June 7, 2022
Pandemic Lessons to Keep … and Toss
I was invited to speak at this year’s South Dakota Arts Conference, presented last month by Arts South Dakota and the South Dakota Arts Council. I was excited to join South Dakota Arts Council Executive Director Patrick Baker and Chair Mary Bordeaux at their first in-person convening since the pandemic. Following are my remarks.
Hello everyone. I’m honored to be here with you (in 3-D!) and welcome you to the South Dakota Arts Conference!
I’d like to begin my time with you with a moment of gratitude. I’m grateful for such a moving land acknowledgement and performance by the Stampede Singers. I’m also grateful that each of you is here. We’ve all spent so much time not sharing physical space during the past couple of years. It makes being together all the sweeter. I also have a lot of gratitude for yesterday, when I had the privilege of my very first South Dakota experience. I saw such beauty, and I was particularly struck by the Oglala Lakota Arts Center on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Even more beautiful than the facility physically is its power to transform lives and livelihoods, especially for artists. I’m so grateful to have seen it. Finally, I’d like to thank the wonderful folks who asked me to be with you today: Patrick Baker, executive director of the South Dakota Arts Council; Jim Speirs, executive director of Arts South Dakota; and South Dakota Arts Council Chair Mary Bordeaux, who is also a member of my board of directors. South Dakota is very capably and thoughtfully represented on the NASAA board, and it’s really our privilege that Mary gives of her time, talent and wisdom in national service.
Here we all are—over two years later, trying to navigate life and work through what we believe and hope is the other side, or the down side, of the pandemic. After far too much loss and heartbreak, inequities laid bare, racial reckonings, a deeper political divide and economic strife, we’re understandably weary. Perhaps weary is an understatement.
As we move into the space of what our next normal will be, as we think about what comes next, let’s embrace the idea that, if we choose to see it, we’ve learned some really important lessons about ourselves, home, our communities and our work. Like everyone, I’m thinking a lot about what’s next. I’m thinking about what I want to leave behind from before the pandemic. What shouldn’t I carry forward, because this is a great moment for a do-over. What should not return to normal? I’m also thinking about what this catastrophe has taught me about what I absolutely must carry forward. You may be thinking about this as well.
I plan to leave inertia behind. Inertia is that tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged. Doing nothing has never been my problem, but it’s certainly easy for many of us to be very comfortable with what doesn’t change. At our organization, inertia was manifested in not always questioning how we work. For example, I was comfortable commuting to work and seeing my team at NASAA each day; it was a joy and I was comfortable with how we worked together in the same physical space each day. Two years later, after necessarily being forced to work differently and separately, I learned so very much about shaking off some of our traditional ways of working in favor of a workstyle that’s more humane and more human-centered. Now we’re better centering the well-being of our team at NASAA, and our team is happier and gainfully taking good care of the state arts agencies we serve. So, I say, out with inertia—and in with challenging inertia and leaning in to change.
Earlier I mentioned that the pandemic laid bare inequities our society continues to face. When we look at lives lost as a result of the coronavirus, we see that Native Americans by far were disproportionately impacted; our Black and Latinx communities also suffered disproportionate losses of life. Inequities faced by too many people didn’t begin with the pandemic; the pandemic exacerbated those inequities and brought them into focus. I plan to leave inequity behind in my practice at NASAA. We must be able to ask the question of who we’re leaving behind in all aspects of our work. Who’s represented? Who is served? Internally and externally, across all our policies, practices and programs, are we being fair and equitable? How do we make the changes necessary to be able to answer these questions affirmatively? Although we’ve done some of this work, we’ll soon be engaging in it more holistically; we’re taking advantage of our opportunity to dive more deeply into the business of leaving inequity behind. We’ll definitely do our part at NASAA.
So, what might you leave behind from your prepandemic life? What practice or program or policy should not return to your prepandemic normal? What wasn’t working and what wasn’t working well enough perhaps don’t deserve space (or as much space) in your next normal.
I mentioned being just as focused on what to carry forward to the next normal. For a few moments, let’s reflect on what the arts community should carry forward from the pandemic era. I believe that many of us, from outside and from inside the arts community, experienced what the arts powerfully do for communities. The pandemic brought it into sharper focus. There are hundreds and possibly thousands of examples of what the arts did for society as we faced the pandemic.
Artists mobilized to help create healthy communities. We saw strategic partnerships between artists and public health professionals. Artists helped encourage vaccinations. Art installation sites were pop-up vaccine events. Art helped us all manage isolation. Artists and arts organizations swapped physical performance spaces for virtual ones and found creative ways to keep people connected while we were all so distraught from being kept physically apart.
You may recall some examples. Quarantine art clubs emerged virtually; singers came together to stream and record amazing music to connect us to each other and to our shared humanity. We saw deeply moving live streamed concerts and theatre, providing hope and helping us cope during dark days. And the beautiful proof that this was resonating was manifested as individuals and families across America joined in and produced and uploaded their own performances. There were some memorable ones! Beyond battling isolation, art also fueled social change, as it has always done so effectively across the ages. Arts workers did all this and more for communities, while artists, culture bearers and arts organizations themselves were suffering from the full force of the effects of the pandemic.
Art delivered the cathartic experiences we all needed these past two years. It helped us express the experience of isolation and loneliness. It connected us to each other when we were feeling deeply disconnected from each other. Whether through themes of hope, fun or creative activity, the arts helped us cope with the uncertainty of the times, helped us interpret the world around us and helped us lift up our better angels in response to social crises.
I share this to suggest that what the arts do for communities is incredibly powerful, it’s critical and it is irreplaceable. Communities need the arts in profound ways; the pandemic demonstrated this, and the arts community should absolutely own this. Own it. That’s why I’m carrying forward in my postpandemic life ownership of this idea. Communities fundamentally and to their core need the arts, and the arts respond in profound ways.
I’m also carrying forward ownership of the unique role of the arts to act as an economic catalyst in response to economic disasters—like COVID, and like Hurricane Katrina and other catastrophes that occurred before and since then. I’m from Louisiana, and I received some pretty intense on-the-job training about this issue during hurricane response.
Let’s consider the pandemic first. To rebound from an economic catastrophe of this magnitude, state and local governments have to be inventive; they have to be entrepreneurial. They need solutions attuned to communities large and small. They need options to nurture tiny microenterprises as well as big businesses. Policymakers have the chance to reseed the scorched earth left behind by COVID-19 by developing more diversified and resilient economies that offer absolutely everyone the opportunity to prosper. The arts can help. Research NASAA conducted during the pandemic shows that the arts can accelerate state and local economic turnarounds. We must own that.
I’ll share my Katrina experience as an exemplar. We witnessed firsthand the powerful synergies between the arts and economic recovery in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Supporting the cultural economy’s comeback provided opportunities for the arts to then support the recovery of other economic sectors. There is no more important example than our post-Katrina investments to bring back the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Standing the festival back up and promoting it helped reopen restaurants, fill hotels and bring shoppers to merchants. In many respects, the festival reopened the city and brought back residents and tourists alike. Importantly, the festival paid artists as well. It was a beacon proclaiming to the country and the world that New Orleans was back, open for lives, livelihoods and visitors.
These benefits are not unique to New Orleans or Louisiana. The arts have catalyzed recovery, resilience and revitalization time and time again. Case studies prove this.
As our country tries to turn the corner on the pandemic, the arts are fortifying communities across the country. Investments in arts recovery are critical because they not only stand up the arts, but they enable the arts to stand up other parts of the economy. This is powerful, and it’s also something we should own. The arts are catalytic for a stressed economy, and I’ll be carrying this message forward beyond the pandemic.
I realize that in many ways the pandemic has been beyond exhausting for everyone. In our work we speak of the need to pivot, and we have lived through lots of pivoting these last couple of years. We’re all adept pivoters—even though some days I never want to hear the word again. We have also specialized in resiliency—by necessity. I’m sure I’m not the only person sometimes exhausted from constantly trying to be resilient. It’s tough for us individually, and it’s tough for our organizations as well.
All of the pivoting, all of the adapting, the need to be resilient, the need to persevere…as I consider it all, I’m beginning to understand that we’ve been building muscle: we’ve actually been building muscle for persevering; we’ve been building our muscle for managing change. We have built muscle for working in new ways and creating new partnerships; that’s certainly true at NASAA, and I’m sure it’s true for you as well.
We all have endured so much, but in that endurance, we have built new muscle we can use to adapt to our next normal, to manage great change, and to persevere in the face of incredible challenges. We have built this muscle and it’s ours, so what will you do with your new muscle? We can surely use that muscle to cast off prepandemic practices that should no longer see the light of day. And we can use that muscle to carry forward the pandemic-era lessons that will inform our work. That muscle will undergird our work toward a stronger, more people-centered, more equitable tomorrow—if we allow it to. How will you use your muscle? I suggest we use it in meaningful service to our communities. I suggest we use it to own the profound impacts of the arts on communities. During the next couple of days, as you gather to learn, share and connect, consider how you’ll use that new muscle to create your next normal.
In this Issue
From the President and CEO
State to State
- Kansas: Ethnic Markets Initiative: People's Markets Program
- Indiana and Idaho: Partnerships for Expanding Arts Education
The Research Digest
Announcements and Resources
More Notes from NASAASubscribe
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