Covid created new opportunities, lasting change in arts and culture (Guest Opinion by Travis Newton)

Travis Newton is associate professor and director of Arts Administration at Le Moyne College, in Syracuse.

Covid-19 has altered our landscape forever, with deaths recently topping 600,000 in the United States. Millions have been sickened, lives have been upended, and the virus has expanded societal gaps that were too large to begin with. Whether instigated by Covid-19, the shifting priorities of funders or their own recognition of the need to address inequities, arts leaders are listening to their communities. Many recognize that it’s no longer enough for arts organizations to be good — they must also do good.

At a time when the world needed an escape more than ever, and consumed a record amount of arts and entertainment content, the not-for-profit arts and culture industry has suffered. Americans for the Arts estimates that not-for-profit arts and culture organizations have lost $17.5 billion to date, with another $17.2 billion lost in audience ancillary spending. As we know from research sponsored by CNY Arts and conducted by Le Moyne College faculty members, arts and culture plays a major role in our local economy. When people stop going to arts events, they also stop dining at local restaurants, traveling to city centers, and pumping dollars into the local economy.

However, many in our arts and culture community have undertaken purposeful innovation during the pandemic. Set to open on March 13, 2020, Syracuse Stage’s production of “Amadeus” was forced to close after only one performance; however, Stage’s leaders partnered with WCNY, filming the production and making it available to ticket holders later that month.

Soon thereafter, arts organizations and artists began to utilize a multitude of digital distribution platforms to continue to serve the community. Prior to the pandemic, enjoying a local arts performance from the comfort of your own home simply wasn’t possible. Artists and managers hired film crews, explored streaming options, and transformed their entire content delivery systems.

Philanthropy helped to enable much of this work. Despite being unable to attend in person, many donors continued to give generously, and CNY Arts launched the Covid-19 Arts Impact Fund, which has nearly met its $1 million goal. Nationally, total giving increased by 5.1% in 2020, and giving by foundations jumped by 17% — undoubtedly buoyed by the rising stock market. The overall increase in giving was appropriately led by public-society benefit organizations, which saw a 15.7% increase. Although arts, culture and humanities saw a reduction in giving, the 7.5% decrease certainly could have been much worse at a time when organizations were unable to engage in face-to-face relationship building with donors.

While it’s always interesting to relive the past, the truly interesting question is — how will Covid-19 impact the arts and culture industry in the long term? Will people immediately return to a venue full of people? How will our engagement with arts and culture be different in a post-Covid world?

Without a doubt, our industry has learned quite a bit over the past 16 months, as have our audiences. Streaming content from an iPhone to a home entertainment system has become routine for many who never would have dreamed to do such a thing in a pre-Covid world. Getting permission from artists to film and broadcast their performances prior to the pandemic would have been a long, complicated and potentially expensive proposition. Those who were trained to present visual and performing arts have transformed themselves into video producers, editors, and technical support professionals. Moving forward, will all of this learning and innovation simply be discarded?

Likely not. Artists and arts leaders are known to be entrepreneurs, defined by business guru Peter Drucker as one who “always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.” Covid-19 instigated seismic changes for our industry, and the world’s transition (long though it may be) out of the pandemic will also present new challenges and opportunities.

Over the past 16 months, arts and culture leaders have increasingly turned to their communities to listen to their needs and interests. Thankfully, there is a long-overdue movement in our industry toward inclusivity – especially engaging with members of the BIPOC community. Locally, this important work is being reinforced in many ways, including through the newly-created Black Equity & Excellence fund at the Central New York Community Foundation, many of whose recently funded projects are related to arts and culture. Nationally, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott has begun to give away billions of dollars with a focus on those struggling against inequities. Although the gift sizes are not published, many of Scott’s recent contributions are to arts and culture organizations fighting systemic racism.

At Le Moyne College, our arts administration students are regularly called upon to reflect, tapping into one of the core values of Jesuit education. This ongoing emphasis is appropriate given that the nearly 500-year-old Jesuit educational tradition at the core of Le Moyne’s mission started during the Renaissance, a time of “rebirth” for the arts, culture and science. Listening to our communities and reflecting on their needs will be critical components of a successful re-emergence of arts and culture in a post-pandemic world.

Angelia S. Rico

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