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August 21, 2020: On Being In Limbo

Good day,

These recent weeks it seems whenever I come across a story that brings a bit of hope, it’s followed by a barrage of reports offering bleak forecasts.

The news that Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet was returning to the stage with carefully crafted distancing, for example, was at first uplifting — until it was not.

It also was a warning that premature returning to the indoor stage cannot only have problems when such shows are cancelled but can create a climate where audiences may not want to return again, even when the situation is considerably safer.

So as we head to summer’s end and approach what would be for many the start of the 2020-’21 season, there’s a feeling of confusion, if not, at times, despair, to the point that one could simply be stuck in suspended motion.

But if this period can’t be used for programming and planning an immediate return to normal, it can still be used productively, for consideration, for thoughtfulness, for communication, for re-imaging. What so many busy arts institutions so rarely have is now right in front of them: time.

A blog by a U.K. arts curator reflects this period of uncertainty.

“The prospect of being stuck in a constant toing and froing between limited-capacity opening and complete closure, will no doubt shatter confidence at a time when organisations will be making decisions about the direction for the coming months that will shape the future of the arts…Will hibernation or adaptation be the best long-term survival strategy?”

There are no easy answers here, no right way to proceed in this limbo time. But even as some organizations take the approach not to program or create — at least for the remainder of the summer, and perhaps beyond — other important work can still be accomplished.

One of the things it can do is make an even deeper connections with their communities, taking a tip from the farm-to-table movement in the restaurant industry: “Go local.”

“Theatre needs an age of Reformation, not Restoration,” James Graham writes in The Financial Times. “And I believe the way forward, against the backdrop of dire economic forecasts and vastly depleted funds, is to accept that if we cannot for the time being go large, then we go local…Theatre’s most rewarding impact is not what culture does nationally or internationally, it’s what art does — or rather, could do — even better, on a local level, within its immediate community. If we are to endure a painful interval without full-scale work or global transfers of big-name hits, this is an opportunity for a reset, a re-engagement with local artists, audiences and institutions.”

Another thing to do during this period is talk to each other. Often institutions are so focused on themselves it’s difficult to look very much beyond the walls of their institutions but this limbo time can be one for communication, in sharing ideas, strategies, or at least consolation and support for one’s own mental health,

This pause time allows one to simply think, re-envisioning an institution, and even — or especially, perhaps — looking at other artistic disciplines to see what they’re doing and how your own organization can benefit when you look at a challenge from another angle.

Take the piece in titled “What Museums Can Learn From the Theatre.” “Anyone that has ever been into a museum or a theatre knows that they fundamentally provide different experiences to the audiences who walk through their doors; however, I believe that they are not so different. And more importantly, that they can learn a lot from one another about work processes and delivery of projects.”

Sometimes long-terms plans — especially capital plans — once announced are difficult to reign in, change or adapt. This may be the time to have a good re-think, re-imagining those proposals in this new landscape. Literally, going back to the drawing board. Terry Teachout in The Wall Street Journal suggests that this is the time to revisit renovations of Lincoln Center’s Geffen Hall with construction are set to begin in 2022.

“Many questions need to be addressed before the orchestra locks itself into a final design for Geffen Hall. What should concert halls look like if social distancing remains necessary for the foreseeable future? How might they be made more inviting to virus-shy concertgoers? And how do you present live music to sufficient numbers of people to make it economically viable without compromising the health of audiences or performers?”

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the time to seriously dig deep into work of racial inclusion and equality, sometimes resulting, as Michael Paulson of The New York Times reports, in resignations and restructuring.

“...There are indications — on Broadway, Off Broadway, and at regional theaters — that the charges of systemic racism aired this summer, along with the advocacy of several organizations pressing for change, are having an initial impact.”

Yes, even this limbo time can have a profound purpose.

— Frank Rizzo


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