This is the first of two columns that will examine the ideas of "cultural triage."
We're heading toward the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 shutdown, and for most Chicago cultural organizations, reopening remains a semi-distant hope, dependent on how quickly vaccines can be delivered, and on how soon the companies can ramp back up to full production. (Dr. Fauci says fall of 2021 is possible, but there are a lot of moving parts to consider, including how comfortable patrons will be with sitting in enclosed spaces for hours, and what agreements theaters will reach with Actors' Equity and other labor organizations.) But even in the best-case scenario, it seems unlikely that all the groups that existed before the pandemic will be back on the boards again.
The crystal ball may be muddy. But Brian Loevner, a longtime producer, administrator, and consultant in Chicago theater (his resume includes a stint as managing producer for Second City, managing director for Chicago Dramatists, and creator of the Chicago Commercial Collective), and the president and founder of BLVE Consults, thinks that considering "cultural triage" may give some clarity for arts organizations, funders, and civic leaders.
BLVE has released a white paper entitled "Cultural Triage: Considerations for Funders and Performing Arts Leaders in a Time of Upheaval," created by Loevner and Ian Belknap (perhaps best known locally as the creator of Write Club and coiner of the phrase "live lit"). It lays out some considerations for rethinking how arts nonprofits live—and how it might be necessary to talk honestly about letting some die.
These are all things Loevner was thinking about before last March. "The impetus for this has been around for longer than the pandemic," he says. "Over the last few years, I've been watching theater companies sort of explode or implode and leave the scene in really awful ways—deeply in debt or under, you know, significant scandal of some kind. It's always upset me that the moment of implosion is what people remember about it." He adds, "Back before the pandemic, I had thought about this. But there was limited interest in talking about organizations shutting down at that point, and then the pandemic hit, and it really became clear that we were going to see a pretty significant shift in the cultural ecology."
When the shutdown happened, Loevner and his BLVE colleagues sought input from a number of people across the arts in Chicago to create the white paper.
It's more a "how can we move forward?" collection of questions and possible answers than it is a confident manifesto, and that is by design. And though Loevner notes that he's been accused by some of floating the idea of "death panels" for arts groups, that's not his intent.
"We knew we were going to see the arts world really have a change and a rebirth. I know it's happened many times over. Things have changed and moments have happened that have caused us to look at our work differently. And I really saw this as one of those moments. We should talk about organizational models. What are the ways we could reshape ourselves as we go through a situation that is unprecedented like this?"
In the paper, Loevner and Belknap lay out "two potential lines of thinking and consideration, that if properly funded, and implemented, might provide some options for organizations." He tells me, "The idea is that organizations should be able to change their focus and change what they're doing or merge with another organization, or even shut down if they need to and get support from foundations, the city and state, support from service organizations to make the process smooth for them."
The first part of the paper focuses on what they're calling "mutual transfusion," which is a fancy way of saying "merger." It seems like a good idea for arts groups (especially those with similar missions or audience bases) to think about combining their resources into one entity in order to survive, but "Cultural Triage" identifies a couple of things standing in the way: "1) what we’re calling the Fallacy of Singularity, an entrenched notion that each performing arts organization, despite its many evident similarities to many other such organizations, is somehow inherently unique, and 2) artistic and/or intellectual pride."
But even companies who are willing to let go of their belief in their own irreplaceable uniqueness will need help with merging. "Cultural Triage" suggests ways that funders can help with that process beyond writing checks, including support for an "operations audit" to "assess redundancies of capacity, staffing, technology and equipment" and a "philosophical mediation" that takes into account "areas of commonality both artistically and operationally (style of leadership, arenas of responsibility, etc.)."
This could also take into account geographic proximity. "One of the [things] that I wanted people to consider was what I just sort of called a neighborhood arts center," says Loevner. "The idea being that if you have a small arts community within your neighborhood and they are struggling in this moment of a pandemic or could use other options to grow, bringing them together by location might be a way to build support, right? So if you have a small dance company and a theater or two theaters and a visual arts organization that all have their own spaces within four or five blocks of each other, it would be nice for all of them to be able to keep their spaces. But in this moment, maybe the largest of those spaces could be adapted into a space for all of them to share."
BLVE identifies a few different models that might help with the merger concept: adoption, in which essentially a larger and better-funded arts organization "takes financial and operational responsibility for a group of arts organizations"; the studio, where larger organizations help smaller ones with a "COVID-compliant" event space to meet production needs, including digital and streaming content (the paper notes that Center Theatre Group in LA is doing this with its "Live From the KDT" series); the incubator, in which organizations share offstage resources, which could include office space, marketing, and fundraising; the aforementioned neighborhood-based cultural centers; and a co-op model, providing longer-term collaborations for a post-COVID world.
Says Loevner, "A lot of people are advocating for really innovative, interesting ideas. And so part of my next step in this work is to start to talk to arts organizations and really find out what they need, and then to start to bring together a lot of these ideas, disparate ideas that are out there, and even just put them in a Google sheet for goodness sake so that everybody can access it. There are more people doing the kind of work that I'm doing out there. And there are people writing daily about different ideas. And I think if we can organize some of that thought, that would be really useful to the field."
But if those models aren't in the cards, and the COVID comeback is too daunting, Loevner thinks we need to strip the stigma away from closing down permanently, and that funders and consultants should be better equipped to help arts organizations figure out a "living will," as the white paper puts it, for winding things down without excess drama.
"Might it not be worth developing a set of strategies and best practices to help organizations recognize when they have approached the end of their operational lives?" Loevner and Belknap ask. "Might it not be helpful and necessary to begin reframing the proposition of an organization’s dissolution from its current one of exhaustion and defeat, to one that emphasizes the orderly settling of a company’s affairs, discharging its outstanding obligations, creating a robust archive of its artistic output, and affording its artists, staff, and supporters the chance to say goodbye in an unhurried fashion?"
But Loevner acknowledges that there is a difference between arts groups that are predominantly white institutions (PWI) and those that are founded and led by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) arts leaders and are rooted in underserved communities.
Miranda González, producing artistic director of UrbanTheater Company in Humboldt Park, created at Loevner's invitation (he is on the board of UTC) a "direct call to action" that focuses on the role of BIPOC cultural institutions. In her paper, González points out that these institutions "have historically resided in the communities that represent them. The Harlem renaissance, Chicago Black renaissance, Chicano Art Movement, began out of the necessity to preserve and reflect the voices of our neighborhoods. We know we are essential to the arts ecosystem. Piloting new paradigms during a crisis is our history."
It's a history that deserves to be explored in greater detail. My next column will feature a discussion with González on what companies like UTC have been doing—before and during the pandemic—to collaborate and cooperate with each other and their communities. v