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  • Jeffrey Nytch

Field Notes, Vol. 4 no. 2: The Next Birds and Mammals

Updated: 4 days ago


A month or so ago I posted the first part of two-part edition of “Field Notes” in which I began contemplating what’s next for the performing arts industry. In “Dinosaurs and Killer Astroids” (click here if you missed it), I recounted the three things that inevitably happen in the wake of extreme disruptions in the environment: some forms of life fail to adapt and will go extinct, others adapt and survive, and, perhaps most importantly, some creatures who were previously unimportant move into newly freed-up ecological niches and thrive. In the case of the dinosaurs 67 million years ago, most of them were wiped out; some of them adapted into birds and reptiles. At the same time, though, something else happened, something perhaps more significant than either of the first two outcomes: the mammals, a previously small group of unimportant creatures, emerged to become the dominant class of animals on earth.


It's this last outcome I’d like to focus on here, in the 2nd part of my musings on the future of the performing arts. If birds and mammals were two new classes of animals to come out of the devastation of the Chicxulub asteroid, what are the new “birds” and “mammals” that might emerge in the wake of the devastation of the pandemic? Perhaps more to the point, what can we do as artists, administrators, and educators to nurture these new emerging forces?


As I was reflecting on this entry, I concluded that there are four imperatives that have come into focus over the last few years. Existential imperatives, really: forces that will either drive us in new and fresh directions or which, if ignored, will be our downfall. None of these is new, per se, but the pandemic infused them with renewed urgency. These issues are no longer the purview of obscure academic conferences or the occasional voice crying in the wilderness; artists and arts organizations of all sizes and types, in communities large and small, are all having to grapple with them – sometimes with their very survival hanging in the balance.


These imperatives are:


1. We must reevaluate what it means to be “relevant” in our communities, including ways to improve access to our offerings for traditionally marginalized and underserved populations.


2. We must revisit our revenue streams and consider new and innovative business models that rely less on patronage and subscriptions and more on community partnerships.


3. We must address systemic racism and inequality in our repertoire, our organizational structures and operations, our hiring, our marketing, and in our audience development and community programming.


4. We must aggressively transform our educational channels in order to properly equip the performers of tomorrow to thrive in a professional world that will be radically different from the one the teachers of today came up in.


Each of these imperatives embodies a wealth of things to explore, so I won’t even try to elaborate on them in a single entry. But I believe that they can serve as a framework for the kind of wholesale adaption the performing arts community needs to embrace.


Now, if you know me, it shouldn’t surprise you that I believe that an entrepreneurial approach is the way to turn the challenges represented by these imperatives and turn them into opportunities for renewed vibrancy. Why is entrepreneurship the way to engage these issues? Because each one is grounded in the same fundamental truth: where the performing arts are struggling it’s because they are no longer meeting the needs of a sufficient number of people to make their business models sustainable. And entrepreneurship is about creating sustainable business models by addressing the problems of people and their communities.


In the case of the performing arts, taking an entrepreneurial approach will likely result in opportunities that address more than one of the four imperatives at once. For instance, increasing accessibility and relevance can be powerfully accomplished by transforming the way we serve communities of color and other marginalized groups. Revisiting our revenue streams might result in community partnerships with educational institutions, facilities, and other arts organizations that in turn provides opportunities for increased impact and relevance. There really is no end of possibilities, as long as one sheds the blinders of tradition and resistance to change.


All these imperatives, not just #4, apply to our educational institutions as well. The modern conservatory, for all its successes, is simply not equipped to address these imperatives in its present form. And here’s the thing: revisiting income streams and business models, seeking greater community impact and relevance, and fully embracing solutions to systemic racism and inequality will be at the core of the transformational change we need in the conservatory. Indeed, any change that doesn’t embody these principles will not be transformative at all. Remember: the dinosaurs had been tremendously successful for millions of years; they had no reason to change…until everything was catastrophically changed. The conservatory model, and the performing arts entities it has produced, has been similarly successful for nearly 200 years. But that doesn’t mean that they will continue to enjoy that level of success indefinitely. Eventually, the environment fundamentally changes…and then it’s evolve, or die.


While crises can force change, I don’t believe we should contemplate change in a mindset of crisis and scarcity. Rather than viewing this present moment as a zero-sum game, I believe we should look at it as presenting an almost infinite degree of possibility. The performing arts sector has a once-in-a-century opportunity to remake itself, to firmly establish itself as an indispensable force in our society. Unfortunately, while there are many individuals (and a few institutions) who are diving into this challenge with both feet, I see several signs that this unprecedented moment may be passing us by. For one, the assumption that audiences would return to our venues in droves once the pandemic was over has proven to be a poor one. Artistic companies of all stripes and sizes continue to play to partially-full houses and are selling dramatically fewer subscriptions. There are some exceptions to this – an April trip to New York that included seeing the new production of Company took my husband and me to a packed house. But this bifurcation has negative implications in both directions: those organizations that have seen a resurgence in attendance are not likely to want to mess with success unless they’re forced to, and those that are struggling are more likely to double down on what the view as “safe” rather than risk venturing out into the unknown. In other words, there isn’t an obvious incentive in either direction to experiment with the bold and the radical.


What all this will mean for our institutions – and the people who make them up – is anyone’s guess. For one thing, it would appear that the pandemic is not, in fact, “over.” There might indeed be large numbers of patrons who will still end up returning to our halls. But the flip side of that hope is that, once they do come back, we’ll inexorably slide back into what we’ve always done…and kick the can of reform down the road until the next calamity. (One bit of encouraging news came just a few weeks ago from the Metropolitan Opera, the largest performing arts organization in the country and one of the most staunchly conservative. In the face of plummeting revenue, the Met has taken notice that it’s the new works that are performing the best. In response, next season will see the return of the smash hits Fire Shut Up in My Bones and The Hours, and they have pledged to present one new opera every year moving forward. Many of us have been advocating this shift in mindset for years, but sometimes change will only happen when the alternative is to fall into the abyss.)


In the end, I think we’ll see things unfold as they always do with human beings: messily, and with conflicting outcomes. Some will make it, some won’t. But there’s one thing that I can say for sure, and it allows for some optimism in what might otherwise feel rather hopeless. And it’s this: the arts have been present in one form or another in every culture and in every period of recorded history. Its forms and expressions and styles are endlessly diverse and unique, but the core impulse to create art and share it in community has always been there. And it always will be. By encouraging tomorrow’s artistic “birds” and “mammals” we are not signing our own death warrant. I believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, and that if we work together in a spirit of community and service, we can reinvigorate the arts sector for more people and more communities than ever before.

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