Arts, culture, and recovery

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Earlier today, I wrote an email to some of my students. A few of them had reached out to me with questions about what they should be doing–as citizens and as budding arts administrators–during this challenging, anxiety-ridden time.

I don’t have any definitive answers, but I have a few thoughts, which I’m sharing here for former students, peers in the cultural industry, or anyone else.

Let me be clear: I’ve never been through anything like this, but I’ve definitely been through crises in my life. And though every crisis is unique, our responses to crises tends to follow a common trajectory.

With that in mind, here are a few projections for the current calamity:

1. Life will return to normal. The return won’t be immediate. It will probably be touch and go for a bit. But the upside is that our infrastructure is still in place. After Hurricane Katrina, we weren’t so lucky: our grocery stores, our hospitals, our banks, our schools, all of that had to be rebuilt. That won’t be the case this go-round, but it will still take time for us to find our rhythm. Be patient. Take notes. It’ll help you if this should ever happen again.

2. The arts and culture sector will struggle for a while. Not only will the recovery be slow, but in any city that depends on tourism for revenue (including New Orleans), it will be slightly slower. Hotels will reopen, but guests will be sparse at first–mostly out-of-towners who’ve come to help with treatment and rebuilding. Restaurants will reopen, though probably with smaller staffs and limited menus. Bars will be fine. I mean, obviously. 

Cultural organizations will be important–people will look to them as signs of civic health–but we’ll probably be working with smaller staffs. People will guard their discretionary income until the economy stabilizes. Membership revenue won’t come back right away. However, events will be huge. Festivals, concerts, even galas: these are things that will make people feel normal, the things that will allow everyone to forget for just a minute the anxiety and the facemasks and the hoarding of hand sanitizer. Use them wisely

3. Our way of doing business in the arts and culture sector will shift. If you lived in New Orleans during Katrina, you know that we were hurled into the 21st century literally overnight. We learned to work remotely, to rely on laptops, to text. (Yes, Katrina made that happen for me and many others, way back when T9 messaging was pretty much all we had.) There will be a similar shift now. 

Organizations without strong online presences will change that fact, and fast. We will grow our communities on Facebook, Instagram, and whatever the next Facebook/Instagram might be. We will livestream, we will share our work in every way possible. For some of us, our work may live there so that we can continue to produce it wherever events may take us. 

Revenue will also shift. Contributed revenue will still be important, and there will be a number of special grants available to help arts and culture orgs get back on their feet. But some of our usual sources of support–individuals, foundations, and especially government agencies–will have other priorities. Earned revenue will fill the gaps. And if you’ve never had the opportunity to work on an endowment campaign, just wait. Prepare to get very, very creative.

4. Find partners. When resources are limited, duplication of effort is criminal. If you have spare office space, share it with others who don’t. (Perhaps they can contribute toward the utility bill.) If you have a staff member who’s a grantwriting whiz, loan them out to others (possibly for a fee, if the other org has funds for that). If you have a venue for a concert, a summer camp, a workshop, make it available–again, maybe there’s a fee involved, maybe there’s some bartering, or maybe it’s just for goodwill. The organizations that will handle recovery the best and prepare themselves for future crises are the ones that take this opportunity to deepen their relationships with partners.

5. You are needed now more than ever. This virus will do more damage to our communities than to the people who live in them. When the pandemic winds down, billions of people will have been isolated from friends, family, and coworkers. They’ll need to reacclimate to social life. They’ll need to be reminded how to live in a community.  

There are three things that build community: food, faith, and fun. You’re responsible for item #3. Make it happen. 

This isn’t a situation that any of us would’ve wanted, but it’s the hand we’ve been dealt. It may seem overwhelming, but here’s a trick to help you cope: focus on a task. Put your head down, do your work, and eventually, you’ll look up to find some improvements.

Head down, chin up!

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