Matthew Loden is the CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
Arts organizations are adept at providing comfort and solace in times of crisis, and COVID-19 is certainly providing artists with a serious crisis to consider. As event organizers and arts institutions face the excruciating reality of closing to the public, there is a true existential threat to our sector. It’s relatively easy to chart the economic impact of lost ticket sales, of limited or zero revenue coming through already fragile pipelines, but there’s also a deeper anxiety that this pandemic is surfacing for our artists and patrons alike. We’re all afraid of being alone.
Beyond the business of presenting, the arts are where we tell stories in languages and in ways that remind us we are all connected, all human. We want to dance or sing or paint, or be the one who wins the day by sharing a surprise talent that wakes people up. When the everyman bartender croons on The Voice and the judges swing around in rapture, we all want a piece of that passion, that opportunity, that sharing of something outside of the expected. We long to connect with something larger than ourselves, to do it together and to cheer for the underdog.
In spite of the often-factionalized modern world we inhabit, we are still social animals with an instinctual need to meet with each other, to share in the joys and collective sorrows of our human condition. To find our family, even when we might be away from home. When people want to come together, to reflect on or escape from the quotidian, they seek the glue of art to help focus their emotions. Think of Yo-Yo Ma playing solo Bach’s Cello Suites at Ground Zero in Manhattan, or Parisians singing together while Notre Dame burned. More joyfully, consider the music and dancing that shapes our wedding celebrations, when new families are created and acknowledge how they are joining together what once was separate. Art offers a conduit for a shared experience that works beyond what conversation and words alone can provide, and it makes it easier to sit next to the different.
With concert halls, theatres and sports arenas shuttered by the COVID-19 spread, we now cannot even sit by each other without fear. No one wants it to be this way, but we are nevertheless sliding into a new reality. For a while, we will all be more alone, more isolated, more hungry for connection. Some of us will want validation of our fears, others will pine for a nostalgic ease that we used to find as patrons and fans of the arts.
Eventually we’ll move past this current challenge, and as we adapt to whatever the new world has in store for us, we’ll take stock of what happened during COVID-19. How did we respond? Many will have suffered financial hardships; others will have been sick and recovered. Some will have succumbed to the virus and left behind grieving loved ones. There will be absences we cannot fill.
But there will still be an unerring impulse for us all to tell our stories, to share again around the water cooler, to buy that ticket for a concert that will bring us back together. As William Butler Yeats said: “Talent perceives differences; genius, unity.”
We’ll all look forward to finding our unity again as we watch the curtain rise and the oboe sounds the A.
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