The Necessity of the Arts in a Time of Pandemic: How the University of Wisconsin–Madison is Responding

Written by Gwendolyn Rice

“Right now, art, artmaking, and creativity in all its forms are more important than ever,” said Amy Gilman, Director of the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“It is one of the key things sustaining us while we are cocooning at home — keeping us connected to friends, family, and strangers around the world through collective concerts, creative uses of museum collections, and lots of archival materials now publicly accessible. And it is what will nourish us as we adjust to the new normal of a post-COVID-19 world.”

Like arts organizations around the world, UW–Madison is finding creative ways to make art accessible during a time of quarantine in order to keep people connected and inspired during a stressful time. For its part, the Chazen Museum has created video tours of their galleries and put interviews with docents online, discussing their favorite pieces in the museum’s impressive holdings.

Unprecedented Measures

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound effect on the arts. All the theaters on Broadway, and across the country, are suddenly dark. Concerts — from symphonies to contemporary music festivals — are canceled. Museums are closed. Movie theaters are shuttered. This has not only had a devastating effect on the economics of those institutions, it is isolating the public from one of the things that’s most needed right now: the essential connection that comes from sharing arts experiences.

“The arts are of critical importance right now on multiple levels,” said Susan Cook, Director of UW–Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. “Engaging with the arts — in our case through making music or listening to music — provides solace, awakens curiosity and allows us to be in the moment with our thoughts and feelings. It reminds us of our essential humanity and so often brings us kinds of beauty so necessary in times of struggle.”

Cook added, “On a daily basis, our faculty and students are coming up with ways to connect, collaborate and commit to their studies and using this new-found time and separation to focus on acquiring new skills that will serve them well as we move forward.”

Art on the Internet

Scroll through Facebook and Twitter feeds right now and it is easy to see how desperate we are for the emotional, intellectual and creative comfort that all the arts bring to our lives. Efforts to reach out to one another are filling up our feeds. Italians have serenaded one another from their balconies. Choreographers from across the globe have collaborated on a virtual dance composition. Professional musicians are live-streaming free concerts in their living rooms. Through programs at the Kennedy Center, children’s book author and illustrator Mo Willems is leading virtual drawing classes online daily. Well-known playwright Lauren Gunderson is live-streaming free, weekly playwriting workshops. Museums around the world are scrambling to create video tours of their holdings. And in Los Angeles, the J. Paul Getty Museum challenged their social media followers to recreate famous works of art with objects (and pets and people) from their own homes, with often amusing results.

Wisconsin’s Own at Home

One of UW–Madison’s most anticipated yearly events recently translated its programming from the real world to one online. Shortly after the Wisconsin Film Festival made the difficult decision to cancel this year’s event, Festival organizers began pursuing a different platform for some of the scheduled films, in an attempt to stay connected with viewers. A virtual festival titled Stay at Home with Wisconsin’s Own began on April 2, showing one free, short film each day that was created by a native Wisconsin filmmaker or alumni of UW–Madison.

“We have been overwhelmed at the number of filmmakers who have granted us permission for these limited-time streaming screenings,” said Ben Reiser, who directs Wisconsin’s Own programming, outreach and community engagement. “It’s been just one small way to keep the Festival alive for this year and offer unique content to our audience while they are stuck at home, looking for art to consume and appreciate.”

In addition to the Wisconsin’s Own shorts, the Festival  is also making short films geared for children available from this year’s selections from the Big Screens, Little Folks category. Reiser continued, “We very happy to share quality artistic content with children who are at home during this period.”

Innovating in Times of Crisis

Ben Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez are the co-founders of the Afro Yaqui Music Collective, and performers who use music and experimental dance to connect political themes of resistance to art. They are also the current artists in residence for the Interdisciplinary Arts Residency Program sponsored by the Division of the Arts. Beginning in January, the pair has led of group of 15 students from a diverse array of majors through a course titled “Artivism: Intercultural Solidarity & Decolonizing Performance.” Working with additional collaborators, the visiting artists and students explored original composition, dance, visual art and spoken word poetry around themes of social justice, equality, global warming and our dependence on fossil fuels. Building on the students’ specific skill sets, the goal of the class was to create a new performance of a recent jazz opera to be held in the new Hamel Music Center.

We were already working with students to create colorful political imagery about how pipelines can cross borders but not people, and the intersection of power and economics in our society when the pandemic hit,” Barson recalled. “When this happened, a host of new possibilities opened up as we thought about translating the live performance into something that would live online. We realized we could make images and music the baseline of the piece. We could record choreography individually and then splice it together. We could collaborate with an animator who challenged and expanded our ideas about how to integrate animation and graphic design.”

Continuing to Produce Art After the Threat is Over

In the absence of traditional performances for the forseeable future, musical theater productions from Andrew Lloyd Weber, classical plays at London’s Globe Theatre, and shows on Broadway are now available to stream on home computers. Acclaimed actor Patrick Stewart is reading one Shakespeare sonnet each day for the public’s enjoyment, while symphonies and choirs create ensemble performances from recordings of individuals, playing or singing their parts alone in their homes.

But arts institutions that depend on ticket sales from performances and exhibits that have been cancelled are struggling to remain top of mind for audiences and potential funders. While offering free and discounted arts experiences online is a good stop-gap measure now, it will be difficult to recover from the financial losses these organizations are experiencing.

UW–Madison Department of Theatre and Drama Professor David Furumoto commented, “During this moment of crisis for the whole world, as people are finding themselves having to hunker down in their homes as well as keeping distance from others, people are keeping themselves ‘entertained’ by watching movies, TV series, and exploring the online offerings by museums, theater companies, orchestras, dance companies, and opera companies. These are all products of artists working in their fields of expertise.”

He continued, “Too often the arts are taken for granted. Perhaps this is a time for us to realize that it is through the arts that we can experience our humanity, the good as well as the bad, and to know that no matter the immensity being faced, artists will be there, in whatever medium they express themselves in, to make us laugh, weep, and perhaps most important, make us think about what it is to be human.”