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Opinion

[Fred Bronstein] The fine arts grapple with COVID-19

In August, the Brookings Institution published a study on the impact of the pandemic on the arts and culture industry across the United States. The study painted a devastating picture of the immediate loss of jobs, revenues and artistic talent. Since the Brookings study, there have been numerous other studies, articles and blogs written about the performing arts industry -- its recovery, and the best ways to get from here to there.

Clearly, it is essential for us to individually and collectively figure out how to help our institutions survive, first, and then recover. And yes, the next year or two will be critical. If we don’t look beyond the immediate future to think about the impact of COVID-19 within the context of trends that existed long before the pandemic -- and think about this over a longer horizon, over decades -- then we will have missed an opportunity to shape that future and perhaps even address some of the challenging macro trends as we solve for more immediate issues.

We know there were audience development challenges pre-COVID, and for a long time consumers have been evolving in how they commit to and take in arts experiences. We know that gaps in early arts education are problematic, to say the least. We know that technology is, and has been, an interrupter for years. And we know that demographics are changing rapidly, placing increasing pressure on developing new audiences from a diversifying population, in a field that has struggled to diversify itself.

If we think about this long term, we need to ask: is COVID-19 essentially just accelerating dynamic trends that have already been happening in our field? And if so, how do we solve for that? As we think about getting our audiences back, how do we expand that to new audiences in order to answer that demographic call of the future? How do we harness some of the miraculous things we have seen technology do over the last year, with artists engaging in a way not seen before?

In recent decades, the classical music world has seen technology not as its friend, but more as a threat to live performance. (That is ironic when you think that the advent of electric recording nearly 100 years ago spawned a whole classical music recording industry that was the lifeblood for classical music for years.) One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic can be this opportunity to make peace with -- indeed to embrace -- what technology can do for the arts.

Then there is the whole question of artists and what role they will play in communities, how it may be different from the past and, consequently, how should those changes be reflected in the education of young, emerging artists?

Of course, there is also the question of how to pay for the arts. Some are making the case for a secretary of culture and a major, government arts program like the WPA Federal Art Project, instituted during the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Well, maybe. But do we really want to bet the farm on government support at that level, given the paucity of government support for arts and culture in the United States over the last 80 years? We can try, but we’d better have a plan B.

I’d like to think that at Peabody, we’ve been forward-thinking when it comes to training artists for the future and equally so when it comes to diversifying the faces of our industry. But the pandemic has made us ask the question: How can we be even more bold in thinking about the future?

To do that, this fall we stood up the Peabody Conservatory Post-COVID Think Tank. And on Wednesday, we hosted “The Next Normal: Arts Innovation and Resilience in a Post-COVID World” -- a free, virtual national symposium for the performing arts, stocked with leading arts administrators, artists, educators and funders, all engaged in a daylong series of conversations with more than 1,500 attendees from around the world.

This is indeed a big moment for the performing fine arts. What we do in this time is likely to shape the landscape for our field and most importantly, for our audiences, for decades to come. It may well make the difference between survival and not, and to be sure, determine whether we just survive, or thrive.


Fred Bronstein
Fred Bronstein is dean of the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, where he is leading the creation of a new model of training for 21st-century performing artists. -- Ed.

(Baltimore Sun / Tribune Content Agency)
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