Even prior to the pandemic, the arts sector was grappling with enormous challenges: social justice, systemic racism, changing consumer behaviors, and climate change, among others. Yet, after the industry was shut-down by COVID-19, another issue was revealed underneath the waves: the method of delivery. In a time where gatherings are restricted, a sector which relies upon that very activity has had to reimagine its approach to delivering performances and art, while addressing other challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. This new approach sees arts organizations decentralizing, and for the first time, reimagining their roles in service to their communities.
At the Music Center of Los Angeles County, Rachel Moore, CEO, is not only changing the delivery systems but also the stories being told. Quoting Chimamanda Adiche, Moore agrees: “The danger of a single story is not that it is untrue, but that it is incomplete.” Moore finds that it is incumbent upon arts organizations to expand programmatic material by following the “Yes and” philosophy. The Music Center is now embracing an approach where they co-create new work with community artists alongside traditional programming. By partnering with fifteen local arts organizations in Los Angeles, the Music Center plans to collaboratively create new and socially-distant performances that represent the citizens of Los Angeles County. With these new works existing side-by-side with the Music Center’s usual slate, Moore hopes that this sort of innovative programming can breathe new life into performing arts centers (PACs).
Moore still has concerns, however. She expresses anxiety over myopic programming, and programming which does not embrace the new world that PACs will enter post-COVID. She stresses that, for producing companies, there should be no going back to the old models. The commitments to social justice demonstrate that performing arts centers should lean into their civic identities even more.
The Music Center is currently engaged with its county government to figure out how it can help the PAC do its work better, specifically in the areas of education, wellness, and service to the community. The PAC served as a polling station for the November 2020 election, and had Moore gotten her way, it might have even been a center for giving out vaccines for the coronavirus. This new framework for the role of the Music Center was built with decentralizing and collaboration in mind. By hiring Josephine Ramirez, the Music Center brought in a seasoned veteran artistic leader who sees programming through an engagement lens. Working with community and local artistic partners, the Music Center now plans to utilize its large, outdoor spaces, Grant Park and Jerry Moss Plaza, to co-create work that is publicly accessible, socially-distant, and free or low-cost to the greater community of Los Angeles County.
For Moore, co-creating with local arts organizations deepens the Music Center’s relationships with diverse artists and audiences. It also provides a larger platform for new stories and new performances to be seen by more people. The Moss Plaza, for instance, can comfortably accommodate 5,000 individuals. Weather permitting, these outdoor performances could also be streamed online for those who cannot travel to the park. Programming alongside those local co-created performances would be internationally and nationally known companies like Alvin Ailey and American Ballet Theatre. This juxtaposition in programming would make the series more financially viable.
Co-creation and community collaboration have also invited new inspirations. At Omaha Performing Arts (OPA), Joan Squires, CEO, considers the center not just a cultural anchor, but a “collaborative anchor.” She has turned her attention locally, looking first to prioritize the work being done by local artists and creating a committee of community stakeholders that helps develop the programming in all its venues – including its outdoor space on the green lawn next to the Holland Center.
But OPA is also decentralizing its organization structure too. “We were a start-up organization not too many years ago. I feel like we’re in that messy collaborative effort now, and that’s what it’s going to be going forward,” Squires remarks.
Omaha furloughed members of its team, challenging the remaining individuals to work cross-departmentally with nimbleness and creativity. Retiring old structures and processes have highlighted the importance of collaboration and shown that older hierarchies can prevent ingenuity and innovation. Indeed, revamping organizational structure, including governance, and reimagining the methods of delivery require more collaboration both internally and externally.
Both Moore and Squires stress that the arts are key to getting through this crisis. Both have noted that philanthropic giving from corporations and foundations have waned as the economy slowed. Corporations are struggling to stay afloat, while foundations want to invest their dollars in different causes, which means turning away from the arts. “They don’t see the arts as a solution [to the crisis],” Moore remarks. But by decentralizing PACs and reimagining their role as in service to communities, Squires and Moore see that performing arts centers have great value. “The value of the arts is that we can heal communities and bring people together.” Moore states.
As we move forward through the long season of the pandemic – and a return to ‘live’ – the endurance and vitality of Omaha Performing Arts and the Music Center give us hope for arts organizations across the nation. By focusing on collaboration and community and decentralizing hierarchies, the arts sector can become more nimble, and come back with renewed strength and purpose.
Webinar summary written by former AMS Fellow Gregory Keng Strasser