13 Creators On The Future Of The Arts: What’s Next After COVID And Racial Justice Reckoning?

When I interviewed the playwright Idris Goodwin a week or so back, he said what I’ve been thinking, and said it better than I can, so:

“Crisis reveals the weaknesses; it reveals a moment where people have to double down on their true values and what they’re in this game for. All COVID did was put people’s backs to the wall. ‘Cause listen, there’s been a state of emergency in the performing arts — particularly theater — for a long time. Covid only revealed where the weaknesses were.”

 Goodwin is currently director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, but his work is regularly featured on Louisville stages, and he’s the former head of Louisville’s StageOne Family Theatre.

 His statement applies to every art form. As our cultural scene emerges from the COVID lockdown, there are two big questions. One: Will we continue to embrace innovative ways to create and disseminate art, including experiments in the digital realm? Two: After a lot of big talk, and changes in their mission statements and their Instagram profiles, will our arts institutions follow through on making longterm changes to combat the systemic racism and bigotry that permeate the American cultural establishment?

 Before we get rolling, I believe it’s always important when discussing systemic racism and white supremacy to point out that I am a white arts writer, in a cultural scene where reporters and journalists of color are few and far between. 

Now, after interviewing several people, recording hours and hours of conversation, we’re using the interviewees own words with minimal editorializing, and offering thoughts from 13 people, including artistic directors, dancers, gallery owners, CEOs, composers, playwrights, painters, performers and plenty of people who fill multiple roles — artistic and administrative. We hope this selection of snippets illustrates some of the breadth and depth of thinking happening right now. Sometimes we’ve focused on concepts, sometimes we zoomed in on specific projects that perhaps illustrate different approaches, and we have not sugar coated any of it.  

Still — this is not the iceberg, it’s just the tip. This group represents only a tiny fraction of Louisville’s fecund and fractured creative landscape. And it barely even dips its toes into the world of the music scene, let alone comedy, burlesque and all the weird shit that happens in the smaller venues on the fringe of the cultural scene…. so, TL; DR: we think this is a good start, but we also know we need to have a lot more conversations where we ask “what happens next?”

SANJAY SAVERIMUTTU

Dancer and choreographer of Louisville Ballet

On starting back up: 

“‘Access’ is the big buzzword, as companies hoped [digital offerings] could cater to a wider socioeconomic and racial range and bring in audiences who would normally not go in to see a live show. Unfortunately, this is not the time to start doing that; this engagement framework needed to begin before the pandemic, and it’s a hard lesson on the amount of work that’s going to take when we get back to ‘normal.’”

On digital inequality:

“I’ve seen a lot of artists of color, queer artists and women finally get the spotlight they’ve deserved for many years. However, I wish their opportunity was also on a big stage, that they didn’t have to prove their worth through a less risky medium. I’ve seen so many white men get their big breaks on main stage season shows plenty of times, but many others have to constantly prove themselves in smaller venues.”

 “If the digital future of the arts isn’t handled correctly, then it can further increase the socioeconomic and racial divide in audiences and creators. I’ve thought that perhaps future live performances can be livestreamed for audiences at a lower ticket price, but that can push marginalized communities out of theater spaces instead of bringing them in. If specialized performances for a digital platform exist, then we need careful consideration as to who creates on those platforms: do they have the ability to create for live theater shows? And is the diversity across both platforms equal, or is there a disparity one way over the other?”

SUSAN MOREMEN

Owner of Moremen Galley

On paying the rent:

“You want to give people a chance that are new artists and who are doing something different. In a city like this, often you don’t have the range of buyers that are going to buy it. And that’s a problem [because] the work is also political a lot of times. And in general, political work is harder to sell. And a gallery is a business. You have to say, ‘I need to have at least two shows that sell a lot, in order to have shows that don’t sell as much, shows from people that should be seen but maybe won’t sell.’ It isn’t all monetary, but you have to pay the rent and pay people that work [on the exhibition]. It’s certainly not a business where you’ll get rich in a small city.”

 “[The protests have] really helped the Black artists, the people who are doing good work. Their sales have gone way up. There’s much more national interest in these fabulous artists that are getting so much more attention.”

ROBERT CURRAN

Artistic director of Louisville Ballet, choreographer

[Note: Kentucky! volumes 1, 2, and 3 are massive projects announced by Louisville Ballet in 2019, originally planned as live ballet performances.]

On changing an epic vision:

“‘Kentucky! Volume 2,’ at this point in time, and 3, are both going to live in the digital world for the time being. So, I would like to go back and remake ‘Kentucky! Volume 1.’”

“I do feel like the opportunity we have with films is to get a wider reach into the Commonwealth and beyond. And I’d like to see that be the way we get it started. And then bring it back to the stage in the future.”

 “I want it to live in the film world so that whether you are seeing it at the cinema, watching it at home, whether you’re watching it on your TV or iPad, that we can get a broader reach. Also into schools, because we can take it into schools and there are great education packets that have been built around ‘Kentucky! Volume 1.’”

NXTTIME

Producer with Always Look Inward (A.L.I.) Entertainment, emcee

On the direction of hip-hop:

“I think the content of hip hop is gonna start changing. Like we were big in the trap phase the last couple of years and big into a heavy street mentality. And the streets is always gonna be the streets, that’s always gonna be there, that’s not ever gonna fade, because there is always gonna be people impoverished, so until we solve that kind of issue there’s always gonna be people who voice that struggle and pain. And now, how we voice that struggle and pain is gonna be totally different in the next couple of years. It’s gonna be  more like that early ‘90s type deal, where everybody was rappin’ like Q-tip and A Tribe Called Quest. That old boom boom bap type of feel? It’s gonna be like that but with a lot more melodies. A lot more singing. Everybody is gonna sound like the Fugees. And there’s gonna be a lot more pain as well. ‘Cause people are still sad, or they may be happy now, but what they’ve written about for the past year is their sadness, so they have to come out and tell you about it.”

On overcompensation:

“And then there will be, I feel like there is gonna be another extreme where motherfuckers is gonna be lit. They fixing to open up the world, and turn up, and motherfuckers is gonna overcompensate. They gonna come out and try to make up for that one year locked in. They gonna turn up and come out and try to make up for all of it in a couple months. It’s gonna be funny to watch a few people, but pace yourself.”

MATT WALLACE
Producing artistic director of Kentucky Shakespeare, director, actor

Matt Wallace, producing artistic director Kentucky Shakespeare.

On putting dollars behind it: 

“I’m inspired by work other organizations are doing, and it makes me want to raise the bar.”

 “We have to be more intentional. We have to put dollars behind it — which is, I’m so delighted for our board, that was one of the first things I said last year was, we have to considerably increase our housing budget, so we know that if we can’t find the actors or technicians of color in our community, we have to be able to go find them and house them. We’d ideally like to find them here, but I think so often that’s an excuse — ‘Well we don’t have anybody here,’ you know?”

 “It just takes time, it takes money, it takes a lot of energy. But we’re committed to that. And there are going to be more blind spots.”

On universality:

“We’ve been looking through a new lens; we say this in our anti-racism statement, but we’ve doing it as well — looking at the idea of the words of Shakespeare being ‘universal.’ We’re actually in the process of changing that, because that’s harmful. And that’s not something we really thought about.”

IDRIS GOODWIN

Director of Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, former head of Louisville’s StageOne Family Theatre, playwright, emcee

“I think many of us who have been wanting to embrace the digital, and livestream, and hybridity, the many of us who’ve been asking this question for years, this was our opportunity to jump and say, ‘Let me show you what I mean by this.’ So, there are many of us that are NEVER leaving this stuff behind. We can’t unlearn what we’ve learned and unknow what we know, about the ability to create reach.”

 “Listen man, I’m gonna say this, I’m not gonna soften this, for an industry that’s supposed to be about creativity, there are some very conventional minded people who have a very limited amount of very antiquated ideas. And they don’t know how to be flexible, they don’t know how to be resourceful, they don’t know how to, and I’m gonna use a tired cliche, they don’t know how to think outside the black box.”

 On people changing their mission statements and websites: 

“Where’s the bravery? There ain’t nothing brave about putting some words on a website. I need to see bravery; I need to see courage. I need to see you building some stuff that’s gonna help people.”

 “And folk want to talk about, well let’s compromise, let’s meet in the middle. Nah nah nah — I don’t wanna meet in the middle of white supremacy. There is no middle ground for that.”

JOHN BROOKS

Owner of Quappi Projects, visual artist

On artistic freedom:

“We must make sure that when we think of Black artists, we don’t think of them in monolithic terms. Meaning that Black artists — just like anyone else — can make any kind of work. So, institutions and galleries and curators [run by] white people like me, need to make sure that we are thinking about Black artists in the same ways that we’re thinking about other artists. It can’t just be that, when we’re showing the work of Black artists, it is about a racial issue.  Sometimes it will be, of course, and rightfully so, but part of the joy of being an artist is having freedom. And Black artists deserve that freedom.”

ROBERT BARRY FLEMING

Executive artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, director, actor, choreographer, dancer

Robert Barry Fleming, executive artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. | Photo by Jonathan Roberts.

On discourse: 

“My hope is that the good consciousness raising avocation included in the discourse continues to affirm that all are deserving of being treated humanely in anti-oppressive work environments and more full-flourishing equity will come from it. But, of course, I can’t speak to any upcoming plans nor others’ reactions to it.”

 On exploration:

“We have found the exploration into and investment in emergent technologies one of the most positive outcomes of the demoralizing circumstances of the public health crises of 2020. We will certainly be a hybrid storytelling organization as such plans were a part of our long-term artistic plan well before the pandemic hit.”

 “Our fluid sense of what kind of storytelling gets foregrounded at Actors Theatre of Louisville will undoubtedly continue to include spoken word poetry, music and many forms of visual and aural creative expression on multiple platforms as a radical investigation of form and content are a meaningful part of who we are as an arts and culture institution as social enterprise. That links us to all our stakeholders and constituents locally and globally as it always has, just perhaps with different details of implementation given the changing socio-political and economic landscape.”

 On storytelling: 

“For Actors Theatre of Louisville, the more salient and compelling question we’re considering is: Are the storytelling experiences compelling and engaging? Are we deepening our commitment to unlocking human potential, building community and enriching lives through our process of inquiry into our work and play? I wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to define what anything is for others, but I am certainly intrigued with the power of creating and interpreting storyworlds and feel a deep sense of gratification from our engagement with those processes.”

KIM BAKER

President and CEO of Kentucky Performing Arts

On access at home and abroad:

“What we saw was that the digital realm provides opportunities for access that we had never really explored before. People that live too far away or that maybe physically can’t come to see a live performance but want to be part of the arts and cultural scene and community.” 

 “I do believe that there will be more [digital and internet-based] exploration. And in a way, prior to the pandemic it was heading that direction with multimedia, that fascination with live performance with digital mixed in, and multimedia performance.”

On collaboration: 

“It’s important to make sure you’re not taking the place of what someone else could be doing. We’ve been thinking about, ‘How can we look in our community,’ and find places and partners, where we can really leverage what we do with what is done there to make growth happen.”

 “We have access to great performers that can come in and do residencies. So, who are the partners that we can work with who can make the most impact with those residencies?”

NEFERTITI BURTON

Chair of UofL’s Theatre Arts Department, director

On energy and answers: 

“Everyone I know, everyone I’ve talked to, is still figuring things out, still trying to work through what we can do, how we can do it, how we have to be ready to pivot to something else, what kind of hybrid situation can we come up with that will bring our audiences back, bring our energy back up to the level where we need it to be… that interactive energy that is so hard to capture on screens in that digital space. So, nobody knows what the answer is.”

 On the companies that didn’t make it:

“The fact that so many entities have passed away during this period, and I’m wondering, how do you get resources — human and financial — and facilities to bring those back, or, if they’re not coming back, will some new versions come back, and what that’s going to look like. I’m excited to think about much younger artists, like kids in middle school, OK? Kids who have been through this.”

 On reopening theaters:

“I’m nervous about [reopening the theaters] frankly. I want to be optimistic and hopeful, and open, but I don’t see that the behaviors of enough people are leading us in a direction where we can make immediate change.”

 “Obviously, it’s going to take some time. The very fact that there is not a mandate for vaccination, and it’s not legal or appropriate to ask people. That means we can’t change how people behave.”

MICHAEL J. DRURY

Producing Artistic Director of Pandora Productions, director, actor

On collaboration:

“I think any collaboration between arts organizations is important. And while there are artistic collaborations going on — there is also a lot of collaboration going on behind the scenes.”

[Note: This winter, Pandora Productions and Kentucky Shakespeare are collaborating on a production of “Shakespeare’s R & J,” a radically altered version of the play where four boys at a Catholic school read the play, act out scenes and explore their queer identities.]

“This collaboration came about because Matt Wallace has had on his list of things he wanted to do, ‘Shakespeare’s R & J.’ He had approached me years ago about the possible collaboration on that project, even before he took over at Kentucky Shakes. Because he really loves that play. At the time it wasn’t right for us; now it’s a great opportunity to collaborate with Kentucky Shakespeare and Matt.”

 “We’re launching a new project called ‘Intersections,’ and it is about how the gay community intersects with the BIPOC community. I’m also interested in how it intersects with — I would love somebody to write a play on two spirits of the Native Americans. And that’s a national new play search.”

 “Amazingly, our donations did not go down; they increased a little bit. and mostly that came from people who made extra donations because they knew we needed it. It has helped to keep me optimistic about the future. We’re very optimistic about Pandora’s future.”

TEDDY ABRAMS

Music director, conductor of The Louisville Orchestra, musician, composer

Teddy Abrams performing at Forecastle in 2016. | Photo by Nik Vechery.

On the connection between Jewish and Black musicians:

“Many of the greatest composers of the early 20th century and mid-20th century were ultimately killed in the Holocaust. And what’s fascinating about the music that was being written, is a lot of it was connected to Black culture in America, because these two groups — you have suppressed Jewish artists, and not just Jewish artists, and totalitarian regimes fear that because it is real thinking. So, you have that, at the same time that in America our most popular music is being made by Black musicians, but the establishment doesn’t know how to recognize that. So you have suppression from the, you might say the ‘cultural elite’ as they call themselves. And so, these two groups kind of saw each other… and Jewish composers are in concentration camps writing jazz-based classical music; you have Jewish composers writing settings of Langston Hughes, and we’re seeing Black musicians inspired by the Old Testament. Next year, we have a gospel composer retelling the story of Moses, which premiered on a national radio broadcast and was cut off mid broadcast because many people complained. And that was the reality, and it’s like, there is a real story, a real relationship there.”

ALISHA ESPINOSA

Frequent performer on Louisville stages including StageOne and Kentucky Shakespeare, playwright, currently living in New York

On kings, color and context:

“The piece [I’m acting in] right now is a play called ‘Seize the King,’ and it’s written by Will Powers. It’s an adaptation of ‘Richard III,’ and it’s so interesting, because to me it meets this intersection where, the playwright, he’s a Black man, and our cast is primarily Black, but the actual text itself, the character descriptions and the nature of the actual language on the page is non-racially specific.”

“This is the current debate around color-blind casting. It is helpful in this idea that it may force you to say ‘oh — well, that [role] doesn’t have to be a white man, like it is every time.’ But it can be detrimental… My body onstage tells a different story than someone else’s body on stage. For all sorts of reasons. Gender, color, size. And color-blind casting is ignoring the reality that your body onstage tells a different story. It’s saying ‘Oh, you can be a neutral palette,’ which, sometimes it’s fun to be a neutral palette. Other times it’s an insidious denial of you bringing your own experience to the stage. It’s a way that they say ‘Oh no, that’s too Black. You’re supposed to be neutral,’ and it’s like, ‘no, I’m still Black, last time I checked.’”

 “So, ‘Seize the King’ is doing a different thing than Kentucky Shakespeare is doing, the classic works of William Shakespeare. And the work that I do, the play I wrote, ‘Prisoner Tongues,’ is a little bit different than what Will Power is doing, because the play I wrote is specifically saying, ‘No, these are Black characters, Black Latinx characters. These are the ones who inhabit this epic world. But moving it into a contemporary context. And you know, it all has a place.’”

*****

Having barely scratched the surface, and with a big footnote pointing out that I’m a white journalist writing for a newspaper with a predominantly white staff, we’ll end with some final thoughts from Goodwin, but first, a suggestion.

 Let’s all meet back here in one year and ask Louisville’s arts leaders what they actually accomplished from now until then and what they want to accomplish in their ’22-’23 seasons. Will these organizations still be dedicated to discovering not only what kind of art to make next, but how to make sure everyone gets to make art and experience art? Or are these promises empty fictions that are — to quote the not quite universal words of Macbeth — “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?”

Now those final thoughts from Goodwin I promised:

 “Until folks start acting and behaving and making choices and policies that prove that BiPOC lives matter, then it’s just some words on a website. I’ve been saying Black lives matter in my work, through my whole damn career. So, these people just showing up now? I’m not impressed, I’m not moved. I will have an opinion in five years, for now I’m like, welcome. It’s nice of you to finally show the hell up.”