May 5, 2020; New York Times and American Theatre
The Central Puget Sound region’s Arts Fund is forging ahead to provide about twice what it would usually distribute to local Washington arts groups this year, and two months early:
“This is not business as usual. In a typical year, ArtsFund makes grant decisions in late June, with grant totals based on the outcomes of its annual fundraising campaign,” said Susan M. Coliton, ArtsFund Interim President & CEO, in a statement. “With the unanticipated, immediate, and devastating impacts of the pandemic on arts nonprofits, we expedited our annual grants process to meet the escalating need. We also established an Arts Emergency Relief Fund to provide emergency grants to help arts organizations maintain core functions and core staff so they are able to reopen when possible. Both of these funding efforts are central to ArtsFund’s mission to strengthen community through support of the arts.”
A little less than half of the $4,831,100 to be distributed was expected—though in late June—as regular yearly operating grants, much as it has for the last half century. The rest will go out as emergency support payments to help arts groups struggling to adjust to the disrupted landscape. Small disbursements of $5,000 to $75,000 will go to eighty local nonprofits. A second round of emergency grantmaking is also planned.
Still, all this extra effort and cash fades a bit when compared to the locale’s up-to-date condition report, which projects a loss of around $135 million in fiscal year 2020 and notes that almost 5,000 employees have been laid off or furloughed, even if more half were seasonal or contractual staff. Thus, we see one more philanthropic body going above and beyond, but it’s attempting to address a gap that’s ten times larger than the dollars available. Plus, will the arts come back as they were previously, or will something in our cultural preferences have changed during this period? Will the market or donors change in ways we could not have imagined before the pandemic? So many questions, even if we just improbably bounced up and simply tried to carry on as previously.
Even performance and rehearsal venues are not secure. Alex Marshall of the New York Times reports that in Europe, spirited disagreement exists in and among some arts organizations about whether or not it was possible to even rehearse while following social distance guidelines, never mind banking on performing in front of a live audience anytime soon. This doesn’t just affect the actors and musicians, but also the audiences, who must observe the need to maintain distance.
The idea of working under such conditions was “completely cuckoo,” Martin Kusej, the artistic director of the prestigious Burgtheater playhouse in Vienna, told the country’s news agency shortly after the rules were announced. Heike Warmuth, a spokeswoman for the Austrian Culture Ministry, said in an email that the rehearsal rules were being reviewed and that officials had met with theater administrators to discuss them, but medical caution has to take precedence.
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One story exhibits the extent to which some are trying to adapt and even use the moment to press an artistic point.
Milo Rau, the Swiss “enfant terrible” who is the artistic director of the NTGent theater in Belgium, said in a telephone interview that he planned to start rehearsals on May 18 for a one-woman show that is still scheduled to have its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in August. (The festival has said it will announce whether the event can take place by May 30.)
Those rehearsals would involve only him, the actress Ursina Lardi and a dramaturge, he said. “Of course, I had plans to have a huge set design and stuff, but I’m reducing that now,” he said. “That’s not possible, so I don’t do it.”
Rau has long called for theaters to move away from staging huge productions in grand 19th-century buildings and instead perform in settings ranging from city streets to war zones. He said that theaters should use this moment to experiment, rather than simply demanding to act as before. In the 1980s, directors in Belgium reacted to funding cuts by staging minimalist works in unusual locations, Rau added: “They made corona theater then. They didn’t wait for the moment they could have a big revolving stage and 500 actors in fat suits.”
But, naturally, there are some who would rather not change to such an extent. Herbert Föttinger, the artistic director of the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna, says it is unacceptable to be backed into only doing one-man or one-woman shows: “If we don’t find a way to enable rehearsals in an artistically meaningful way, theater will have to be declared dead for the long term,” Föttinger says. Or, at least, “until a vaccine is found.”
There is much more to say about this subject; some of it, we revisit here and here, where we surface the issue of federal funding for a WPA-type program that would help keep artists and the arts alive during this historic moment. All of this is to say that the arts, having been hit hard by the last recession, are once again in an era of extended uncertainty. But we can be sure that the artists themselves will adapt in ways that reflect the lives we are collectively living—and growing—into.—Ruth McCambridge