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Dec. 21, 2020: On Think Tanks

Good day,

If one can look past the immediate period of high dread and drama, one can see a time in the not-too-distant future — thanks to emerging vaccines — when audiences may be returning to indoor spaces.

So as we edge towards a new year, it’s important to keep in mind some of the big new ideas that have been proposed in reimagining a different cultural landscape.

I’m struck by an article in The New York Times that talks about efforts — thanks to the Mellon Foundation — in approaching monuments and memorials “in an effort to better reflect the nation’s diversity and highlight buried or marginalized stories.” If such inclusive re-thinks create a new template for civic statues, can similar soul searching and action also be mirrored in the arts communities? Can cultural institutions take in a vastly different post-pandemic world and fundamentally change?

After all, some major cities have adapted and transformed themselves in significant ways, large and small. Of course, it begs the question raised in a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic regarding how cities are being re-imagined: “Will this pandemic, like those before it, inspire a new blueprint for urban planning? Or will it drive people away from cities for good?” It’s something no doubt arts leaders are grappling with as well.

Perhaps the best advice for all is to just listen: to outside voices, to critics, to artists and to audiences. It’s especially vital going forward in terms of the issues of diversity, equality and inclusion.

There have been many compelling ideas calling for creative, structural and systemic change over these past months that collectively, it amounts to a virtual think tank for the arts.

Cultural leaders would be wise to take advantage of the wealth of data and imaginative proposals. “It’s worth noting that the American theater has remade itself during disaster before,” says a compelling piece in The New York Times. “The Depression led to a flourishing of socially conscious (and often government funded) drama that produced a golden age of playwriting. In the aftermath of World War II, the regional theater movement arose to make the art form more responsive to local audiences and less fixated on profit.”

And an exciting post-pandemic re-boot of theaters and museums could be just the compelling draw for hesitating audiences, old and new.

It could be appealing for funders, too. Take an article earlier this month in which addresses how institutions are facing a new generation of donors that is increasingly disinterested in culture. New models of arts philanthropy that will appeal to the values and priorities of new generations must be created, writes Melissa Cowley Wolf, and she has some suggestions how — but they involve some significant shifts in approaches.

It’s already clear that one previously unexplored new road is becoming an expressway of possibilities: on-line engagements, with its deeper connections with audiences, new creations from artists, and potential revenue streams for managers. “For decades, artists have been working out how computers and social-media operate onstage, but it wasn’t as if theater needed the internet for survival,” writes Helen Shaw in New York magazine. “That’s changed. The gazelle of remote performance just took a little leap.”

Or perhaps a major one, writes Gordon Cox in Variety: “As the theater’s biggest commercial motor Broadway has languished, resourceful artists and producers are making work that incorporates video, gaming and interactivity into hybridized digital-theater forms that, rather than serving as mere stopgaps, stand poised to endure even after the return of theater as we knew it.”

Not enough excitement for the future? How about reimagining existing physical spaces, too? The Artnewspaper revisions museums with “bigger galleries, a stronger connection to the outdoors and an end to the expansion juggernaut.”

Big ideas can come from the civic community, too, and can have major implications for the arts. In Seattle, it’s about creating arts and cultural spaces. “The city is taking the rare step of creating a “mission-driven” real estate development company so that it can create, purchase, manage and lease property for arts and cultural spaces — which could include a wide range of venues and organizations, including galleries, bookstores, nonprofit dance companies and cultural community centers.”

Has there ever been in such a short amount of time so many bold, innovative, inclusive ideas, plans and proposals? Artists, audiences and funders have high expectations that out of a year of pain and sacrifice something truly transformative will emerge.

— Frank Rizzo


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