increasingly asks artists less what audiences can do to support their music, and more how their music can support audiences.
Eager music students can look to the examples of other artists and organizations. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the International Contemporary Ensemble held a series of virtual town halls where audiences could take part in conversations about the Ensemble’s COVID-19 response. “It made people feel connected,” said Ross Karre, the Ensemble’s artistic director. “So, we took that model and made that a regular occurrence every Tuesday. Even in our best in-person concerts, we didn’t achieve that level of intimacy.”
For Susan Zhang, no class or practice session takes the place of actually going out into the world and getting your hands dirty. She recalled how one of her teachers, Marina Lomazov, who founded the Southeastern Piano Festival, asked her to executive produce the festival’s opening extravaganza. “That was really great preparation for The Concert Truck,” she said. Beyond that, Nick Luby said that their success with The Concert Truck has come from a mindset of “normalizing failure — combining the rigorous perfectionism that we learn [in conservatory] with a radical acceptance of what we can do in the moment.”
At a time when prospects might feel grim for so many performing artists, such an outlook seems the only reasonable — and hopeful — way to move forward.