The Arts in Columbus: What Happens Next?

May 25, 2020

I‘ve asked some of Columbus’s leading artists and arts administrators to try to predict the future. What does the COVID-19 world mean for the arts?

"We will all be defined as the generation that lived through the coronavirus pandemic."—Rossen Milanov

"I have numerous colleagues who have lost so many engagements. They are in a period of absolute uncertainty and financial ruin."—Robert Kerr

"Live performances…will definitely come back."—Janet Chen

"Think of it this way. A nation of teachers has moved to online learning overnight. We’ve got this."—Kerry Haberkern

Here are some of the questions I asked them to respond to:

Is the era of live performance shared by an audience–in person, in the same place–over? What are your hopes and ideas for the future specific to Columbus? What does re-opening look like? Many organizations have offered free web content over the years—is there a way to monetize this now? What about new repertoire designed specifically for the web?

Janet Chen, Executive Director of ProMusica Chamber Orchestra

In a matter of a few weeks, the COVID-19 crisis has knocked almost every musician off the stage. Classical musicians, opera singers, jazz artists, rock bands, prize-winning soloists, church choirs, conductors — musicians from all — we’ve been knocked off our feet. When in our lifetime has this ever happened?

I don’t think anyone knows what the near future will look like. Unfortunately, just as our industry was the first to close, I believe it will be the last to open, and there are a lot of reasons for that. We are an industry in which self-distancing makes it difficult to operate. On the stage, how does one safely self-distance the wind/brass players amongst string players? Musicians make their livelihood playing in all different cities, and flying all across the globe. How does that factor into monitoring health? Backstage, how do stagehands self-distance while safely loading in a show? How are we navigating the seating? General admission? Reserved seats four to five feet apart, alternating rows? We are all evaluating, and then re-evaluating the economic and logistical models — based on what we know at that moment. We all realize that what we know today may be completely different from what we know tomorrow.

Outside of navigating the logistics and economics, there is also the legal aspect of re-opening that needs to be seriously considered, especially when it comes to public health and safety. Protocols and procedures of entering concert halls and theaters need to be clearly defined to protect our concertgoers, artists, and the community at large. I do think the performing arts space will open up slowly, in phases, and most likely with a vaccine to ensure one's full confidence to return to concerts in the way that we know.

Music adapts and modernizes itself to the current situation and scenario. For now, that will include having to embrace virtual content and looking at ways to monetize the web offerings.  I don’t believe live-streamed performances replace live experiences. You don’t have the shared experience of being together in either an intimate, or a grand setting — where the musical chemistry and energy is bouncing off the walls and reverberating in your bodies and souls. For ProMusica, we were built to adapt, to be flexible, and to think outside the box. As we think about future commissions, now would be a time to consider instrumentation and performance logistics so we are prepared for the scenario-at-hand. Often in times of darkness, we find intense creativity being born. You won’t find a single musician who wouldn’t want to return to the stage and play for a full house, and a full appreciative audience. For that reason, live performances as we know it will definitely come back. That, I believe.

Tom Katzenmeyer, President and CEO, GCAC (from GCAC blog)

Those of us in the arts sector are no strangers to challenges and we are tackling this global pandemic with both creativity and gratitude for the support from our community. At the state level, Ohio Citizens for the Arts has been working with legislators and the governor’s office to make sure they understand the varying challenges of arts organizations—visual arts and cultural organizations face similar but different obstacles to reopening than performing organizations where people sit shoulder to shoulder in a theater.

The current guidelines for face coverings, social distancing and sanitizing will remain in place for some time to come, so even as things re-open life will be far from normal for all of us for quite a while.  Thankfully, for some of our arts organizations these measures can be adapted into their operations. In Europe and Asia, measures are being taken to reopen cultural institutions that are suitable to social distancing—such as museums. Our organizations have begun working on scenarios that reconfigure set up and where the typical will be reimagined in order to keep people safe.

The arts are an economic driver in our community, but right now—more importantly—they are critical to mental well-being. The overwhelming response to virtual arts offerings and the Curbside Concert series reminds us of our need to experience art together, no matter the twists in the path, no matter the method. Our artists and arts organizations will continue exploring innovative ways to provide art to our neighbors, including identifying safe options for future art experiences. Meanwhile, the Arts Council will remain committed to navigating this uncharted path alongside our organizations so that we all, collectively, find a new path forward.

Rossen Milanov, Conductor and Music Director of the Columbus Symphony

I think of the current situation as a temporary crisis that is built on our instinct of survival and on our fear of the unknown.  This is not the first crisis that hit the performing arts.  I still remember in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 how virtually overnight, live concert performances disappeared.  When we were able to perform again, the music served as a vehicle for emotional outpouring of grief, hope, consolation and a sense of community.  This was immensely gratifying, because everyone felt that the music was perfectly suited to act not only as a healing factor, but also as a catalyst for overcoming our fears.  It helped us to feel closer to each other in the new reality.   I do believe that history will repeat itself when this pandemic is over and music will help us again to find balance and emotional healing.

At this point, it is difficult to discuss re-opening, because we are still lacking clear guidelines and scientific projection of what might happen in the near and more distant future. We expect that there will be some social distancing rules and we will be dependent on finding a cure and/or a vaccine.  Luckily, we still have a few more weeks before our summer season, which happens outside where the risks are much lower, and a few months before we are planning to open the fall season in the beginning of October.   Many things could change, but I can assure you that we as an organization are committed to the safety of our audiences as well as our musicians.   For me personally, it is important that whatever we do in whatever configuration, format, or forms of distribution, the most important factor is staying true to the essence of our art form, the profundity of the emotional experience the music invokes and the need to perform together in one room, to feel the vibration of the sound and the musical connection that exists when we are on stage.  I do miss the sound of the orchestra right there in front of me!   I know I speak on behalf of all the musicians that we miss performing together, we miss the sound of our instruments joining together and creating a world that is beautiful, powerful and timeless.  I know that when we return, our music making will be more profound, more committed and more emotionally generous.  I know that we will cherish the newly found purpose that music will play in the lives of our audiences. 

What is at stake here is the survival of our musicians and our organization.  Free web content has expanded the reach of the performing arts in general.  The free broadcasts of the Met productions were revelatory; the amount of performances of every type and kind was vast and inspiring.  The truth is that everything comes with a cost.  The people creating artistic content will need to be compensated.  Most likely, the physical attendance at our concerts will be lower in the initial stages of recovery and I feel that for many of our patrons the idea of purchasing a virtual subscription will be appealing.   It will be a way to enjoy our performances from their homes and will be a very powerful way of demonstrating support for our orchestra in these times of enormous hardship.

As soon as it is safe to do so, we are planning to start producing video recordings.  I personally see this as a great opportunity to look in the direction of not only continuing to offer curated classical and pops musical experiences, but also producing educational programs for both students and adults.  We will be recording some exciting repertoire as soon as we have the permission from the local authorities to assemble a group of musicians in one room.  I know I speak on behalf of all the musicians — we are thirsty for making music together. 

I hope that we will continue the artistic growth of our organization, which in my opinion before the arrival of the pandemic, was following an inspiring trajectory of artistic success and financial stability. I am an optimist and hope for a quick recovery.  We intend to perform as much of the planned concert season as possible.  In case we have to consider a strict social distancing for the audience, the Ohio Theatre offers plenty of space for that.  We are also considering presenting shorter concerts and exploring different scenarios of seating arrangements on the stage for the musicians. 

Every country has a slightly different situation.  In Europe, the radio orchestras are uniquely positioned to restart earlier because they have at their disposal recording equipment and TV cameras that could help enormously with creating unique content.  I think places that reacted to the pandemic quicker, such as Columbus, would recover more quickly.  The big cities, such as New York and London, would take much longer to recover.  My sympathies go to all the freelance musicians that have completely lost their sources of livelihood.  We will all be defined as the generation that had to live through the coronavirus pandemic.   That will give us an opportunity to rethink how we connect with our audiences, reinvent the format of what we program and how we perform, and give us a newly found purpose of the role symphonic music could play in people’s emotional recovery, as well as constructing the "new normal" of our society. 

Mark Lomax II, artist, drummer, composer, TED Talk presenter, producer

Live performances in the time of COVID and social distancing will have to look different. Best case, there’s an option to be physically present and livestream in a way that ensures both experiences are meaningful. There will likely be a crop of third-party companies to make this happen. Additionally, being able to stream concerts by musicians who aren’t in the same room needs to get easier. This would lead to interesting compositional options given the new environment. My ultimate hope is that independent musicians don’t get priced out of the market because they can’t afford high speed internet and streaming services that allows them to transmit a high quality listening and viewing experience, whether the audience is physically present or not.

Robert Kerr, baritone

Being a busy husband and a father to three young children, I do my best on a regular basis to keep up with the news and trends of the performing arts business, specifically opera and concerts of classical music. The news does seem to change from day to day, but the immediate outlook that a return to LIVE performances with audiences seated shoulder to shoulder seems bleak.  

I have numerous colleagues who have lost so many engagements.  They are in a position of absolute uncertainty and financial ruin. Some of their contracts have been paid in full, and many have not. Season postponements and cancellation announcements run the risk of losing patrons and the support of donors when paired with an economic downturn.

I am not sure that audiences that attend and prefer LIVE performances would be willing to pay for web content. Pricing would be a hard sell, too. Some companies might offer per performance ticketing or subscription services for their online season. It is imperative that companies find a way to remain relevant and devise lucrative income streams to stay afloat. 

My hope is that opera and classical music's leaders are innovative beyond their imagination. The business will one day rise like the Phoenix and be successful and profitable once again...but it is going to take TIME.

My personal career aspirations will see an adjustment in focus and opportunity. Travel to New York for auditions is impossible. I may have to use more of a technological route to send out my materials (headshot, biography, resume, audio and visual clips, etc.) to be considered for roles.  Much of my singing may be done online only. I don't intend to put the brakes on my career pursuits as a Verdi baritone, but will look for new avenues as an outlet as opposed to the more traditional venues. It's still opera, it's always about the voice, and that is a constant guide for me.

Kerry Haberkern, Executive Director, Columbus Children’s Chorus

Like everyone, we are trying to imagine what our organization will look like as social distancing and gathering restrictions look to be long term. Choir is perhaps one of the most problematic arts in terms of how to manage these changes. We're thinking in terms of benefits to our singers, families, and audiences. Not how to force a square peg into a round hole. What type of chamber performances can we offer in small venues and online? Are sectionals an option? Can we offer small groups or even private lessons? Our directors are excellent music educators with wide ranging talents and interests. Are they interested in teaching small classes that will build the overall musicianship of our singers? Drumming, movement, theory, or class piano? Think about it this way - a nation of teachers moved to online learning overnight. We've got this.