Innovation and Healing: How the Arts Survived COVID-19

Source Theatre doesn’t typically broadcast plays on its lobby windows. Like most DC theaters, though, the CulturalDC-owned and operated nonprofit needed to get creative during COVID-19. 

In partnership with Theater in Quarantine, an NYC-based digital performance lab, CulturalDC presented a 4-part video installation on Source Theatre’s storefront windows. DC residents could experience the movement-based projections from March 5-April 5, 2020, while socially distancing outside the theater.

“It was an incredible outpouring of creativity,” CulturalDC Trustee David Shiffrin says. 

Shiffrin, who also serves on the boards for The Community Foundation and Arena Stage, cites CulturalDC’s partnership with Theater in Quarantine as one of many creative pivots in DC’s arts community. To stay afloat, arts organizations innovated their art forms, he says. 

Healing Through the Arts

For Community Foundation Trustee Rachel Goslins, who directs the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, innovation in the arts is also a pathway to healing. 

“[The remote environment] forced us to consider how we could continue to provide value,” she says. “The arts have this special ability to help people heal and process their emotions. We need that now, more than ever.”

(In America: Remember art exhibition, photo credit Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

(In America: Remember art exhibition, photo credit Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

She cites “In America: Remember,” which runs through Oct. 3, as an especially poignant example of the arts as healing. The art exhibition—supported by America Remembers Fund, a component fund at The Community Foundation—blankets the National Mall with 660,000+ white flags, each honoring a person lost to Covid-19. Visitors are invited to personalize flags for lost loved ones. 

Conceptualized by local artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg, “In America: Remember,” builds on the fall 2020 installation “In America: How Could This Happen.” Firstenberg’s fall exhibition also honored COVID-19 victims with small white flags, covering a four-acre site outside RFK stadium. 

“There’s just such poetry in that,” Goslins says. “The arts are so important to the well-being of communities.” 

Looking Toward the Future

At the Smithsonian, Goslins is busy preparing for a different type of exhibition. This winter , Smithsonian will open “FUTURES,” a part-exhibition, part-festival celebrating the institution’s 175th anniversary. The exhibition will showcase future-focused artwork, interactive displays, and technology spanning 32,000 square feet across the National Mall. 

Running Nov. 2021-July 2022, “FUTURES” is intended to inspire people to reflect and to dream—another healing mechanism of the Arts.

“In our society, we are constantly imagining what could go wrong. We need to be able to also imagine what could go right,” she says. “We hope ‘FUTURES’ will encourage visitors to think about the future they want, not just the future they fear.” 

“We wanted to use our anniversary to help people look ahead at this pivotal moment in time,” Goslins continues. “I hope this can just be one more step forward for our community, and the arts.”

The Power of Philanthropy 

As cultural organizations work toward post-pandemic recovery, groups face a critical period—one with “no magic formula for success,” says Shiffrin. With continued uncertainty around the Delta variant, arts organizations need support now more than ever.

As a steering committee member for Arts Forward Fund, a collaborative partnership with The Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and other funders to help arts and cultural institutions survive and recover from the pandemic, Shiffrin has seen the impact investments can make. In total, the fund has made nearly $2.7 million in grants to 130+ organizations, 60% of which are BIPOC-led or BIPOC-serving. 

This summer, Arts Forward Fund was one of 289 equity-focused efforts nationwide to receive support from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. Arts Forward received $1 million for 2021 grantmaking, allowing us to make investments in 89 local arts organizations to support COVID-19 recovery.

“MacKenzie Scott’s gift was truly transformative,” Shiffrin says. “The need is even greater this second round. Continued advocacy [will be] essential.”

Aspirations for the Arts

The current environment with COVID-19 makes it difficult to forecast the future, Shiffrin says, but he has many hopes for the arts sector. Post-pandemic, he hopes organizations can continue to innovate their work, and inspire personal transformation. 

He cites MacKenzie Scott’s recent quote as illustrative of his aspirations for impact beyond the pandemic:

"Arts and cultural institutions can strengthen communities…by transforming spaces, fostering empathy, reflecting community identity, advancing economic mobility, improving academic outcomes, lowering crime rates and improving mental health."

For Goslins, hope is the driving force.

“I’m very hopeful about the cultural sector and our ability to help people process what’s happened over the last year and a half,” she says. “It’s a testament to why the arts aren’t only valuable--they’re essential.”