COVID and the Arts: When the Entertainment Industry Went Dark

By Wendy LaManque
8/3/2020

In January 2020, I was a little surprised when a colleague of mine at the Union (AGMA) asked that we have a meeting ASAP to discuss the potential ramifications of the Coronavirus on our industry.  At that time, I had been focusing much of my energy on sexual harassment prevention, trying to understand the full scope of sexual harassment and discrimination in the opera world following allegations of harassment and abuse against opera star (and AGMA member) Placido Domingo.   I thought the existential crisis – the reckoning of an industry rife with sex discrimination, abuse and toxic power dynamics – was already at our door.  While I was aware of and had been personally preparing for the Coronavirus (I was getting ready to fly to California and had already purchased masks and hand sanitizer, for which I was called paranoid by more than a few people), I had not given enough thought to the impact it would have on the live performance industry. I could not fathom that by early March we would be hearing calls for the closure of every major opera and ballet company in the country and all over Europe and that nearly every one of our 7,000 members would be, for all intents and purposes, instantly unemployed.  Soon, it would be all I could think about. 

The Coronavirus rounds out the quartet of existential threats facing the classical arts world that I’ve decided to call the Four Horsemen of the High Arts Apocalypse.  The ‘Rona is the final and most dreaded of the Four, one that enables and empowers the other three to do their worst.  Its arrival may signify the destruction of an industry already teetering on the edge.  The Four include:

  • Famine: COVID came with a side-order of sharp economic downturn and a rapid shrinking of our economy, which has led to a decrease in contributed revenue in not-for-profit arts organizations, endangering their short and long-term survival.  

  • War There is a conflict that has been brewing for years in the choral, opera and ballet worlds: between those who wish to diversify and modernize music and dance, elevate BIPOC bodies, voices, choreographers, composers, directors, et al. of color and to welcome a more diverse audience into their halls, and those in positions of power who use words like “tradition” and “heritage” and “artistic discretion” to describe their vision for these art forms when they really mean, consciously or unconsciously, “white supremacy.”  The conflict has been on display over the last few months in the realm of social media where artists have taken to Instagram and Twitter to demand that their companies come out with a strong statement in support of Black Lives Matter and demonstrate a real commitment to diversity and racial justice in the workplace – a move some companies appear to resist in part out of fear over alienating their (ahem) traditional donor base.  Every day that decision-makers in arts organizations continue to wage this conflict and deny the humanity of their own artists brings them one step closer to death by irrelevance. 

  • Death here is both literal and metaphorical: As rich white people (i.e. the traditional ballet and opera company target demographic) continue to age and die, some sooner than expected because of COVID, so too goes the traditional donor base for not-for-profit arts institutions.  COVID has underlined the urgency of finding a younger, more diverse audience which will hopefully turn into a younger, more diverse pool of donors, but many companies are having trouble making the transition (see above re War).

COVID is, of course, Pestilence (or Pollution depending on the version of Armageddon to which you subscribe).  For the classical performing arts, there is no more cataclysmic event than the uncontrolled spread of a deadly respiratory virus.  To sell tickets, companies rely on large groups of primarily old, susceptible people congregating inside historic, poorly ventilated buildings for hours at a time to watch other groups of people perform feats of musical and physical athleticism, breathe heavily, hold each other close, and/or project their voices (and perhaps infected water droplets!) to the very back row of seats in the house.  It is hard to imagine more perfect conditions for transmission.  

These Four Horsemen (Horsepeople? You don’t know) seem to foretell Judgement Day for the entertainment industry. Thankfully, however, it is not too late to avert the Apocalypse.  With all its flaws and all the work that remains to be done, I believe opera, ballet, and classical choral singing are still worth saving.  I have been moved to tears and inspired beyond measure by the passion and mastery displayed by the artists I represent.  The creativity and technical ability of singers, dancers and stage production crew dazzle and amaze audiences of all ages from all backgrounds and inspire us to imagine new realities made of more than working, sleeping, eating and scrolling.  The arts hold a mirror up to our society, which is in such desperate need of self-examination.  Our audiences and donor base can be expanded and revitalized.  Our opera, dance and choral companies can embrace the power of diversity and expand their repertoire beyond tired retellings of stories celebrating white mediocrity to engage a new generation of artists.  We can advocate for more government funding so not-for-profit arts institutions can avoid relying on the benevolence of a small, shrinking donor pool to survive.  

But arts organizations ultimately need artists in order to produce art, and if things continue along their current dark trajectory, there may be no full-time professional artists left in America. 

The arts industries will be the very last industries back up and running in a post-COVID world, and artists will be the last to experience a resumption of steady income once the virus subsides.  Perhaps you’ve been programmed to now suggest that these artists get “real jobs” and that being a ballerina is a luxury we can’t afford in a recession.  Tell me then, what about the people who perform and produce your favorite Broadway shows? Concerts? Music festivals? What about the people who rely on these industries to succeed, like not-for-profit arts administrators and their staff, owners and employees of restaurants and bars, hotels, concert venues, production companies, vendors and distributors?  What about the entertainment unions and their lawyers? Aren’t these all workers with families who deserve pay and dignity for their labor?  Last year, Broadway musicals contributed $14.7 billion to the economy of New York City.  That sounds pretty real to me. Whether you realize it or not, whether you assign value to these vocations or not, the economic impact of the nationwide shutdown of live entertainment is enormous, tragic, and affects us all. 

So why are our news feeds not flooded with stories and imagery of homeless artists starving on the streets?  Perhaps the largest contributing factors to the survival of unemployed artists over the last 4 months has been the additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits made available to unemployed Americans through the CARES Act.  Our Senate allowed those benefits to expire on July 31st, with Republicans trotting out the tired old argument that extra financial benefits create a disincentive for unemployed people to return to work (a popular capitalist myth that has been debunked many times).  Unfortunately, because COVID-19 continues to spread (due in no small part to a massive failure of leadership on the federal level) and arts institutions remain shuttered, most artists cannot return to work.  This is not a matter of incentive – it is a matter of survival.  Every week that goes by without available, safe jobs in the entertainment industry and without additional unemployment benefits puts artists and all unemployed Americans further down the path toward financial ruin.  We must advocate for one another, and make our voices heard. 

I urge you to take a moment to contact your U.S. Senator, and ask them to pass a COVID-19 relief bill that provides continued support for the arts and unemployed artists. 

My hope is that arts professionals will continue to innovate and devise creative solutions to the problems created by COVID that have decimated our industry.  How we produce, perform and engage with art may look very different in 2021 than it did in 2019.  But one thing is clear: if we want a post-COVID society worth celebrating after we crawl out of our quarantine holes and get our haircuts, we need to support artists and art institutions through this crisis.  Artists give so much and ask so little in return for their talents; it is time to show how much we value them by putting cash in their pockets, allowing them to pay rent, buy food, and create the art that will inspire us to overcome the challenges ahead. 

If you or someone you know is an artist who is struggling financially, please encourage them to visit this resource page on the AGMA website, where you will find a list of grants and other resources available to all artists (not just union members).

Wendy LaManque (she/her/hers) is lawyer, artist and musician living in Ossining, NY.  After six years at a NYC-based law firm representing labor unions and individual employees in workplace matters, Wendy now serves as Eastern Counsel for the American Guild of Musical Artists, the Union that represents professional ballet dancers, opera and choral singers, and stage management staff across the country.  Wendy is a graduate of Brooklyn Law School and Cornell University’s School of Industrial & Labor Relations (ILR). The views expressed herein belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AGMA.

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