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Commentary: The Arts Are On The Forefront Of Change Due To Covid And Equity Issues


Change--it's hard, but can sometimes have positive results. We are in the middle of very unexpected change. This miserable pandemic has forced us to reflect on what has been and what might be coming.

Then we were "hit on the head" with more racial strife with awful tragedies occurring all over our country.

The arts are always at the forefront of change in our society and so I approached some respected leaders in the arts community and asked them how they were handling both the pandemic and equity, diversity and inclusion.

Andrew Jorgensen, General Director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, says that the organization is adapting to the pandemic in many ways. First of all, the actual annual festival will be presented outdoors and many talks and musical programs have been presented on-line. As for diversity, equity and inclusion, Opera Theatre has been committed to this issue for years. Two operas presented recently, "Champion" and "Fire Shut Up in My Bones," were a part of the "New Works, Bold Voices" program which presents world premieres at Opera Theatre. These two operas featured black stars and black composers and there are lots more coming.

One of my favorite on-line talks was presented by Opera Theatre docent Diane McCollough. The talk, titled "Two Centuries of Black Composers of Opera," was heartbreaking and inspiring. McCollough says, "What these composers had in common: They were all multi-talented; all were multi-instrumentalists; all made their living in popular forms of music and/or entertainment in vogue at their time; all were prepared for careers in classical music but faced racism and segregation; all were entrepreneurial and created their own opportunities where they could.

St. Louis Magazine asked the same questions of several artistic leaders in our community. Hana Sharif, Artistic Director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis said, "On deciding to postpone the world premiere of ‘Dreaming Zenzile,’ based on the life of anti-apartheid Miriam Makeba, the thing about art that lives in a historical lens, is that history cycles and repeats itself, and there are things that you wish were not as relevant as they are. But what happens is the impulses and experiences of the people who have to embody the character are imbued with their own trauma and pain and hope. I imagine the performance will have an even richer life, because of the moment, this extraordinary rising of people demanding to be seen for the fullness of their humanity. This moment we are in, in terms of social justice, is not disconnected from the moment we are in, in terms of COVID-19. We are fundamentally human, and our lives and survival are very much dependent on each other."

Lisa Melandri, Executive Director of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM), when asked by St. Louis Magazine the question about the works of art that will be born of this crisis said, "If you believe, as I do, that artists are often the first voices who translate what has happened in our world into different kinds of formats that can be both insightful and incisive, then I think we are going to see a tremendous creative endeavor that will be all about this moment. And this moment is complex. There are psychological and social implications. It is going to be an extraordinarily rich, global work that's going to come out of creative citizens. However, because so much of contemporary art is deeply engaged with the issues of our time, from that standpoint it won't be terribly different."

And Chris Hansen, Executive Director of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation says, "While the pandemic has brought us great challenges and setbacks, it has also forced and allowed us to imagine new and innovative solutions to guests, artists and staff experiences. Through the creation of the Missouri Arts Safety Alliance, we assembled over two dozen of Missouri's leading arts organizations to share their experience to help prepare and train staff, artists and arts organizations of all sizes and disciplines in the eventual reopening of their venues and workspaces. To date, this effort has led to over 75 arts organizations becoming Missouri Arts Safe certified and has helped with training tools for thousands of arts workers throughout the state."

In regards to diversity and inclusion, Hansen says, "The necessity of uplifting artists of color has never been more critical. We have used our platforms like the Open Air Concert Series, exhibitions at The High Low and The Kranzberg, and a forthcoming poetry documentary to lift the voices and celebrate St. Louis' rich and diverse Black Arts Community. Since the pandemic began we have presented over 60 concerts, 15 arts exhibits, and documented over 30 poets, and we are proud to say that the Black Arts Community is very well represented."

As the song says, "The Times they are a Changing" and I'm proud to be a part of St. Louis’ inclusive and rich arts and cultural scene. As I always say and truly believe, St Louis is the most culturally rich city per capita in the nation and this is because the leaders of our art institutions and the artists themselves are on their toes and truly care about our great city.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.

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