COVID-19 and the Arts: A Word from Wisconsin

Photo Credit: Used with permission

As the COVID-19 “Stay Home/Stay Safe” orders continue throughout most of the nation, I thought it would be important to share with the readers of Arts & Culture Connections the insights and experiences of the Champions of the Arts working on the front lines of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access (EDI&A). This week, I’m sharing a newsletter post from Edward Holmes, Ph.D., who is the Senior Vice President of Equity and Innovation at the Overture Center of the Arts in Madison, WI.

During an interview I conducted with Dr. Holmes last year, he shared his innovative approach to community engagement, in which he utilized his executive position to initiate unique programming. Most important, during that interview, Dr. Holmes stressed the importance of relationships. He is renowned in the Madison community for his one-on-one approach to building partnerships and maintaining deep community roots.

I sought permission to share this information with you because I believe Dr. Holmes’s newsletter provides a broad overview of the vast array of issues that warrant important consideration when developing Community Engagement programs. As you will read, providing access to the arts can never be separated from the daily life matters that our prospective audiences face; matters that are most often compounded by current and historic Equity, Diversity and Inclusion issues.

Equity & Innovation Update
from Ed Holmes, Ph.D.
SR V.P., Equity and Innovation
Overture Center for the Arts

 I am heartened by the countless acts of kindness and goodness, the stories of goodwill and selfless heroic acts by health care professionals on the front lines. I am inspired by those who have provided food for people who have nothing to eat and are the lacking basic necessities to make it from one day to the next, the grocery store clerks who keep the shelves stocked and the cashiers who keep the lines moving. Kudos to the caretakers in our assisted living centers who care for our seniors, some the most vulnerable members of our community. Thanks to everyone who has made a difference and buoyed our spirits in these most challenging times.

These images promote the preservation of our humanity by demonstrating that in the face of extreme adversity, many individuals voluntarily step up to help others. This speaks to who we are as people and how we can come together for the greater good. It speaks to our ingenuity, work ethic, creativity, innovation, dedication and determination to do what is right. It speaks to the human spirit and resilience we have displayed in the midst of the worst global pandemic in modern history.

Conversely, I am saddened, but not surprised, that (the state of Wisconsin) leads the nation in the disproportionate deaths of African Americans due to COVID-19, just as (the state) leads the nation in the number of African American men incarcerated, as documented in Keith McQuirter’s documentary “53206,” chronicling the lives of black men next door in Milwaukee, which has the highest incarceration rate in the country. If we thought disproportionality in mortality rates related to the COVID-19 health crisis would look any different, then we were sadly mistaken.

What does this have to do with Overture Center? I was hired nearly four years ago because of the stark disparities we find in all quality of life indicators in Madison and across the county: access to quality health care, high unemployment rates, education and housing for African Americans and other historically marginalized groups. These factors mirror the reason there are disproportionalities in the COVID-19 pandemic mortality rate among African-Americans and other people of color. It shines a spotlight on the fact that while progress has been made, we are not nearly there yet. Much work must still be done.

The challenge is to use the same selfless commitment we have during the global pandemic to address these and other disparities. We can’t wait for the next global crisis to fuel us into action. We need to be thoughtful, creative and innovative as we move forward with our work around equity, diversity and inclusion. We must mindfully adapt to a new way of thinking to create safe community relationships and connections, using what we have learned.

When we do this, we will see new models emerge, making us better than before. We will begin to frame the thinking around what the new normal looks like for generations to come. Being mindful of this experience is preparing us for challenges that don’t yet exist. Hopefully, this changes our way of thinking, so we are more well-prepared and will have safer outcomes for everyone when we face the next challenge. In order to achieve this goal, we have to do away with partisan politics and find ways to put people first in all we do.

We find ourselves at a critical juncture, with a tough decision just ahead of us about when and how we reopen our state and the nation. This health crisis is designed to test our patience, tolerance and internal fortitude. Now more than ever, we must find ways to encourage ourselves and our loved ones as we continue to navigate this pandemic, practicing good habits of social distancing, constant handwashing and staying “safer at home”.

Finally, we must find ways to stay positive and make the best of a difficult situation, until we can come together again and experience the joy of live performance and art. Though it may be different, I am hopeful it will be okay. It gives me something to look forward to, and I hope it does the same for you.


I am grateful to Dr. Holmes for the challenge he has given us to plan now “to put people first” as we make reopening plans; plans for building/re-building community relationships and connections that will help our audiences stay safe, connected as they access the arts. This is a daunting challenge for each of us. But with patience and the spirit to persevere, we can once again offer our audiences the “joy of live performance and art.”

As always, I welcome your feedback and comments below. Stay safe!

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