As the New Year began, 2020 was being heralded as the decade of clear vision. But barely two weeks in, the fate of the world has never been more clouded by darkness—from the brink of war in the Middle East and climate-fueled fires in Australia, to the world of chaos on Capitol Hill and the violence in urban centers throughout America. What should we, as artists and arts administrators, be thinking about and doing at this time?
The late Nobel Laureate and literary giant Toni Morrison gave us all very clear instructions in her 2015 essay published in honor of The Nation Magazine’s 150th Anniversary. Written with foresight long before we knew who would win the 2016 Presidential election, Ms. Morrison peered far into the future and sent us all back a profoundly prophetic message and a call to arms:
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, and no room for fear…”
During these turbulent times, the arts play a critical role in bringing unity, humanism and compassion to our communities, especially to those areas with limited access to the arts. We do it through stories that honor history and truth. We do it through pictures—drawn, painted and photographed—that allow others to see the world around them, as well their place in it. We do it with our hands when we make pots from the earth for serving food or blankets from thread to warm beds. We do it through dance and movements that are the storehouse of legacy, as well as the steps towards the future. We do it through music and the scores of notes that express the feelings for which we have no words.
As artists and arts administrators these times require that we be purposeful in every aspect of our work and step into our mission as vision keepers and makers of peace, as we’ve done throughout history. Or perhaps you’ve had your own transcendent experience with the arts?
I had mine in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001. I was working as the Director of Marketing and Audience Development for George C. Wolfe and the Public Theater. The Public is located below 14th Street, an area that was cordoned off following the attack on the World Trade Center, and we could not work for two weeks.
When we finally returned, we were all struggling with our roles as artists, performers and arts administrators. We wondered: Should we perform? Would it be disrespectful in the light of this inconceivable tragedy that killed thousands of people? George compassionately guided us through our shock and disbelief, and we all agreed to forge ahead with our programs. My team was producing the monthly “Free at Three” event, which was an hour performance, reading, or panel discussion. We already had scheduled for that day an afternoon of poetry, featuring the nation’s poet laureate at the time, Rita Dove.
The room was jam packed with all kinds of people—diverse ages and ethnicities. As Ms. Dove recited her poetry, I looked around the room and saw so many of the audience members with their eyes closed, their faces uplifted as if to receive the warm and soothing light of her words. I do not recall the specific poems she recited. But I do know, at that moment, I witnessed and experienced the healing power of the arts. Ms. Dove’s poetry was the calming, reassuring and reaffirming message that we could and would get through one of the greatest tragedies of our time. Her poetry allowed us to bask in a few moments of hope.
Once again, the world needs many more moments of hope. During these turbulent times, I urge you to consider how your work, whether behind the scenes or on the stage, can make a difference to someone else; can contribute to forging a peaceful society from the debris being strewn around us; can be the catalyst for a culture of peace.
With open minds and hopeful hearts, let’s fearlessly ensure access to the arts to those communities most in need of solace, peace, justice and hope, and create an arts-filled landscape that sustains or comforts all,
As always, I value what you think. Please share your comments below or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org