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2020 In Boston Arts: What We've Lost, And How We've Persevered

After 27 years, Bella Luna & The Milky Way closed permanently in June. (Courtesy Bella Luna & The Milky Way)
After 27 years, Bella Luna & The Milky Way closed permanently in June. (Courtesy Bella Luna & The Milky Way)

Last December, in an end-of-year reflection on the Boston arts scene, the ARTery’s senior editor Maria Garcia declared 2019 a “year of convening.” “I thought a lot about the way people come together in a space, claim or reclaim it for themselves and the fellowship or tension that may arise,” she wrote.

Twelve months later, assigned the unenviable task of making sense of… whatever this was, I’ve struggled to come up with a pithy slogan for 2020. A Year Of Convening — If You Dare! A Year Of Avoiding Each Other, But Feeling Sad About It. A Year Of Definitely Not Convening.

Maybe it’s best just to start at the beginning. In January, I boarded a 14-hour flight — these were the days of casual air travel and touching your face in public — to Santiago, Chile, to report on the Santiago a Mil International Theater Festival. The country’s revolution was in full bloom. Against the backdrop of massive weekly protests, the festival’s participants tried to make sense of this political rupture, which was, on its surface, a rebuke of the free market economic policies enshrined under Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, and, at its core, an insurrection of Chile’s downtrodden. Many of my conversations with playwrights revolved around the possibilities, and limitations, of radical theater. A crisis in the streets begat a crisis on the stage: even the most potent artistic statement wilted against the ferocity of the uprising that rushed through the city like a hot, angry wind.

Two months later, I was at work when my colleague, a health reporter, turned to me and sighed. “I’m dreading the next six weeks,” he said. “It’ll be nothing but this coronavirus thing for me.”

The next day was our first one working from home. Nine months later, we haven’t gone back.

Reporters are lucky in that, when there is a crisis, we have something to do. Museums, theaters and concert venues were among the first institutions to shut down. The arts and culture team dutifully reported every closure, which arrived with the punishing regularity of waves in a stormy sea. I transformed my closet into a makeshift studio, recording radio segments in the same space where my untouched work blazers hung, padded shoulders drooping. In the montage of this period, I move from the closet to the couch to my bed and back again, eyes glued to the phone in my hand. I bake and consume countless loaves of bread. At some point, we get another cat.

Certain episodes stand out clearly. In March, we got a tip that MASS MoCA would be laying off most of its staff. I cold-called the museum’s publicist to confirm the news, alert with the adrenaline that arrives with even the most unremarkable of scoops. She answered the phone in tears. I felt ashamed — it had been so easy to forget the enormity of this news for the people it concerned.

In the spring, as coronavirus case numbers mounted, I slipped into an existential crisis of my own. Theaters and museums had shuttered, musicians were on a forced hiatus, the death toll ticked upward and the arts beat had never seemed so trivial. There are only so many livestream events you can write about. When my manager moved me temporarily off the culture desk to report on the crisis in nursing homes, I was relieved.

Only in retrospect is it possible to fathom the economic devastation wreaked by the pandemic, which battered Boston’s cultural sector like a hurricane in slow motion.

Then, in May, the video of George Floyd’s death beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer ripped across the internet like a flame. In Boston, revolution and the sting of tear gas filled the air. This time, I realized an uprising needn’t cause a crisis of vocation. For some artists, it was galvanizing. The Boston photographer OJ Slaughter, whose photojournalism and dreamy portraiture has appeared in the ARTery, found a calling in protest photography. A ubiquitous presence at Boston-area demonstrations, Slaughter turned their lens on the police who were called in to quell the protests, arrayed like an armada against throngs of marchers. In stark black-and-white photographs, the faces of these officers, half-hidden behind reflective sunglasses, seem to shrink under Slaughter’s unyielding gaze.

The protests against racist policing also ignited something approaching a reckoning in the Boston arts scene. Workers spoke on social media and in the press about racism endured in concert halls, theaters and museums. Employees of color presented leaders at the Huntington Theatre and the American Repertory Theater with demands, asking for accountability and change. Many organizations pledged to “do better” when it came to diverse hiring practices and uprooting racism within their institutions. It was possible, too, to detect an undercurrent of uneasiness beneath these tectonic shifts, which felt akin to using the master’s tools to dismantle his house. Was it really possible to shake up these institutions, whose sturdy foundations seemed so fixed?

Only in retrospect is it possible to fathom the economic devastation wreaked by the pandemic, which battered Boston’s cultural sector like a hurricane in slow motion. Museums and theaters saw their staffs and budgets slashed. One by one, independent performance venues — among them The Milky Way in JP, Machine in Boston and ONCE Lounge and Ballroom in Somerville -- made their closures permanent. Federal aid to out-of-work freelancers dwindled. An 11th-hour stimulus deal that included $15 billion for performance venues, independent movie theaters and other cultural institutions came too late for many.

There is more than one way to assess the damage. The Massachusetts Cultural Council estimates that the state’s cultural institutions have lost $483 million in revenue since March, while artists have seen $20 million in lost income. But the loss is, in some ways, incalculable. A friend of mine who works in museum education expressed it to me this way: “The people who are really super screwed by this are the people who had just gotten their first big promotion, or for whom these are/would have been their prime career-building years because they will never get it back,” she wrote. “Most of the layoffs are already permanent.”

This was not the generative destruction of a revolution. It was senseless, and likely made worse by our leaders' failure to better mitigate the damage. It is a tragedy we all suffer, a shame we all bear.

Still, there have been bright spots. One of the great triumphs of pandemic ingenuity came from Needham’s Arlekin Players, whose interactive play “State vs Natasha Benina” was a visceral experiment in livestreamed theater, earning the group national acclaim. Local musicians, too, managed to thrive in isolation, producing warm, searching, interior work that even landed some on prominent end-of-year lists. And at least two small arts nonprofits managed to build: the Dorchester Art Project, which opened a storefront in Field’s Corner, and The Record Company, which is set to debut new community recording studios in January.

It is difficult to reconcile these successes with all that we’ve lost, and still stand to lose. COVID-19 is reliably, and ruthlessly, unfair; in an economic assessment of the pandemic’s impact on the arts, small organizations, individual workers and independent artists have paid an outsized price. It is almost certain that inequities along lines of race and class have been deepened. Yet there is no denying the resilience of the creative impulse in the face of hardship. In an accounting of the past year, which do we weigh more heavily? The answer, I think, is both. Mourn the destruction, and marvel at what blooms in its wake.

Amelia Mason Twitter Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.

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