Our Revels Now Are Ended

What the pandemic portends for the performing arts in America

Viv Lynch (Flickr/eskimo_jo)
Viv Lynch (Flickr/eskimo_jo)

In encouraging the creation and enjoyment of beautiful things we are furthering democracy itself.

—Franklin D. Roosevelt


The pandemic is many things. The medical crisis is just a starting point, dwarfed by existential anxieties. Covid-19 is a grave instrument of analysis, a deafening warning shot, a ruthless scourge. It is veritably biblical.

Every festering problem we face—as individuals, as communities, as a nation—seems exercised and magnified: racial discord, economic inequality, fires and floods, a shredded social fabric. The least-noticed debacle is cultural: the vexed fate of our performing arts institutions, our museums, our artists in every field. That this same debacle is being noticed and addressed abroad seals a reckoning moment for Americans.

When the virus hit, the city of Berlin swiftly allocated $320 million to its cultural workers. The German government added $50 billion; its culture minister, Monika Grütters, said, “Artists are indispensable, especially now.” In continental Europe, institutions of culture were already recipients of robust government subsidies—a close relationship to the state was and is an embedded reality.

In the United Kingdom, where government support of the arts is less lavish, the response was slower. But it came. The conductor Simon Rattle, Britain’s most prominent classical musician, loudly complained that nothing was being done. So did Nicholas Kenyon, who runs London’s Barbican Centre. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the culture ministry answered with a $2 billion arts infusion and declared that “the U.K.’s cultural industry is the beating heart of the country.” (British musicians say it’s far too little; one survey showed that up to one-third of them are considering switching careers.)

Here in the United States, the silence remains deafening. We have no Simon Rattle and no Boris Johnson. We do have Nikki Haley. When Congress allocated a mere $250 million for cultural institutions as part of the $2.3 trillion emergency CARES Act, the former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina governor mused that it should have been spent on something more useful. (“How many more people could have been helped with this money?” she tweeted.) And yet, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the arts account for $878 billion in annual economic impact and more than five million jobs nationally. That’s a bigger share of the economy than transportation, agriculture, and construction. More important, culture is vital to the national good, to the human condition. But that’s something intangible, even controversial.

At a moment when they could vitally contribute to challenged American pride and resilience, the arts are newly encumbered financially: concert halls, theaters, and museums are closed or partly so; ticket revenues are decimated. And this comes in the wake of the devaluation of the arts in favor of STEM, of plummeting humanities enrollment in colleges, of social media incursions on attention span, of long-standing forms of cultural expression being newly examined and castigated as “sexist” and “patriarchal.” Meanwhile, charitable foundations traditionally supportive of the arts are rededicated to another urgent priority: social justice. The young are less inclined to donate to the arts, and everyone is less incentivized to do so since the 2017 changes to our tax code.

More than handwringing, this litany invites historical analysis. Why is no one in Congress or the White House talking about protecting crucial cultural interests, echoing discussions abroad? For three centuries, Americans regarded Europeans as cultural parents; we would emulate, learn, and grow. Where does that relationship stand today? Are we still growing up? Reverting to infancy? Opting out?

If a new MAGA isolationism has impacted our diplomacy, our social and political attitudes, what else might that portend? In my world of classical music, it is already likely that international touring by orchestras and opera companies will largely become a thing of the past. And a disparity between American and European audiences has already crippled music in live performance: the empowering ambience fostered by informed or hungry listeners, encountered in Berlin or Budapest, is barely a memory in Manhattan.

The questions at hand are not merely, “What to do?” and “What next?” One must ask, in retrospect, what had already happened before March 2020.


When Andrew Carnegie’s grand Music Hall opened on West 57th Street in 1891, Car-negie insisted that it pay for itself; the arts, he assumed, would self-support if properly pursued. This American myth has never wholly died. To be sure, state support can breed indolence and ideological strangulation. But only those Americans who work in the arts can fully appreciate the burdens imposed, and distortions encountered, when arts institutions must dedicate more time and energy to fundraising than to creative endeavor.

There is, of course, no U.S. Department of Culture. Federal arts funding is the province of the National Endowment for the Arts, with a budget of $162 million—a trickle. But there are two impressive precedents for federal arts infusion, both of them worth remembering and pondering right now. During the Depression, in response to an existential threat to the nation’s economy, the New Deal improvised the Works Progress Administration and other agencies to create jobs in the arts. During the Cold War, a second existential threat fostered a veritable arts ministry: the Congress for Cultural Freedom, covertly funded by the CIA. Its work was supplemented by a cultural diplomacy campaign supervised by the Department of State. Since all the money allocated to the CIA and State was spent abroad, its influence was less visible than WPA murals, architecture, orchestras, and guidebooks. But the cultural Cold War represented a massive federal allocation in support of American art and artists in every field.

Employing writers, composers, visual artists, and performers, the WPA was the closest Washington ever came to emulating European arts subsidies. The Music Project alone gave 225,000 free or popularly priced performances, attended by 150 million people, many of whom had been strangers to live concert music. WPA educational centers rejected the commercialized “music appreciation” agenda: more than the lives of the great composers and the canon of European masterpieces, the WPA curriculum included instrumental instruction and lessons in singing, theory, and composition. American music was emphasized. So were African-American composers; “a gift of freedom arrived wrapped in the guise of disaster,” wrote Ralph Ellison of the WPA’s “surge to Afro-American cultural activity.” Among the many orchestras started under WPA sponsorship, the Utah Symphony is today a prominent concert institution.

Speaking in May 1939 on the occasion of the Museum of Modern Art’s 10th anniversary, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said:

The arts cannot thrive except where men are free to be themselves and to be in charge of the discipline of their own energies and ardors. … A world turned into a stereotype, a society converted into a regiment, a life translated into a routine, make it difficult for either art or artists to survive. Crush individuality in society and you crush art as well. Nourish the conditions of a free life and you nourish arts, too. In encouraging the creation and enjoyment of beautiful things we are furthering democracy itself. That is why this museum is a citadel of civilization.

FDR embraced a notion of democratizing culture, popularizing great art for new audiences. He also embraced “spirituality” as a human necessity. America’s cultural Cold War campaign, in comparison, would be elitist and secular. And the aesthetic predilection of the WPA, most notably in the influential government-funded murals of Thomas Hart Benton, was conservative, even socialist realist in complexion.

Notwithstanding Roosevelt’s enthusiasm, notwithstanding Benton’s patriotic bent, ideological limits were imposed. The most famous outcome of the WPA Federal Theater Project was Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (1937). Other New Deal agencies—the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration—produced two classic, government-funded documentary films: The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1938). But the film initiative was terminated by Congress, which (correctly) perceived New Deal propaganda embedded in both movies, however artfully. And The Cradle Will Rock was denied a theater because it, too, strayed too far to the left. With the waning of the Great Depression and the onset of World War II, American governments—national, state, and local—terminated arts funding.

If American arts audiences today compare unfavorably with audiences elsewhere, the minimal role of the state—the cumulative absence of an “American BBC”—is far from irrelevant.

A little-known footnote to this 1930s saga of the artist and the state was an unsuccessful campaign to implement an “American BBC,” climaxing in 1934 with the congressional defeat of a proposal to set aside a fixed number of radio frequencies for nonprofit use. An alliance of university and radio leaders argued that a public radio system would ghettoize education. “Controlled radio” was also denounced as a “threat to democracy.” Crucially, David Sarnoff and William Paley, leading NBC and CBS respectively, were visionaries for whom an educational mission incorporating culture was a genuine priority, whatever its commercial liabilities. A gamut of educational shows—ranging broadly from NBC’s 32-week lecture series, Aspects of the Depression, to friendly mentorship by such popular radio intellectuals as Clifton Fadiman, Alexander Woollcott, William Phelps, and Oscar Levant—purveyed higher learning. In the realm of classical music, a steady diet of live symphonic concerts reached millions of families every week. At CBS, where Bernard Herrmann conducted, his studio guests included Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, and Igor Stravinsky. Herrmann also composed music for the distinguished radio dramas of Orson Welles and Norman Corwin.

Later, when TV entered the picture, CBS initiated Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus specials and Young People’s Concerts, and Sarnoff created an NBC Opera offering innovative productions of opera in English. But Paley retired as president in 1959, Sarnoff in 1970; their successors gradually abandoned the high mission at hand. PBS and NPR, ironically, have offered nothing remotely as ambitious as the arts programming CBS and NBC once championed. If American arts audiences today compare unfavorably with audiences elsewhere, the minimal role of the state—the cumulative absence of an “American BBC”—is far from irrelevant.

Could something like the Works Progress Administration have endured? The Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1973, was a mini-sequel of sorts. Enacted in response to an economic recession, CETA allocated block grants to individual states to create jobs. For those states that elected to subsidize the arts, the program became a veritable WPA. Nationally, CETA employed more than 10,000 artists. But it was not renewed under Jimmy Carter. According to David Woolner, Hyde Park’s resident historian,

the creativity of the New Deal was something new in American government, predicated on the notion that “government has a responsibility to support the public good.” The onset of World War II shifted the focus from New Deal reforms to winning the war, and the 1938 midterm elections resulted in a more conservative Congress. But Roosevelt was looking forward to reinvigorating the New Deal. In his 1944 State of the Union address, he called for a new “economic bill of rights,” which included the right to leisure. I think that between that and his interest in establishing a comprehensive approach to keeping people at work, had he lived longer he would have been very open to a renewal of something like WPA support for the arts.

But the New Deal and CETA may also be viewed as aberrations. “Neither had lasting impact as a funding model,” says Jesse Rosen, outgoing president of the League of American Orchestras.

The concepts of public good, civil society, and governmental social responsibility have been under unrelenting and effective attack for decades. Today we are living in a Milton Friedman theme park. In this context the notion of a new New Deal for the arts seems unrealistic and rather nostalgic. The prevailing U.S. concept of arts support is that it’s a private matter incentivized by the government through tax policy and a federal agency—the NEA—whose primary grant-making role is to catalyze private investment. Essentially, our system holds that in a “free” society, individuals and foundations should choose the “causes” they believe should be supported. Not the government.

What might we expect from Joe Biden in the way of a presidential arts policy? Judging from his campaign, Biden would create positions within the executive branch to coordinate arts policy with an emphasis on job stimulation. He would endeavor to find ways to support artists and cultural institutions within existing governmental agencies. But he would not support anything like a new WPA.


President Roosevelt’s espousal of the arts, and his alignment of culture with democracy, did in some respects forecast future developments in an oscillating American narrative aligning or separating government and the arts, and the artist and the state. Three manifestations, all Cold War events, were the Congress for Cultural Freedom, State Department cultural diplomacy, and John F. Kennedy’s culture campaign of 1962–63.

The CCF was founded in 1950 to deploy culture as a propaganda tool. Its objective was to woo the non-communist left abroad. If the government therefore espoused culture only through a back door, enthusiasm among the CIA’s Ivy League intellectuals was real. The CCF was a central factor in a cultural Cold War waged between the United States and the Soviet Union for some four decades. The Soviets started sooner and spent more. No one will ever know how much the CCF spent, because funding was secretly channeled via a network of front organizations. But there was money aplenty.

In retrospect, the CIA made two wrong turns with the CCF. Its secrecy ultimately backfired, igniting a firestorm of criticism and controversy when prominent artists and intellectuals discovered themselves to have been unwitting servants of a spy agency. And the wrong man was chosen to take charge. As CCF general secretary, Nicolas Nabokov, a minor Russian-American composer, became “cultural generalissimo” (Igor Stravinsky’s term) of the non-communist West. A learned cosmopolite, famously charming, irresistibly sociable, Nabokov had long acquired an astonishing international network of friends and acquaintances but was burdened with the psychological baggage of an emigrant aristocrat forced to abandon his homeland at the age of 15. It was Nabokov’s contention that, minus the intelligentsia it squandered, Soviet culture was an oxymoron. He notoriously belittled Dmitri Shostakovich, the Soviet artist most famous in the West, as a kind of party hack. He was closely associated with Stravinsky, who endorsed Nabokov’s preposterous characterization of Shostakovich as a colorless, flavorless “oyster.”

The CCF mandate was to counteract stereotypes of American provincialism propagated by Jean-Paul Sartre and kindred European tastemakers. For Nabokov, Stravinsky was the defining cultural icon of the 20th century, surpassing Picasso. Not only did the ambitious musical programs Nabokov created—the biggest being a month-long celebration of “Masterpieces of the Twentieth Century” in Paris in 1952—take sides with Stravinsky against his archrival Arnold Schoenberg, they also embraced a counter-empirical “propaganda of freedom,” arguing that only “free societies” could foster great art. Nabokov’s artistic agenda was so tendentious that CCF festivals and conferences were stigmatized as propaganda by their intended beneficiaries long before the CIA’s cover was blown in 1966.

In any event, the CCF was superseded by a State Department initiative. After World War II, the Soviet government proved more eager to send artists to the United States than the U.S. government was to subsidize Americans performing in Moscow and Leningrad. Russia’s leading instrumentalists—David Oistrakh, Emil Gilels, Mstislav Rostropovich—triumphed in America in 1955 and 1956. Two years later came Van Cliburn’s pandemoniac victory at the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. The State Department had declined to subsidize his travel expenses. Some American diplomats even viewed Cliburn as a security risk because his enthusiasm for Russia was so effusive. Still, it was well understood that Soviet musical competitors were beneficiaries of exemplary state-funded conservatories that spared no expense preparing and deploying artistic athletes. Washington’s milestone response was the 1958 Lacy-Zarubin Agreement, which put the State Department in charge of U.S.-Soviet exchanges “in the Cultural, Technical, and Educational Fields.” In the realm of culture, the first American beneficiary, in August 1959, was the New York Philharmonic, led by its music director, Leonard Bernstein. The outcome—a European tour that included concerts in the Soviet Union—was an object lesson in how an American cultural leader, empowered by state support, could change hearts and minds. It therefore bears thoughtful scrutiny today.

Bernstein’s qualifications for cultural diplomacy were as self-evident as they were comprehensive. Even so, the State Department was nervous. Every member of the Philharmonic received a 28-page booklet, “So You’re Going to Russia.” Its intent was to equip visitors with facts and observations to spread “the American message of good-will,” a message, that is, of American superiority. As it turned out, all such admonitions and instructions were irrelevant. In Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev, Bernstein proved wholly independent and completely unpredictable.

Early on, he was asked not to program one of the American works he had scheduled: Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question. According to whom? Bernstein asked. “Experts,” he was told. The State Department’s Hans Tuch, a witness to this exchange, vividly recalled Bernstein’s retort: “He said, ‘Fuck you!’, got up, and walked out.” Bernstein proceeded not only to perform the five-minute Ives piece; he encored it. He also conducted Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Winds even though it was not listed ahead of time. His reading of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony controversially sped up the ending. A wild reception compelled the composer to stride quickly to the podium and shake the conductor’s hand. And, famously, Bernstein violated Soviet concert decorum by speaking from the stage. When criticized for doing so, he decided he had not talked enough. But the biggest surprise that Bernstein pulled was inviting Boris Pasternak to his final concert. A year before, the eminent Russian novelist had been prohibited by the Soviets from accepting a Nobel Prize. He not only came to the concert—his first public appearance since the Nobel scandal and his expulsion from the Soviet Writers’ Union—but hosted Bernstein in his dacha while the world watched.

Bernstein more than enjoyed himself in Russia. Free-spirited, irrepressible, he extolled American music and critiqued Soviet restraints. But Bernstein’s fundamental sermon was ecumenical. On the last full day of his visit, he taped a one-hour lecture-concert for American television. Illustrating the popularity of Russian music in American popular song, he sampled “Full Moon and Empty Arms” (after Rachmaninoff) and “Tonight We Love” (after Tchaikovsky). His main exercise, fundamentally different from the CIA’s cultural propaganda war, was to juxtapose excerpts from Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid and Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, and discover similarities mirroring “the similarity of our two great peoples.” Upon returning to the United States, he spoke at a press conference in Washington, D.C., advocating increased funding for cultural exchange.

The post-Bernstein deluge of American musical artists visiting the Soviet Union under State Department sponsorship included the Cleveland Orchestra and a host of jazz ensembles, including those of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, and Dave Brubeck. When George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet toured in 1962, its repertoire included Agon (1957), setting a nontonal Stravinsky score unknown to Soviet audiences. Balanchine’s central pas de deux featured Arthur Mitchell and Allegra Kent, Mitchell being the company’s one African-American soloist. For Russian audiences, Agon was a milestone discovery. The company’s farewell performance was said by Bolshoi personnel to have ignited the greatest ovation ever recalled in that theater.

Cultural diplomacy between the United States and Russia dissipated with the waning of the Cold War. Before that, an outgrowth of sorts was John F. Kennedy’s mounting emphasis on arts advocacy. At the White House, the Kennedys prominently hosted Pablo Casals and Stravinsky, and the president’s cultural Cold War speeches and writings looked forward to the Kennedy Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. But the Ministry of Culture that Jackie Kennedy espoused did not materialize.

Today, the WPA seems a long-ago experiment in another America, one in which politics and the arts proved productive yet disallowable bedfellows. The legacy of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, two decades later, is permanently controversial: no historiographic consensus prevails. Kennedy did not ultimately foster the “more civilized” United States he prophesied. But no one disputes the outcome of Cold War cultural diplomacy. It worked. It ameliorated tensions between two great states—and at a cost minuscule in comparison with expenditures on defense and intelligence during the same period. If the arts, backed by government, proved healing during the Cold War, what might be surmised about their possible role in today’s fraught and fractured United States?


The $250 million designated for culture as part of the Covid bailout last March included money for public broadcasting, the Kennedy Center, the NEH, and the NEA. Of the $75 million NEA allocation, $30 million went to state and regional arts agencies. Pondering its own $45 million pot, the NEA decided to award 846 competitive grants of $50,000 apiece and another $200,000 apiece to nine local arts agencies; 3,100 applications were received. The process provoked frustration and consternation on all sides. A scramble for chicken feed, it underscored an absence of national arts leadership.

Meanwhile, the Small Business Administration made available $500 billion in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, $1.8 billion of which went to nonprofit arts organizations. Local foundations pitched in as they could. A consortium of national foundations announced the creation of an emergency arts fund. But these resources were dwarfed by shortfalls resulting from closed doors and dark houses. An August study by the Brookings Institution estimated losses of 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales in “the fine and performing arts industries” for the four-month period from April 1 to July 31. The authors, Richard Florida and Michael Seman, wrote that the arts

are one of three key sectors (along with science and technology as well as business and management) that drive regional economies. Any lasting damage to the creative sector will drastically undercut our culture, well-being and quality of life. … Small, stop-gap measures will not undo the damage; a substantial and sustained national creative-economy recovery strategy is required.

Absent government largesse, and with hard times reducing individual contributions, America’s big philanthropic foundations will matter more than ever. But here our story becomes complexly entwined with a new world of identity politics and social justice reform, diversity, and inclusivity. A decade ago, a pivotal study commissioned by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy reconsidered foundation giving to nonprofit arts and cultural institutions. “The majority of arts funding supports large organizations with budgets greater than $5 million,” the report summarized. “Such organizations, which comprise less than 2 percent of [all] arts and cultural nonprofits, receive more than half of the sector’s total revenue. These institutions focus primarily on Western European art forms, and their programs serve audiences that are predominantly white and upper income. Only 10 percent of grant dollars made with a primary or secondary purpose of supporting the arts explicitly benefit underserved communities. … And less than 4 percent focus on advancing social justice goals.” Also, the staffing of these organizations, and of their boards, was overwhelmingly white. A mandate for urgent change was identified and enforced.

No one could possibly question the need for new priorities. People of color were far underrepresented in the institutional life of American culture. The consequences were, and are, morally unsupportable and suggest a residual allegiance to stratified Gilded Age norms. But the strategic response, to date, has too often been reductionist: diminishing the percentage of white faces on stage, in the office, and in the audience attacks a symptom more than a cause. While undeniably pertinent—they can be a necessary first step—quota-based remedies risk myopia. Lorenzo Candelaria, dean of Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music and one of the nation’s leading Hispanic educators, tells this story:

During my years as associate provost at the University of Texas–El Paso, I was once asked to give a course for high school teachers on great American literature. I chose the African-American spiritual. And that of course also includes music: very singable, very moving—universal. I remember going to a foundation and saying that I’d really love their support in taking this incredible body of music and sharing it with the Latinx communities in far west Texas, where we have unincorporated “colonias” with no running water, no electricity, no paved roads, very low income. … While I’m on this phone call, suddenly there is silence. Then somebody says, “Aren’t you being a little bit culturally insensitive? You’re trying to take African-American music into a largely Hispanic community.” At that moment, I realized what’s going wrong with our concert halls, with many of our classrooms. We’ve stopped thinking about the broader human story that everyone can tell.

The stories I myself can tell, reflecting on the arts and the pandemic, are about orchestras—the arts scene I know best. And they are of particular interest right now because a century ago, orchestras were, of all American cultural institutions, the most likely to confer a presiding civic signature. Subsequently, they have fallen furthest in influence and cachet. What is more, they have benefited or suffered from an especially crucial and volatile relationship to the foundation community. During the “arts explosion” of the 1960s, they still seemed a crown jewel, however battered. Today, symphony orchestras are the most cited poster children for high-cultural obsolescence and irrelevance.

A little history. In the story of American classical music, the two most influential figures are a conductor and an orchestra inventor: Theodore Thomas and Henry Higginson. Beginning in the 1860s, the world-class Thomas Orchestra toured the nation. Thomas’s credo was: “A symphony orchestra shows the culture of a community, not opera.” And in cities large and small, so it did. Higginson, in 1881, created the Boston Symphony, which he owned and operated for 38 years. It became a template for the future. What the opera house was in the Old World, the symphony hall became in the New. After World War II, four great American orchestras—in Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago—were both civic bulwarks and world-famous musical institutions. But as communities changed, orchestras did not; classical music was rapidly marginalized in the culture at large.

A crucial event was the intervention of the Ford Foundation in 1966, when
$80 million (about $700 million today) was invested in orchestras to facilitate “full employment” for musicians. The logic was impeccable: orchestral musicians were grossly underpaid. But the solution—expanded seasons of 40 and 50 weeks—proved ruinous; in retrospect, a higher pay scale per service would have done the trick. Overnight, symphonic supply far outstripped demand. Orchestras now became stressed fundraising and marketing machines with understaffed artistic departments.

The foundation community undertook a series of initiatives attempting to foster “innovation,” but two obstacles proved immovable. The first was a labor-management schism between musicians and administrators. The second was a deficit in artistic resources; it is partly because orchestras (unlike museums or theater companies) do not engage scholars on staff that they lack a “humanities” dimension that could link their concerts to an external world of exigent societal issues.

Although, traditionally, foundations contributed little more than 10 percent of orchestral revenues, they mattered disproportionately to orchestras committed to progressive change. Even so, one after another, the major charitable foundations gave up on classical music. Today, the most prominent remaining initiative is a “pipeline” that facilitates moving gifted musicians of color into the ranks. That this strategy is partly a matter of enhanced “optics” summarizes its strengths and shortcomings; it risks impacting visibly but superficially.

The biggest institution of performance—the Metropolitan Opera—will sooner or later find its 3,800-seat auditorium, a remnant of another epoch, no longer economically or artistically viable.

The American orchestra that has most dramatically succeeded in championing social justice, the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra, is not part of any pipeline initiative. Its music director, Delta David Gier, moved to Sioux Falls 15 years ago and raised a family there, so he knows that his orchestra can only “show the culture of the community” by embracing the Native American experience. That this factor looms mightily over the affairs of the state and its citizens has for Gier proved less a formidable challenge than a singular opportunity. His Lakota Music Project connects the SDSO to nine Indian reservations. Its many manifestations feature side-by-side concerts juxtaposing Native and SDSO musicians, and commissioned works in which all participate. The long gestation process necessarily included a scholarly facilitator: Ronnie Theisz, now retired from Black Hills State University, whose expertise in Native American music, and membership in the famed Porcupine Singers, helped Gier to forge trust and informed collaboration. The orchestra has also ingeniously built relationships with Sioux Falls’ Sudanese, Chinese, South Asian, and Hispanic populations.

Another thing to know about the SDSO is that it is not a union orchestra, which means that the musicians and staff can comprise something like a family. And it means that the players are minimally restricted, contractually, with regard to what duties they can undertake as orchestra members—including reconfigurations as a world-class wind quintet and string quartet. That is: they can be a community presence. Significantly, the SDSO is weathering the pandemic with apparent success. Its last pre-Covid concert was March 7. A subsequent $234,000 PPP grant was applied to pay all the musicians for every canceled concert. Only 20 percent of ticketholders asked for refunds. Corporate sponsors converted their targeted gifts into general contributions.

For many another orchestra, the pandemic is a crisis with no discernible outcome. Some will fold. Those that most hew to tradition will at least ponder change. Those accustomed to changing will likely change faster, especially in the realm of media. For some, the pandemic will hasten change that is unwanted or resisted. The biggest institution of performance—the Metropolitan Opera—will sooner or later find its 3,800-seat auditorium, a remnant of another epoch, no longer economically or artistically viable. Will the pandemic play a role in hastening the creation of a mini-Met?

According to Jesse Rosen of the League of American Orchestras, the present crisis has so far not notably promoted collaborative reconsideration of how individual musicians can best serve their orchestras and communities. Can Covid nonetheless power innovation? I offer a vignette from my own experience: PostClassical Ensemble, the “experimental” chamber orchestra I co-founded in Washington, D.C., 18 years ago, is suddenly making movies. Rather than streaming concerts, we are embedding our past performances, CDs, and DVDs into documentary films relating classical music to such topics as the American experience of race, the artist and the state, and the democratic ethos. This proves surprisingly easy because we are humanities based: our concerts are thematic and cross-disciplinary; they already tell stories. Our unforeseen initiative, which we call “More than Music,” is penetrating virtual classrooms at Howard University and elsewhere. It is opening doors we would not otherwise have glimpsed. I am sure there are other such examples.


Museums, as well as theater and dance companies, are more adaptable to contemporary themes and changing economic circumstances than are symphonic ensembles with a fixed membership of 80 or more players. Contractually, such orchestras cannot flexibly shrink and expand according to resources and needs. And their core repertoire, however tweaked, ends around 1950. If the pandemic therefore seems less dire to dancers, actors, and museum curators, the threats it poses remain scary. Extrapolating from the case of classical music, I count at least three components of the crisis that hasten a reckoning moment.

The first is virtual reality—performances without live audiences. Here the reckoning is legalistic. What models of compensation will institutions and labor unions find mutually acceptable? The experience of new media will surely drive new visions. Of course, cameras cannot substitute for live human eyes and ears. Dance, in particular, is a creative discipline that eludes the screen. And audiences impact greatly on ambience, not least for the performers themselves. But new media will also drive new dimensions of intimacy and access. One dream is of live performances wedded to live national or international streaming, kindred to the media reach of professional sports today.

The second component is the one propelling social justice. Its most vivid public manifestation, as of this writing, is “We See You, White American Theater,” a coalition whose 29-page manifesto, released in July 2020, was signed by 300 artists, and then thousands more online. “We See You” calls for more than half of Broadway’s theaters to be renamed after artists of color, for term limits for theater leaders, for more than half the actors, writers, directors, and designers employed by theaters to be people of color “for the foreseeable future.” No one disputes the urgent need for redress. But this new, peremptory tone has instilled a climate of fear unknown in the arts since the Red Scare of the 1950s. An actress in a prominent company says, “We are performing plays right now that would never have been considered before—badly written, poorly conceived. And if you speak up, you’re denounced and shunned—within the company.”

A leading figure in political theater adds, “We are in a moment of radical upheaval, of destabilization, of internal warfare and realignment accelerated by the stress of the pandemic. We all know we can’t go back to the way things were. But that doesn’t mean we should burn everything down. We must move forward in a more enlightened way, with greater understanding of how our structures caused harm.” The issue becomes one of means. In classical music, new priorities have impelled a disorganized scramble to perform works by Black composers. (On why classical music in the United States “stayed white,” and the causal impact of modernism, see my “New World Prophecy” in the Autumn 2019 Scholar.) An informed effort to curate the entirety of American symphonic music, prioritizing “Black classical music,” is here an overdue antidote.

The third reckoning, the one most exacerbated by Covid, is financial. The costs incurred by closed doors are tidal and will surge through neighboring restaurants, stores, and hotels. Many arts organizations will drown. The federal arts response to the Depression and the Cold War—in some ways, comparable emergencies—will not likely be repeated, even if a new CARES Act does materialize. Rosen of the orchestra league speaks for many in the arts when he says,

I, of course, favor advocacy for more government support, but I think this has a better chance, nowadays, when hitched to the broader nonprofit sector, and to securing a place for the arts within needs already supported by federal agencies far bigger than the NEA. This would include work force development, community development, disaster relief, health and human services, and education.

A pervasive sentiment embraced by Rosen is that “turning back” to pre-Covid norms would be “a fool’s errand.” Here’s a sampling of reflections and admonitions on how to move forward:

Our initial response is naturally to crave a return to normal. … But this may not, and surely should not, be the route to follow. This crisis forces us to address our purpose and our ways of working … changes that were already thought of as necessary will be accelerated. … The Barbican had [already] begun to redefine its strategic purpose as offering a civic space for people and ideas … beyond survival, support is needed to allow this experimentation to happen on what could be a long road to recovery. … What we offer in the arts must feel so vital that culture … will play a central role in rebuilding the cohesion of the country after this crisis. We will be back; but we will be different.

—Nicholas Kenyon, Managing Director, Barbican Centre, London

The world is settling loosely into two camps: Restorationists, who believe that this was a catastrophic event we have to survive … and Opportunists, who believe that everything has changed going forward and that we have a historic opportunity to reinvent. … What the pandemic has exposed is the shocking impoverishment of our infrastructure at every level: medical, political, financial, industrial, media, logistical, and yes, cultural. … Delivery of arts education has been frail for [a] long time. … Our arts institutions are badly under-capitalized. … We have significant and persistent leadership failure issues. … Why would we want to restore infrastructure that has been sputtering and misfiring for a very long time?

—Douglas McLennan, Founder and Editor, ArtsJournal

Most people do not really understand how culture is funded in the U.S., and the fragilities of that. At the same time, our model gives us more independence than institutions that are funded primarily by the government, here or elsewhere. To be sure, there is less of a safety net, especially for small organizations, and more government funding would be welcome. I would add that the heterogeneity of our funding requires more of our leaders in the way of advocating for compelling ideas, for innovation, for accountability. In particular, now is a moment in which it is vital for us to ask: Whose museum or theater or orchestra is it? Whose art? Whose plays? Whose music?

—Daniel Weiss, President and CEO, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The century between 1870 and 1970 transformed the world as no other century has, and all in the direction of ease, safety, and comfort. We no longer haul 50 gallons of water from the pump to wash and drink; we no longer chop cords of wood to heat ourselves; we no longer regard a trip of 25 miles as equivalent to an entire day’s journey; we have no need of our neighbors. In other words, we live in a fairy-tale world of
instant supply at the click of a mouse; we live in a phony milieu where our chief pleasure is denigration. If it’s too much to get off our sofas, it will be too much to listen to Beethoven. In fact, culture is now understood to be a political weapon, and any attempt to speak of it with any authority is set down at once as a gesture of dominance. We are on the verge of suggesting that orchestras staff themselves by quota. Now is a time to rethink.

—Allen Guelzo, American historian, Princeton University


When in 1959 Leonard Bernstein was sent to Soviet Russia with his New York Philharmonic, he was financed by the State Department and allowed to exert his own kind of leadership; the outcome was a healing Cold War intervention. But compared with today, Bernstein had it easy: Russia and the United States shared a musical pantheon. Russians widely embraced Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, and Van Cliburn was a veritable folk hero. Americans widely embraced Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, and Cliburn craziness was mainstream: a Fifth Avenue ticker-tape parade, an interview with Edward R. Murrow on Person to Person, a guest appearance on What’s My Line? in which the blindfolded panelists guessed Cliburn’s identity at once. There was no polarization of red and blue, no state of siege within the cultural sector itself.

In a New Yorker article two years ago, Adam Gopnik anointed Frederick Douglass “the greatest figure that America has ever produced.” This was no exercise in special pleading but an accounting of Douglass’s “legacy as prophetic radical and political pragmatist,” of “the almost unimaginable bravery of his early journey and the resilience of his later career.” That W. E. B. Du Bois, too, deserves canonization as iconic is unarguable. Both, of course, are militant, confrontational personalities who probe the fissures of the American experience. It bears mentioning, as well, that both happened to be devotees of Old World high culture: Douglass played the violin (and his grandson Joseph toured widely as a concert violinist); Du Bois was a Wagnerite.

For that matter, at the end of the 19th century, Wagnerism infiltrated every crevice of the New World artistic experience, bonding music, literature, visual art, theater, dance. As in nations abroad, Wagnerism was among other things a diagnostic: it mirrored place and time, disclosing a consolidated, uplifting “America.” To a surprising degree, it rhymed with Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment philosophy of brotherhood and equality; with a buoyant and sanitized national epic, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha, still resilient in 1900; with the phenomenal popularity of Frederic Church’s mega-landscapes and their religious message of Manifest Destiny; with Walt Whitman’s democratic paeans. It notably minimized Wagner’s notorious anti-Semitism.

A century and a quarter later, the pandemic, too, is a diagnostic—and discloses a self-critical, self-confrontational United States that feels newly inchoate. We no longer hug a common cultural pantheon. Longfellow and Church are irrelevant; Douglass and Du Bois remain in a waiting room (and the formidable, formidably wronged Crazy Horse in a lobby). We are at work fashioning a national cultural inheritance that fits our needs and hopes today.

Compared with nations abroad, we are not even secure in asserting that culture matters. In this fragile moment, Covid will be a catalyst or obstacle whose impact on government and politics, on the environment and the economy is already undergoing relentless scrutiny. At the very least, the arts must become part of this conversation. Perhaps we can hope for more and allow culture to help us find the way.

The author’s sequel to this essay, “The Unifying Appeal of the Arts,” has been published by American Purpose.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Joseph Horowitz is the author, most recently, of a novel, The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York, and of The Propaganda of Freedom: JFK, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and the Cultural Cold War. His articles for the Scholar include a review of Fiona Maddocks’s biography of Rachmaninoff and an essay on “ripeness” in musical performance. He writes about the arts on his blog, “Unanswered Question.”


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