News and Insights

The Show Must Go On: A Lesson from the Arts

April 29, 2020

Culture defines who we are as people. It both reflects humanity and challenges us to consider new perspectives and ideas. Art and design are the fabric of our lives—not just the museums we visit, the television we watch and the books that we read, but the homes where we live, the clothes we wear and the products we buy. Culture sparks connections, creating common ground through which to express and discuss our thoughts about politics, business and society. But culture isn’t just about ideas and aesthetics. In the United States alone, the nonprofit arts and culture industry supports 4.6 million jobs and generates $166.3 billion in economic activity each year, according to the latest data from Americans for the Arts.

Like nearly every industry, the arrival of the coronavirus drastically changed the arts and cultural sector, seemingly overnight. In a matter of hours, museums were shuttered. Performances were canceled. Parades, festivals and other community convenings were off.  For an industry that revolves around bringing people together for shared experiences, the question became, what happens to the arts and cultural sector when pandemic strikes and gatherings are canceled for the foreseeable future?

Almost as quickly as in-person art experiences became impossible, creative digital opportunities emerged. Many institutions were already using social media and online tools to supplement their in-person offerings, and the public health crisis sparked an evolution in transforming these digital platforms into stand-alone arts experiences. It also hastened the creative adoption of online channels by institutions that had yet to embrace them.

Museums around the world are going virtual. The Metropolitan Opera is streaming a different opera on its website every evening. The Getty has challenged people to re-create famous artworks and share photos on social media. Shakespeare Theatre Company has launched a weekly lecture series. New York City Ballet rolled out a digital spring season. These and hundreds of other online resources provide a welcome source of inspiration, education and distraction for many.

Beyond infusing our homes and lives with virtual culture, artists are sewing masks and creating encouraging posters for hospitals, and museums are donating gloves and masks used for artwork conservation to healthcare workers on the frontlines. Cultural institutions and artists are adapting to continue serving their communities even while many face dire financial challenges behind the scenes.

Have we seen the end of blockbuster museum exhibitions or art schools, diverse galleries and art fairs, as some have imagined? Will many of the smaller museums, galleries and performing arts companies that enliven local communities across the country—many of which took years to build–survive at all? The somewhat frustrating answer is that we just don’t know. There is no way of knowing for sure what our city, country or world will look like next month or next year, just as we couldn’t have imagined the current landscape a few short weeks ago.

What we do know is that whatever the future holds, telling powerful stories of how organizations react, respond and adapt will help in charting a path for where we go next. This is true not just for the arts but for all industries and issue areas impacted by the public health crisis.

The arts are resilient, having existed in one form or another for tens of thousands of years and having survived everything from plagues and wars to the rise and fall of empires and civilizations. Somehow, through it all, art and culture continue to evolve and infuse society with hope and vibrancy.

The resilience of the arts provides a valuable lesson for all of us as communicators. The show must go on, whatever the show may be. It may not look exactly like we thought it would, and we may have to significantly revise or even scrap our carefully prepared 2020 plans and start fresh. But if we remain responsive, flexible, and creative, we can support our clients across sectors in developing a roadmap to tell stories not of an ending, but of setting the stage for a new beginning.