Going Forward, An Opportunity To Re-Frame Post-Pandemic

by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal | photo credit Lewis J Whittington

At present, there is simply enormous uncertainty. To be completely rid of this global pandemic, scientists will need to develop a vaccine, or in the interim, find a treatment for the effects of the coronavirus. In the dance world, as in many other sectors, job losses have been brutal.  As some restrictions begin to ease, it is time to start to imagine what life will be like when we emerge from social distancing and what will be needed to move forward. It is crucial that we begin a conversation about re-framing how we create and operate as artists and as dancers. This is an unprecedented opportunity to change the “business as usual” status and replace it with something more meaningful and relevant to our times.

Recognition of value
To begin with, can we finally come to terms that dance and the arts have VALUE to all of us in our daily lives. Can we stop with the tireless surveys and studies to prove the value of the arts economically, socially and educationally? If anything, this pandemic has shown us in no uncertain terms the impact the arts have on the economy, on our education system and to each and every one of us in our daily lives. The constant struggle and justifications to get budgets through local and federal governments to support the arts must simply come to an end.  Instead of looking for ways to cut funding year after year or even altogether, we should be increasing funding and support given to arts organizations.

Greater Move Towards Cultural Equity
Cultural equity embodies the values, policies, and practices that ensure that all people—including but not limited to those who have been historically underrepresented based on race/ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, socioeconomic status, geography, citizenship status, or religion—are represented in the development of arts policy; the support of artists; the nurturing of accessible, thriving venues for expression; and the fair distribution of programmatic, financial, and informational resources. Awareness of the disparities in the arts sector has been recognized to some degree but the pandemic has greatly outlined the disparities that continue to exist. In the United States, there are systems of power that grant privilege and access unequally such that inequity and injustice result, and that must be continuously addressed and changed. Cultural equity is critical to the long-term viability of the arts sector. We must all hold ourselves accountable because acknowledging and challenging our inequities and working in partnership is how we will make change happen. Everyone deserves equal access to a full, vibrant creative life, which is essential to a healthy society. The prominent presence of artists challenges inequities and encourages alternatives.

Change How Grants & Foundations Provide Support
This is a whole other and very lengthy discussion. At the very least can we agree that grants and foundations should not only fund specific projects, which has been the norm but also offer more support for general operations. Grants that have been restricted to specific programs, timing, and expenses should also now automatically include a percentage towards operational support and perhaps even a reserve fund to ensure the sustainability of an organization. Fund providers need to sit down with artists and truly re-examine their policies, be more transparent, and find new ways to be more effective to more organizations over time versus short-term projects that only provide more immediate assistance.

Creating Arts Partnerships
While some may argue that receiving corporate funding will commercialize independent work or dilute the meaning of the artist, this does not have to be the case. Proper and transparent structuring of agreements between artists and corporations can create new partnerships that will allow arts organizations, large and small, to flourish. Corporations make up the smallest portion of giving in the United States compared to individuals, foundations, and bequests.  For larger companies that are generating profits, now is their chance to share the burden the nonprofit sector is experiencing. While Philadelphia is fortunate enough to have an Arts & Business Council as well as the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the formation of corporate partnerships needs to be opened up on a much broader level and made more accessible even to smaller arts organizations where budgets may be limited. Access to companies and the creation of arts partnerships will add vitality to all parties but more importantly to the communities they serve.

City Support of the Arts
I applaud Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) in their promotion of arts, culture, and the creative industries in the city. Their partnership with the for-profit and nonprofit organizations has made culture and creativity essential parts of the City’s strategy for revitalizing communities, improving education, and promoting economic development. However, I would argue that their needs to be more direct conversations with arts organizations of all sizes, not just the larger institutions, to really shape city-wide policy. Managing the City’s art programs and increasing access has been the strength of the OACCE to date. I would encourage more town halls with the arts sector and perhaps even the addition of a rotating arts advisory committee to help shape city policy and make recommendations for restructuring of budgets to support our sector. It is essential that the City of Philadelphia truly embraces the arts in all genres and at all levels for it to flourish.

Creating a Disaster Plan
This pandemic has shown us beyond a doubt that all arts organizations need to have a disaster plan. Just like an organization’s mission statement, a disaster plan needs to become an integral part of any organization’s strategic planning. Non-profits and arts organizations need to be set up for survival under duress. This means setting aside monies for a reserve fund.  Organizations need to fundraise not just for specific projects but for operational costs and most importantly for a reserve fund. Again, perhaps a standard percentage of all donations should simply be earmarked for a reserve fund as a matter of practice.

Developing Contract Standards
The hiring of artists/dancers has often been less than a transparent process. This process needs to change. There needs to be developed a systematic process for contract salaries. This should include policies developed to address minimum salaries, negotiated rates, overtime pay, extra pay for additional duties and per diem rates for touring. Additional terms for consideration should be the length of day, safety, health insurance, pension, just cause, termination, and cancellations. There needs to be developed a means of arbitration and dispute resolution when conflicts arise so that our community can be protected.

Addressing Health Care
Lower-income artists have been shown to be particularly vulnerable during this pandemic. On both a federal and state level, we need to come to grips and address access to healthcare. This issue is far more involved than this article has the ability to address. Suffice it to say that healthcare should be a human right and not a privilege. If this can not be addressed on a government level then independent artists/dancers need to ban together and organize in such a way as to group purchase health insurance that can be affordable to all.

Permanent Extension of Access to Unemployment Benefits
The Covid-19 crisis has seen for the first time, unemployment benefits (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) extended to self-employed workers, independent contractors, and gig workers. I would suggest that we need to look at ways to continue this safety net not only during a pandemic but year-round to protect our artists. Again, this will require a much lengthier dialog. In the absence of government assistance, artists/dancers would need to organize and create their own managed funds. Similar funds have been created in the arts sector with the Actors Fund as a prime example.

In the midst of our own daily survival as artists, it is difficult to tackle these larger issues. Frankly, there simply is not enough time in the day, which has already been stretched thin with many of us taking on multiple roles in our own dance organizations to ensure its survival.  But this is a time to perhaps pause and reflect and begin a dialog as to how we can re-frame ourselves. Without such an examination, moving forward in a post-pandemic world will only be more difficult. It is no longer a matter of saying our “art will continue” and we will be back to “dance another day”.  It is time to re-group, organize and be pro-active to ensure that dance and the arts which have gotten us through this crisis will not only survive but flourish in a post-pandemic world.

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