Unprecedented. It is the word of the moment as we navigate the adjustments of living amidst a global pandemic, the grief of losing thousands of lives, the worry of more infections and the corresponding economic fallout.
Artists and arts organizations are familiar with the struggle for sustainability even in the best of times. Right now in the arts community, our bandwidth is full with questions of survival.
Recently I attended a campaign event hosted by one of our gubernatorial candidates, slated to discuss the role of the arts in Utah’s post-pandemic re-build. While I appreciate the campaign’s effort to recognize the arts community, the discussion was short on details and narrow in its perspective.
The arts were characterized as “uplifting” entertainment and lauded for the economic activity arts organizations provide. While both of those elements have value, it’s a thin assessment of our contributions.
At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests I listened to an interview with an African American mayor that has stuck with me. She mentioned that while she would love to open hearts and minds, she sees her work as changing laws and enforcing them in order to change behaviors. I was struck by her words – and also with the recognition that opening hearts and minds is, and has always been, the work of artists.
This work has never been more important. We’re in the midst of a number of crises that are exacerbated by our divisions. With both our societal and planetary systems faltering, we have to connect the dots if we wish to see a more robust and resilient future.
Today, as artists and arts organizations, one could argue that our opportunity and greatest value is to meet the interconnected social and ecological crises that are rapidly enveloping us. We must meet the moment that the Black Lives Matter movement has given us with a clear-eyed reckoning with our racist past and present, and with actionable steps that take us into an anti-racist realm.
We also need to treat the climate crisis as part of our here and now. We need to look at our carbon footprints, make changes to reduce them, let everyone know that’s what we’re doing and why — and most importantly, normalize these concerns and actions amongst our communities.
Coming together over common artistic and cultural experiences can inspire empathy, connection and trust. Artists are the essential workers who create ties that bind a society together. We must be bolder in what we take on. We need to be willing to be uncomfortable as we chart a new paths forward with our eyes on the whole.
In a Zoom discussion between a number of African American classical musicians called “Learning to Listen,” Anthony McGill, a clarinetist, recounted how during his time in the Cincinnati Symphony everyone there was really friendly. However, in the wake of some police murders of African Americans, the organization made it clear that there was to be no stance taken because it might be considered political. He pointed out that “no stance” is, in fact, a very clear political statement. Friendly or not, it is complicity.
What I would have liked to have said at the campaign event is this: Let’s use this re-set to build a better foundation for a healthy, thriving society that functions within our planetary boundaries. We need government to have our backs by supporting the arts in our communities and schools during this difficult time. In return, we will have your backs in doing the work of opening hearts and minds so that we can come together as a society to do big — and necessary — things that will insure a better future for all.
Rebecca McFaul, River Heights, is a violinist with the Fry Street Quartet, a professor at Utah State University and, alongside her colleagues in the FSQ, a music director with the NOVA Chamber Music Series in Salt Lake City.