• Cindy Sadler

A Clean Slate: The Importance of Connection and Community in Rebuilding and Reopening the Arts

By Cindy Sadler

The pandemic has taken a mental and physical toll, but it has also contributed to significant growth in digital classical music consumers. Opera America presents new research showing some surprising statistics and a historic opportunity to build a more diverse and inclusive industry.


On January 13, Opera America made a grand entrance into 2021 with its first webinar of the season, Reopening and Recovery. The panel featured nine speakers, including three men and six women, three of whom are people of color. Moderated by Opera America President Mark Scorca and Alejandra Valarino Boyer, Director of Programs and Partnerships at Seattle Opera, the guest speakers addressed audience trends during COVID and projections for the future. The panelists then discussed the importance of arts organizations as healing and comforting forces in their communities and the vital need to make strides in diversity, inclusion, and equity as opera companies begin rebuilding.


In a moving introduction, Scorca offered a land acknowledgement, recognizing that he spoke from former hunting grounds shared by the Western Abenaki and Mohican indigenous peoples. He then invited listeners to follow suit in the comments, and many did, as did several of the panelists. Land acknowledgment is a traditional practice of indigenous peoples and familiar in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. It is not yet common in the US, except on tribal grounds. Given the panel discussion that followed, it was an auspicious way to begin.


WHO ARE OUR POST-COVID AUDIENCES AND WHAT DO THEY WANT?


Scorca interviewed Dr. Jen Benoit-Bryan of the Chicago-based firm Slover-Linnett Audience Research on the impact of COVID on arts audiences. She reported that the psychological makeup of the general public under COVID has changed from pre-crisis days, as reported by frequent studies on the mental and physical impacts of the pandemic. Referencing a CDC study performed every two weeks, Benoit-Bryan noted, “We’ve seen a fairly steady increase in anxiety and depression in the general population…from about 30% back in March and April at the beginning of the crisis to about 37% in December. As the virus has increased and the circle of people directly affected has widened, the psychological impact has grown.”


Scorca and Benoit-Bryan continued with a discussion of how audiences have responded to the pandemic. In 2001, Slover-Linett collaborated with New York-based arts marketing firm LaPlaca Cohen to create Culture Track, a study of audience behavior that evolved into an ongoing survey and resource of cultural data.


The latest Culture Track update, from March-April 2020, reports a significant increase in digital participation. Over half of the general public – average Americans who do not normally consume arts and culture – have participated in some arts or culture-related digital content. As an example, Benoit-Bryant observed that “over a third of the consumers of digital classical music surveyed had not attended a live event in 2019” and “digital theatre consumers increased by 42% and dance by 55%.”


According to Benoit-Bryan, that third of new digital classical music consumers is much more diverse than the typical classical audience, especially along income and racial lines. New digital classical consumers are “seven times more likely to be Black or African-American than the audience members who attended both live and digital events.”


Scorca pointed out the challenge to retain audiences of “self-curated and inexpensive” digital content as theatres re-open. According to Benoit-Bryan, the second wave of Culture Track research coming this spring would explore new digital audience retention. She added that “arts organizations should rethink the primacy of in-person offerings over digital” and that “digital productions should not be relegated to the status of a stepping stone or stopgap. The two platforms tend to serve different audiences.”


Benoit-Bryan suggested embracing a "yes, and" philosophy for producing art, although she acknowledged challenges to attempting both digital and in-person performances, including the expense.


She reported that the Culture Track team is encouraged by the surprising new discoveries surrounding racial and ethnic data points. The team is interested in understanding how to create arts programming with greater relevancy, diversity, and an equitable framework to retain these new audiences and deepen their engagement with classical art forms.


(The full report and representative profiles are available on the Slover Linnett website.)

THE ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF ARTS ORGANIZATIONS

In the final segment, a variety of opera company administrators facilitated by Alejandra Valarino Boyer spoke on the role of arts organizations in civic recovery and healing from the pandemic and political turmoil. Common themes included the overwhelming need for substantive action towards creating diversity, inclusion, and equity in opera companies and the art form, including addressing opera's roots in Western colonialism, racism, and misogyny; service to our communities, particularly under-resourced and nontraditional opera participants; and the crucial need to build relationships by listening to these communities and responding to their needs and desires in place of imposing programming upon them.


Kristina Newman-Scott is President of BRIC, a Brooklyn-based visual and performing arts organization dedicated to serving communities that, in her words, "deserve and require more investment." Invoking the January 6 attack on the Capitol, she observed, “We witnessed the physical and violent manifestation of the enduring institution of white supremacy in this country. On the other hand, the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on Black, indigenous, brown, and Latinx communities has further deepened the divide and inequity that is representative of this system.” (An August 2020 report published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology acknowledged that “A disturbing trend is that Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color (BIPOC) are disproportionately contracting coronavirus, as well as dying from COVID-19.” It goes on to note that “the pandemic has the potential to entrench and magnify existing health disparities and families marginalized across multiple demographic intersections such as race/ethnicity, class, immigration status, are especially vulnerable. These inequities have been further underscored by the recent murders of Black Americans by police and a resulting spotlight on racial injustice in the United States.”)

In their mission to present bold work to diverse audiences, Newman-Scott and her staff find their post-pandemic path in a reaffirmation and recommitment to their raison d'etre. “I believe this is the key: investing in our communities so that they may thrive allows us to build, and build anew, and not destroy,” she said.


Stephanie Ybarra, the Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage, sees arts as a microcosm of society and accountability as a vital piece of recovery and re-opening. “Acknowledgement of the centuries of harm, violence, and erasure that infuse and underpin the work of our collective organizations must be addressed with rigorous pursuit,” she said.


Rebecca Hass, Director of Public engagement at Pacific Opera Victoria and a Métis Nation member, offered a greeting in her native tongue. She spoke of the arts as a "brilliant catalyst" for bringing people together, emphasizing the importance of relationship-building and strengthening communal bonds.


Lauren Medici, Director of Engagement Programs at Opera Omaha, asserted that administrators can and should use opera as a tool to become creative and artistic resources and facilitators to the community. Rather than evangelizing for existing opera programming, Medici suggested that her colleagues take note of Opera Omaha's Holland Opera Fellowship. There, artists build relationships with various communities such as incarcerated youth, the homeless, and the elderly, listen to them, and collaboratively develop programming based on their needs. Post-pandemic, creating ways for people to access and co-create joy, she said, is a path to healing. The arts can help form meaningful connections. It is critical to remain flexible and responsive to provide comfortable, accessible ways for individuals and communities to reconnect and involve the organization at every level in rethinking "how things have always been done" to achieve these goals.


Timothy O'Leary, General Director of Washington National Opera and Board Chair of OPERA America, said that his definition of opera has developed during the pandemic. It acknowledges its history, including colonialism, racism, sexism, and struggles, which have collectively contributed to society's current inequity and division. "Healing, I think, will only be possible through a deep reckoning with the truth…reckoning with the truth depends on which stories we tell, how we tell them, who performs, who produces, who writes, who listens, and how," he said, adding that we now have a "great opportunity" to address opera's roots in Western colonialism by "telling the truth."


In the webinar's final segment, Boyer moderated a discussion of best practices for re-opening and changing opera culture.


According to Stephanie Ybarra, Baltimore Center Stage, preparing for in-person performances in April, is focused on duty of care. Physical safety is paramount, but sensitivity to programming decisions, marketing, and relationship-building with a traumatized community, as well as attention to inclusivity, are equal priorities. Relationships, she said, begin small, one on one, and grow to include the whole organization and community.


Rebecca Newman-Scott acknowledged that safety means different things to different people. At BRIC, her Brooklyn-based community arts and media organization, leadership started by speaking and listening to the staff about their definition of safety, their needs, and their most urgent priorities. Newman said that fear is a barrier to feeling loved or included, and with that in mind, BRIC made special efforts to keep all staff employed throughout the shutdown. The team needed to understand that they were more valuable than their labor. With their staff supported, BRIC could then go out and support the community. As a result, they developed a program to provide three daily hours of educational content to 500,000 digitally disadvantaged Brooklyn households.

Lauren Medici acknowledged that while opera companies cannot provide communities food, clothing, and housing, they can help by partnering with the organizations that most successfully meet these basic needs. For example, an emergency women's shelter told Opera Omaha that they needed for their clients to gather, know they can form relationships, and gain soft skills. The Holland Fellows responded by offering weekly workshops that helped develop these qualities by facilitating the women in accessing their creativity through opera. The artists also provide a trustworthy, validating presence in the lives of their clients. "We don't underestimate the value of relationship at any level," said Medici.


Timothy O'Leary was General Director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis during the 2014 riots after police killed Black teenager Michael Brown. After conferring with community partners, he decided that the opera could best contribute by helping to form a coalition of arts organizations to perform and raise money for a scholarship fund at Michael Brown's high school. Although the gesture was small, O'Leary said that the opera's participation was an important symbol of support.


In light of significantly higher COVID infection and death rates among BIPOC communities, Rebecca Hass chose to limit engagement with Victoria, BC- area indigenous communities to sharing DVDs and live streams. The pandemic has been especially frightening for First Nations peoples because of the extremely high value they place on their vulnerable elders. Hass felt it would be disrespectful and colonial to press discussion of live performances when the communities are locked down and fearful. "The measurement of success needs to shift," she said. By listening and deepening her relationships with the indigenous communities, she feels she will be better able to provide what is requested and needed when ready. Asked about what changes she thought opera organizations need to make to rebound from the pandemic, Hass warned that change would be exhilarating but also painful. It will require action and unlearning of old ways of thinking and acting. "Stop talking about art populations, especially those that are Black and brown, as a deficit, and stop feeding into a narrative and a language … that talks about people that way," she said, pointing out that often-used terms like "underserved," "underinvested," or "minority" are negative and position these communities as "less than," Hass said that opera organizations need to view community members who do not frequent opera houses as deserving of and requiring investment. Opera companies must, she said, recognize the potential of these communities to amplify and enrich opera instead of viewing them as needing education and encouragement to be able to participate.


Medici observed that opera is due for a significant re-centering of perspective, specifically, its snobbery. "We can't value a traditional patron's experience in an opera house in a classical opera setting as better than someone who's attending a workshop in a homeless shelter. They both had a transformative experience," she said. "We need to stop judging how and where people come to opera in relation to our own experiences. It's not better to hear opera in an opera house than in a homeless shelter."

She spoke about how opera organizations need to meet their communities where they live, especially under-resourced communities. Many people aren't initially comfortable coming to the opera house, so companies need to go to them in a way that makes them comfortable. That may mean co-creating and cultivating greater flexibility, Medici pointed out.


O'Leary added that the most remarkable opera performance he ever saw was a 20-minute version of The Pirates of Penzance given in a juvenile detention facility; it was so transformative for the students and their social worker. He finds that the opera's traditional rules of conduct don't work because different cultures have different concepts of etiquette, and time-honored conventions often have the effect of excluding those who don't conform. Retraining traditional audiences to be a positive part of the experience of new audience members is critical.


Hass encourages opera organizations to release the idea that the only thing they have to offer is a performance, singer, or music. She urges them to consider the individual's interests first to help connect with them. She cited as an example a native youth connected to set-building, makeup, and costumes through his interest in building his national regalia.


Ybarra added that arts organizations need to release more content rooted in personal narratives, including the stories arts workers tell themselves about how transformative their work is. They need to be cautious of embedded assumptions in their stories terminology to avoid "othering" and falling into white saviorism or colonialism. "Stop qualifying the person or group of people," she said. "Stop believing the handed-down narrative that our art has any value beyond us." She added that she reviews her programming daily for unintended negative consequences related to producing it. It helps her to mitigate possible pain points.


Mark Scorca wrapped up the session by quoting Doug McClennan, founder and editor of ArtsJournal and a speaker at the 2020 Opera America convention: "The hardest thing about change is undoing what came before. "


"COVID has erased the chalkboard," Scorca concluded in summation. "So much has been erased, or at least interrupted… With the chalkboard erased, how do we begin to write on it again? Do we begin to write on it again with habitual behavior from the past, or with new words, new language, and new partners?"




Cindy Sadler is an operatic contralto, arts administrator, stage director, writer, educator, and arts advocate whose mission is to improve and innovate the opera experience for artists and audiences through her work. Find out more at www.CindySadler.com.

Learn More:


Opera America webinar: Reopening and Recovery


Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledge


New Yorker: 'Canada's Impossible Acknowledgment'


Boston Lyric Opera : Health Task Force for Opera Artists


Erin Bromage: The Risks- Know Them- Avoid Them


sloverlinett: Audience Research and Evaluation. 'Centering the Picture: the Role of Race and Ethnicity in Cultural Engagement


CultureTrack.Com: Culture + Community in a Time of Crisis


LaPlaca Cohen


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