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The Power of the Arts

Shanta Thake

June 26, 2024

Cultural institutions can bring the city together.

Cultural institutions can bring the city together.

There is power in proximity.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative

During COVID, arts organizations, artists and entertainers across the globe shared their talents online while institutions were closed. We made podcasts, built radio plays and experimented with programming. My colleagues and I kept ourselves busy as days of isolation and fear became months, and our worlds professionally, personally and globally shifted dramatically. Despite the deep pain and grief that surrounded me, this time gave me a newfound sense of possibility as a curator. We could break the bounds of theater! We no longer had to be limited by physical space.

But the euphoria was short-lived. In this isolation, I recognized that my most treasured time was not spent creating schedules and building seasons or even necessarily exploring ideas but in experiencing performances alongside my fellow New Yorkers. As we navigated each other’s complexity, I felt the absence of imagining new worlds together — something that all the Zoom plays in the world could not replace.

We talk a great deal about what individual plays, pieces of music, dance performances and exhibitions represent; we talk too little about how important and powerful it is to bring people into shared spaces across their many differences to experience something together. To me, this is what cities, and especially cities like New York, make uniquely possible — a strength they must leverage ever more in the years ahead.

The new appreciation of physical presence gave me a renewed awareness of the purpose of the arts in a world where we are increasingly isolated as individuals. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, “In recent years, about one-in-two adults in America reported experiencing loneliness. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic cut off so many of us from friends, loved ones and support systems, exacerbating loneliness and isolation.”

I knew that when it finally came time for the city to reopen, my focus would have to be on creating the conditions for real connection and participation for everyone who opted in to not opting out. I needed to do everything possible to honor and encourage the incredible gift that is an audience member’s presence. I understood in a new way the power of the performing arts to stitch back together tears in the social fabric that years of death, despair and division had wrought.

From my changed vantage point, I could see even more clearly just how few New Yorkers were represented by our city’s biggest live arts institutions, which were at the time largely not reflective of our vibrant cultural diversity and history. It clarified that my experience of seeing multiple shows weekly was an aberration — especially as I saw friends attending online shows but who had not been to live shows for years due to physical disability, neurodivergence, the inability to bring their children, or the financial burden of tickets.

We have created these barriers to participation over time in our institutions, and there is no more urgent time than now to remind us that art is not inherently exclusive and that its value in placing us in proximity to one another is vital to teaching us the gift of living in an urban environment.

There are those who say that the live performing arts may always be somewhat exclusive. It is true that the economics are hard — production costs are high, particularly in a city like New York, and funding can be elusive. But organizations large and small can make this model work. The alternative is catastrophic not just for our field but for our communities. Changing the dynamic to center deep connections between artists and audiences creates life-changing moments that fulfill our missions, and it does not need to cost more. It can simply start with a different type of invitation. Like-minded board members and donors will join you, first in your audiences and then in support. The option to keep the audience literally and figuratively in the dark is no longer viable as a business model, because an audience that believes no one needs them to participate or engage will do what is easiest, which is stay home and stream their favorite show. So to those who say the arts cannot be truly inclusive, I say that is precisely the death knell of live performance in this time.

We have created barriers to participation over time in our institutions, and there is no more urgent time than now to remind us that art is not inherently exclusive and that its value in placing us in proximity to one another is vital to teaching us the gift of living in an urban environment.

In the summer of 2021 — with indoor performing arts venues still closed — Lincoln Center launched Restart Stages, creating 10 outdoor performance and rehearsal spaces across campus and featuring programming from arts institutions across the city, including the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance, the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, the Harlem Arts Alliance and the Korean Cultural Center New York. This programming lived alongside blood drives, food distribution, naturalization ceremonies and more.

These partnerships — combined with a clear commitment to caring about not only our audience’s entertainment but also their well-being — attracted more than 250,000 visitors to our campus, nearly a quarter of whom were visiting Lincoln Center for the first time. This was a new kind of welcome, and the response was staggering.

We weren’t the only ones attracting new audiences by rethinking how arts must be an ever more essential part of our city. Next door in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Academy of Music had one of its most successful seasons ever, with 48% of ticket buyers being first-time visitors, a feat attributed to the diversity of their programming resembling the diversity of the borough.

The following summer, in 2022, as I joined Lincoln Center and indoor venues started to open up, we continued to consider how we could build on our founding promise of bringing the arts to all New Yorkers, rather than a privileged few.

Lincoln Center developed Summer for the City, a festival featuring hundreds of free events and thousands of artists aimed at reflecting the unique diversity of the City of New York. Beyond the diversity of partnerships and artists, and of course the 10-foot disco ball we placed as a joyful centerpiece to the festivities, we created opportunities to celebrate and mourn, to remind one another of what binds us together.

That summer, we threw our first all-city wedding for hundreds of couples whose weddings had been canceled during the pandemic; we paraded with one another up Broadway in a Jazz at Lincoln Center-led Second Line that encouraged us to remember and grieve those who had been lost; we hosted graduations for neighboring high schools; and so much more.

Our commitment to making art accessible to people of all income levels, elevating diverse stories and inviting audience members to be a part of the art, rather than simply observers, attracted more than 380,000 visitors in the summer of 2023. More than three-quarters of event attendees had never before reserved a ticket to one of our programs, and 54% identified as people of color — a 20 percentage point increase compared to pre-pandemic in 2018.

Today, our programming continues to evolve to reflect our deepening relationships to our audiences on and off the stage. This has led to a collaborative project with Brooklyn Public Library, launched in January 2024, inviting people across the country to create contemporary anthems that echo our collective hopes, struggles and untold histories as a nation. Called Anthem to US, it will result in multiple modern anthems that we can add to the canon — songs that reflect the realities and dreams of a changing world and break down the barriers between leaders, performers and the public in the process.

The pandemic created a massive shift in how we interact with one another. Many of us became accustomed to isolation, to seeing our colleagues, friends and even our families as two-dimensional figures on a screen. The live performing arts must continue to break down this shift and bring us literally and figuratively back together — across generations, income levels, cultures and abilities.

There is power in the proximity that cities offer, but this proximity would not be possible without a thriving arts and cultural sector to facilitate it.