Sarah Bay-Cheng is dean of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance and Design at York University.
Amid the constant updates on the COVID-19 pandemic, Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion has become one of the most popular films streaming on Netflix. Soderbergh’s film eerily predicts the current situation and offers not only vivid descriptions of how a pandemic might happen, but also the comfort of a resolution. It’s no wonder that people turn to fictional stories to make sense of what is happening around them and to imagine a peaceful conclusion.
Historically, the arts have always played this role. From Indigenous storytelling traditions across the world to contemporary media, humans rely on artistic representations to make sense of life’s constant changes. This is especially true in challenging times.
Yet even as audiences turn to streaming stories for reassurance and distraction (the 1990s television show Friends is trending alongside Contagion), artists are confronting the consequences of COVID-19. The economic impact on the arts will be felt even after the coronavirus ceases to be a public-health concern.
Across the world, large gatherings are being cancelled, including theatre and dance performances, music events and art exhibitions. While the consequences are significant for large institutions and related tourist industries, the hardest hit will be smaller organizations and independent artists, as ticket sales, international residencies and public funding dry up. Some might not make it.
The popular music and cultural event South by Southwest (SXSW) has already been cancelled. The conference and festivals draw some 400,000 visitors annually to Austin, Tex., where a hotel occupancy tax is a major source of arts funding. SXSW’s contribution to Austin’s economy totalled US$355.9-million last year. The impact of its cancellation is significant. Thirty per cent of SXSW staff have been laid off, and other major festivals are scrambling. Without Austin’s major event, it’s unclear how many smaller arts organizations will survive the loss of public funding.
This is not to say that large events should risk the health of audiences, but theatre history shows that there may be ways to protect both public health and the arts.
During the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, New York theatres and cinemas stayed open but created a rotating schedule to spread out evening audiences. Even as city health commissioner Royal Copeland worked to combat the spread of the disease, he also prioritized New York’s arts and entertainment. As he later wrote, keeping theatres open prevented citizens from “going mad on the subject of influenza.” He brought in regulations requiring theatres to regularly ventilate during off-hours. He closed smaller spaces and those deemed unsanitary, but worked hard to keep many of the city’s venues open throughout the crisis.
He also used theatres to educate the public and promote ways to prevent the spread of the disease. His vision was a precursor to the viral (sorry!) TikTok dance video demonstrating proper handwashing techniques. (As someone recently remarked, we’re living in the golden age of public-service announcements.) Remarkably, Copeland managed to protect the majority of his city’s arts and cultural institutions while also keeping New York’s fatality rate the lowest on the East Coast.
We have options. Today there are many more ways to engage with the arts, including live streaming of performances and virtual museum exhibits. Chinese museums are using digital exhibits to engage communities under quarantine. Large-scale stage productions such as National Theatre Live and The Met: Live in HD bring live theatre and opera to screens around the world. HowlRound, SpiderWebShow and On the Boards have become exemplars of how media technologies can deliver a range of contemporary performances to audiences digitally. While such developments are exciting, smaller companies and individual artists will need help.
Communities everywhere should keep in mind the precariousness of our irreplaceable arts and cultural institutions and work to support them. Even the most successful, world-renowned institutions often operate with surprisingly slim profit margins. If we’re not able to attend as many events in person, we will need to continue to support them all, big and small.
Hopefully we can learn from the lessons of the past and work to ensure the sustainability of the arts, all while taking the necessary precautions for public health. As the viewership of Contagion makes clear, the arts become especially valuable during crises. (Just ask those under quarantine.) Our current challenges will surely pass. We will need the arts – and artists – long after the COVID-19 pandemic has become just another story we tell.
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