Dear Friends and Colleagues:

As government agencies begin talking about tentative steps to begin re-opening economies and cultures in the next few weeks, it’s important we take the time now to discuss and plan for a better future. Which requires some assessment of where we are and what that future might look like.

So I write these words, not to add to anyone’s distress, but instead hoping they might be cathartic, provide a thoughtful assessment of our situation, and to outline a possible path forward,

What seems clear to me—what we’ve all come to realize, perhaps, to varying degrees since that 21st-Century most-fateful-of-all Ides of March—is that we are living not just through a pandemic but through what can only be described as a kind of cataclysm.

“Throughout history, major pandemic episodes have one thing in common: They all changed the economic patterns of the world, rejiggered the politics and stimulated rapid change in sociologic patterns. The pandemic of 2020, will be no different.”

Michael Leavitt, Former U.S. Health Secretary

I readily admit I’ve experienced every stage of the predictable Kubler-Ross roller coaster in my gradually dawning realization that many things I may have taken for granted in the past will not be the same in the future.

Denial (that can’t happen here); anger (at those that let the pandemic spiral out of control); bargaining (please don’t let it get too bad); depression (I can’t believe how unprepared so many leading nations were and how many people are dying as a result);

I now find myself struggling towards some kind of resentful acceptance. It isn’t easy. I find myself revisiting the entire emotional gamut. Sometimes all in one day.

But even so, Time, seeming more-than-ever inexorably slow in its infinite passage, does nonetheless progress, not so much marching forward as stumbling into the future.

Which begs the question. A future of … of what, exactly?

Orchestras, opera companies, dance companies, theatre companies, concerts and recitals, new music ensembles, series, festivals, international and local tours, new productions, showings and exhibits—the things we live to experience—have all been canceled or gone dark. For how long, we’re not sure.

“Obviously, public performances of any kind have all been cancelled, and the hiatus could conceivably last well into next year. Festival season seems to be a write-off.”

John Harris, Guardian

Schools are closed and universities struggle to complete academic years online. Businesses and non-profits alike are shuttered and operating at reduced or minimal tempo at best. Team sports—and almost every other thing loved by the young—are canceled indefinitely, as are the professional arenas and teams loved so passionately by adults.

Here in Canada we are privileged to be better protected and cared for than many—the good government enshrined in POGG irretrievably enmeshed in our national DNA. Even here, though, Canadians have died, many are unemployed, trade is faltering, and our economy, while it will recover stronger than most, won’t exactly be the same.

But there are glimmers, too, of hope, even as this pandemic continues ravaging the world. Germany is beginning to re-open schools and some small shops. Even in New York City, my home for twenty extraordinary years, the horrifying situation we’ve witnessed almost daily seems more under control and improving. Here in B.C., we have succeeded in flattening the curve. New Zealand has crushed it. And Saskatchewan plans to start re-opening schools and some businesses in May.

“What will the world look like when the crisis ends? Much different than before, I expect. Months of sheltering in place will fundamentally change our lifestyles and will continue to influence the way we live and do business, long after the coronavirus is history. Life on the other side of the coronavirus pandemic may be very different from the one we remember from just a few weeks ago.”

Gordon Pape, Globe Investor, Globe & Mail

But there may yet be another wave of this epidemic later this year. Perhaps another next year. So what will life be like? What does the future hold for us? When will people begin to go to work again? May? June? July? What happens then if community transmission comes back?

No one is sure, except it seems to mean more of the same we’re experiencing now, as our Prime Minister has warned us, even as we see reason for cautious optimism here in Canada.

Ultimately, as Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s much-loved and remarkable Public Health Officer stated: “What we really need is a vaccine. Until then, our new normal is going to be modifications of what we’re seeing right now.” Adrian Dix, B.C. Minister of Health, said at a recent press announcement that “this is going to be not just weeks, but months and, conceivably, years.”

Nonetheless we need to plan for the future, and so I would like to suggest that, in order to do that, we think about the near-term, mid-term, and longer term.

In the near-term, it seems likely the current lockdown here in B.C. will continue until mid-May. Which means preparing ourselves for three more weeks of this strange suspension of life. And to plan out whatever we need to help ourselves and those we love get through it. That is harder than it sounds. Each week seems to get a bit harder in some ways. So we have to steel ourselves.

A metric I’ve found helpful is that, in addition to doing productive work every day, I also try to do something creative and something for self-care. Some days I’m better than others at achieving all three. These concepts are defined very loosely and held more as aspirational goals than a To-Do list. I just try to keep them in mind—I don’t judge myself. I think we need to be kind and patient with ourselves so that we can help others with even less capacity.

Mid-term, we need to prepare to return to work in an orderly, phased manner that will ensure all workers and patrons are kept safe. That is going to take some time to plan out and a great deal of care. Physical spaces may need to be rethought or altered; cleaning and sanitizing procedures strengthened and more frequent. Protocols will need to be established. We are nowhere near resuming concerts, but even these initial re-opening steps for our offices will take time and planning to get right.

Re-opening in the mid-term also means thinking about what Dr. Henry has prescribed for all businesses and which might be very helpful for all arts organizations to consider as well, where possible:

  • Increase online presence
  • Set up safe customer pickup of services
  • Work in smaller teams, with some in office, some remote
  • Move to online payments
  • Staff need to know they must stay home if sick
  • Move to virtual meetings

Thinking longer-term, once a treatment and, hopefully, a vaccine is found and made available to the public, what then?

 “The two things I’m thinking about more than anything else are, ‘How do we overcome fear?’ and ‘How do we provide love?’ Anybody who thinks that the human emotion of fear resides with any kind of government decree is just entirely missing the boat.”

Danny Meyer, Gramercy Tavern, New York

I love Danny Meyer’s restaurants, Gramercy Tavern especially, and his food. I find his way of thinking truly inspiring. We should all be asking those questions in the weeks, months, and indeed years to come: ‘How do we help overcome fear?’ And ‘How do we find more ways to provide love?’

To help address these and other questions, I have begun a series of online meetings with small groups of patrons, members of our BC Advisory Council, composers, and other leaders in our community and abroad. Beyond those questions, we should also be thinking about what world we want to live in as we start to articulate those answers.

Every certainty we held dear has been damaged in recent weeks. But if we help to overcome fear, as Mayer suggests, and provide love; if we band together; if we insist on a better world; we may have the opportunity to improve things for a century to come.

Ultimately the arts are the powerful beauty that can help heal the vast and tragic injury this pandemic has unleashed. But only if we help make sure they survive.

“‘Rise like lions after slumber,’ said Shelley. ‘There is plenty to do, but we have to do it fast.’ After the crisis, a new world won’t emerge as if by magic. We will have to fight for it.” 

Neal Ascherson, Guardian