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Performing Artists Prepare for a Fresh Start Under a New Administration

January 18, 2021

As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prepare for their inauguration, the leaders of the Bay Area’s performing arts community have a dual message for the incoming administration.

We need help. And we can help.

In a series of interviews, area arts administrators were overflowing with ideas regarding the types of assistance they hope to receive from the federal government, from grants with fewer strings attached to a welcome-back-to-the-theater marketing campaign.

Many also see this moment as an opportunity to move the arts from the periphery to the center of the national conversation. The arts, they argue, can play an enormously positive role in reestablishing a sense of community, shared purpose, and national unity in the wake of a uniquely difficult period in our history. They want the federal government to understand that and champion it.

“There is a unique and beautiful ecosystem of the arts across the country. This is an opportunity to mobilize and leverage it in service of the nation’s regeneration,” said Deborah Cullinan, chief executive officer of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

“We have a lot to offer. We deeply understand what it means to gather people, and we’re really good at it. We’re able to think a lot about how we might help people to regain trust in one another and the government,” said Cullinan. It’s a skill, she notes, that will come in handy in convincing skeptics to get vaccinated.

“Creating federal-level policies and programs to harness the collective power of the arts, and developing a forward-looking national cultural policy that recognizes the rich diversity of cultural experience in America, would have huge impacts on the re-energizing of the country after this time of fractured isolation,” agreed San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock. “The arts heal division, uplift communities, and connect people in shared awareness of humanity.”

“Art and music encourage dialogue, foster human connections, and stimulate economies,” added David Finckel and Wu Han, artistic directors of [email protected] “We hope the new administration recognizes the importance of arts and culture, and finds new ways to bolster the artistic community so we can do our work, and let the healing of the human spirit begin, after this pandemic is over.”

However self-evident to arts lovers, these sentiments are seldom incorporated into public policy. The pandemic recovery offers a chance to change that, given the enormity of the task facing the new administration, and the appreciation its leaders have for cultural activity. (Biden is a lover of Irish poetry, while Harris was in her high-school dance troupe.)

But that will require the arts having a strong voice in the policymaking process.

“There has been some renewed talk of potentially establishing a cabinet-level Secretary of Arts and Culture, which would be an enormous step forward in recognizing the importance and impact of the arts at a federal level,” noted Mark C. Hanson, chief executive officer of the San Francisco Symphony.

Another alternative would be creating an “arts czar,” along the lines of the “climate czar” position Biden created for former Secretary of State John Kerry. “One of the best ideas I’ve heard is to put this position, or set of positions, inside the domestic policy council,” said Cullinan. “I think that’s super-savvy.”

In terms of immediate assistance, the administrators were unanimous in support of a radical, if perhaps temporary, shift in the National Endowment for the Arts’ grant-giving process. Traditionally, the NEA gives money to organizations for specific projects, such as a production that addresses a specific social issue, or a community-outreach initiative.

These can be very helpful, but they don’t matter if the company can’t keep its doors open, or its staff employed.

“The funding we typically receive from the NEA is to support music education programs,” said Jim Tibbs, executive director of the Berkeley Symphony. “It would be wonderful to receive that funding as general operating support, so we have more flexibility in terms of how those resources are deployed.”

“General operating support would be really helpful,” agreed Smuin Ballet Artistic Director Celia Fushille. “What we need is practical. We’re full of beautiful creative ideas. We’re dying for the opportunity to share them.”

The NEA did move in that direction last year. On July 1, it announced that 855 organizations would receive a total of $44.5 million to support staff salaries, fees for artists, or contractual personnel, and facilities costs. Opera San José received a $50,000 grant as part of that outlay. The money was very welcome, according to General Director Khori Dastoor, especially since the city of San José had just been forced to drastically slash its grant to the company.

Those funds came from the original stimulus package that Congress passed early in the pandemic. The more recent stimulus bill, passed in December, includes $15 billion earmarked for music venues and performing arts organizations; Dastoor and her colleagues are awaiting word on how it will be distributed.

In addition, the NEA announced in November that companies can redirect certain already-allocated grant funds to pay for pandemic-related needs, including “disposable masks for patrons, added cleaning supplies, or temporary barriers to facilitate social distancing during your project.” However, it warns this loosening of the rules “does not include permanent renovation of facilities” — a need that will have to be met, since improvements such as state-of-the-art air filtering systems could be an important way to convince patrons it’s safe to return.

“There’s fear out there,” Fushille said. “People will be afraid of sitting with others in an enclosed space for two hours.”

“Funding support for infrastructure improvements will be invaluable, but the needs are actually more fundamental,” added Shilvock. “One of the huge challenges is the lack of coordinated knowledge and guidelines for organizations. Every organization (or, if coordinated, every city) is having to determine appropriate safety standards, testing protocols, ventilation standards, front of house policies, seating layouts, etc.

“While organizations are coordinating information very openly, there is a huge need for federal-level guidance that will allow organizations to start performing, and audiences to start attending with confidence. A federal-level cultural czar would help this immensely.”

A national marketing campaign — something along the lines of ‘Support your local arts organization’ or ‘It’s safe to go back to the theater’ — could also help. “Getting people comfortable to go back into the theater will be a major communications task,” said Tibbs. “It would be wonderful if there would be federal support for that.”

Opera San José’s Dastoor agrees, worrying that the stigma surrounding gathering in large groups “is going to stay with us for a very long time.” But she adds there has been an upside to the pandemic-caused disruption: Companies have found creative ways to connect with their patrons, such as livestreaming performances. She envisions these continuing even after the theaters reopen.

“We did a production in October, and I think the story was better told in an intimate way than it would have been in the opera house,” she said. “I’m looking forward to the diversity of programming ahead of me. There will be opportunities for both grand-scale productions, and more intimate, personal storytelling with the human voice. Those could be successfully delivered digitally.”

Of course, creating online art requires money; Fushille recalls getting a quote for $15,000 to make a seven-minute dance video. Dastoor was fortunate enough to recently receive a private grant for digital cameras, but she would love funding to allow her to collect and analyze data on her potential patrons, including the many people who discovered Opera San José via the Internet over the past year. Who are these people she calls the “online arts-curious”? How can she serve them? Federal money could help her find out.

The administrators also offered a simple, fun way Biden and Harris could support the arts: Bring back performances to the White House, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda previewing his work-in-progress Hamilton for the Obamas, or Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach for the Bartlets on “The West Wing.”

“The president and vice-president can simply lead the way by their attendance and engagement with the arts,” said Ara Guzelimian, artistic and executive director of Ojai Music Festival. “That’s a very powerful statement that’s been common to most administrations in the past, regardless of ideology.”

“Knowing that the president values culture, celebrates culture, recognizes culture, whether through inviting artists to the White House, attending cultural events, or empowering the arts through strong cultural policies — all of these activities underscore the vitality that the arts bring to the country,” agreed Shilvock.

Reconstituting such concerts would also be “an opportunity for the White House to reshape national opinion about what the ‘high arts’ are and can be,” added Hanson. “There is tremendous opportunity for the White House to use their prominent world stage to showcase and lift up a wide variety of voices that make up the arts community in our country.

“This pandemic has illuminated unexpected areas of opportunity in countless ways,” he said. “If increased recognition and support for the arts and artists from the highest levels of government can be one outcome, that would be a lasting, positive legacy.”

Tom Jacobs is a former senior staff writer for Santa Barbara-based Pacific Standard magazine, and a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Daily News and Santa Barbara News-Press. He tracks and analyzes trends in the arts and social sciences, with an emphasis on psychology, the role of culture and the cultivation of creativity. A native of Chicago, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University.