Realities of the Coronavirus Pandemic: How Will Artists Recover?

As the COVID-19 Pandemic deepens, and the economic shockwaves continue to roll through every sector in the American economy, artists around the country have seen their performances and gigs evaporate, and theaters witnessed entire seasons dissipate in a day. Every day seems to bring some fresh horror to the arts, a sector that is already underfunded, and the long-term economic implications are bleak. The potential for a multitude of creative voices to be lost due to limited monetary resources and audiences is painfully real. However, art is a reflection of society and an invaluable tool for preserving our culture. As George Bernard Shaw stated: “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.” How then can we recover? Once we all emerge from our quarantines, how can we as artists be ready to make the most of what is left, and create more space for art in a world that will sorely need it?

Be ready for the fallout, but please, don’t let it crush your spirit.

The economic repercussions on the dance industry are an all too familiar specter that visited the United States during the Great Recession in 2007-2009. Dance companies collapsed, art galleries contracted, private and government donors pulled back, and the end result was a reshaping of how artists conducted business. The traditional model of creatives on one side and management on the other became a thing of the past, with many choosing instead to wear both hats. The rise of social media and the gig economy made the idea of working just one performing arts job a rarity. It is unusual today to find a dancer who can afford to dedicate themselves wholly to one company, choreographer, or organization. Now, a decade later, the financial resilience of the arts in the United States is being tested by the economic impact of an unprecedented global pandemic. With millions of Americans stuck at home, the fast-paced gig economy is being ripped to shreds. Dancers who work from one show to another week after week will find that their lifestyle is unsustainable in the current times, and the sad reality is that the loss of money and audiences will invariably lead to a loss of growth and opportunities down the road. In a situation like this, it is possible that creative destruction will ensue, relegating our society’s artistic output to the lucky few voices that managed to fiscally weather the storm.

However, those few lucky voices are not the true reflection of a culture or society at large. The arts exist as the physical, visual, and auditory reflection of the attitudes and ideas that a civilization embraces. They are the societal watch dogs, forcing each of us to look at what and who we are as people; art can change minds, introduce ideas, enforce cultural norms and values, and tell our stories once we are gone. We know what we know about our ancestors and our history because of the art that was left behind. History even refers to a time without art and learning in Europe as “The Dark Ages.” The importance of art cannot be overstated. Yet often, in times of economic distress, the arts are the first thing to go. For example, when a school struggles, it is often the arts department whose funding gets slashed, and when families undergo economic hardship, their membership in the arts—like lessons, attending performances, etc.—is significantly decreased, if not completely eradicated. Arts are necessary to the preservation and future growth of a culture, and the creation and contribution to them should be placed in the hands of the many, not the few.

We cannot allow the arts to be shelved in a back corner simply because we were too quiet when it mattered.

I know that artists will do what they always do in the face of adversity: create. Yet, it should be noted that ars gratia artis (art for art’s sake) is a wonderful thing, but may not provide economic stability in the wake of the quarantine. So what can be done during this time of confinement to improve our circumstances? There are many options, and the dance community has been all over it. You could use the time to diversify and strengthen your skill set, attack a project you don’t normally have the bandwidth for, build up your online presence, research future collaborators and venues, or simply rest because, let’s be honest, you may desperately need it. One thing that every artist should do with this newfound free time: contact your representative and share your story. Many artists are politically active, but many are not and it is apparent that in order for our needs to be met we have to speak up. So, sign that petition, call your representatives’ offices, and tell them what is happening on the ground in their district. We cannot allow the arts to be shelved in a back corner simply because we were too quiet when it mattered. We know that the arts are crucial, but it is time that we make sure the rest of the country realizes it as well.

When this storm passes, as all do, the dance industry must be ready for another restructuring, similar to the one after the Great Recession. Once-in-a-generation crises call for creative solutions, and it is quite likely that the new online format we have adapted to in the past few weeks is here to stay. Dancers should be ready to offer services that a post COVID-19 world will want. Non-traditional performances and online streaming events will become more common since many venues may have to close their doors, and we should be flexible and adaptable with pioneering these areas as individuals or organizations. Teaching online can become a supplement to your in-person classes, so get comfortable with being in front of a camera and using your words to more effectively communicate physical ideas to students. The most important thing we can be is resilient. Things will not go back to normal all at once, and it may be that the world we left in mid-March is no longer there for us when we come together again. However, stay the course—every artist’s voice is valid and necessary. Be ready for the fallout, but please, don’t let it crush your spirit.

Arts are necessary to the preservation and future growth of a culture, and the creation and contribution to them should be placed in the hands of the many, not the few.

The COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020 is something that will leave its mark on our collective psyches much like 9/11, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and the Great Depression. The potential of a global recession and vast creative destruction is very real, and we must steel ourselves to those facts. We will not only have to cope with and adapt to a more virtual format of art and existence for the time being, but we will also have to come to the realization that this platform is our new frontier as creators. We cannot afford to be politically silent, since this will hurt our industry and irrevocably change lives. We must remind ourselves and others around us of the importance of art. Embrace the changes, stand firm in your validity and necessity, and keep creating. Keep these “New Dark Ages” at bay with your light, so that history can see what happened here today.

About the author

Caitlin, a native of Nashville, Tennessee, holds a BFA in Dance Performance and a BA in Economics from Southern Methodist University. After graduation, she performed and taught in and around the Chicagoland area before the windchill drove her west. She currently lives in Los Angeles, California, where she is a company member with Seda Aybay’s Kybele Dance Theater. When not rehearsing, touring, and performing with Kybele, you can find her either teaching ballet and modern dance at several local studios, or battling traffic on the 405. She is deeply passionate about all facets of the art form of dance.