Culture is Powerful, and it’s in Crisis

By Gonzalo Casals

In July, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs released a survey on the financial impact of COVID-19, capturing responses from 800 cultural nonprofits at the height of the public health crisis in New York, and the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding it.

Many groups were conducting surveys in the first weeks of the shutdown, trying to make sense of the unprecedented crisis unfolding around them. From how dance makers and theater groups were faring, to the impact on artists in Brooklyn, and many more, these surveys provided important insights into and snapshots of the experiences of various disciplines and geographies.

For our survey, we collected data that reached across disciplines, and looked at our city’s enormous, vibrant cultural sector as a whole - and how it was suffering under the pandemic. It was important for us to contribute to the growing sense of solidarity, both within the cultural sector and alongside all of the city’s residents.

While it’s useful to understand how specific disciplines or regions are being affected, there is real power in joining these voices together to amplify our message that culture is powerful and important, culture is in crisis, and culture needs relief and support from all levels, now more than ever.

The report we released - which compares survey results collected in partnership with Americans for the Arts - was prepared by SMU Data Arts using years of data they’ve collected on our grantee organizations. It put data behind what we have seen and experienced: smaller and community-based organizations were particularly vulnerable financially; artists and arts educators suffered huge job losses; and over 10% of our cultural groups fear they may never reopen. While these devastating findings may not come as a surprise, they provide a deeper understanding of how different communities have experienced the crisis.

Our study joins a growing body of research and surveys on the pandemic’s effects on culture from a number of angles. La Placa Cohen’s Culture Track report, Culture + Community in a Time of Crisis, for one, provides a fascinating look at audience attitudes, and what people will be looking for as we begin to reopen and recover. Social connections are the single biggest thing people are looking forward to. And cultural organizations - which are experts in creating connections and a sense of belonging - have to be ready to meet people where they are, and help expand the people’s understanding of “cultural experience” beyond gazing at a painting on a wall (as much as we may enjoy that, too). Everyone has a right to participate in their community’s cultural expression, to come together around joy and artistry. It is up to us to make access to this right universal.

The pandemic continues to have deepening effects across the sector. Cultural Affairs will continue working with partners to understand the ongoing impacts on the cultural community - particularly those most affected by the public health crisis, financial crisis, and institutionalized racism - in order to advocate for and target support to where it is needed most.

Gonzalo Casals is commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. He comes to this role after serving as executive director at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. Prior to this, Casals served as vice president of Programs and Community Engagement at Friends of the High Line and was deputy and interim director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem.

Image: mahdis mousavi / Unsplash