Sarah Wilbur: “It is Hard to Stay Optimistic”

Teaching as the Arts World Changes Forever

Photo by Troy Blendell.

It was profoundly impactful to confront the unforeseen shift to distance learning this semester, given the topic of my seminar: “Art as Work: Valuing Labor in the Arts” (Dance561S).

Once we returned from our two-week spring break, via Zoom, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the conditions of arts labor and many other forms of “work” were already being radically de-territorialized.

Saddened as I was to lose the live space of gathering for weekly seminars, Zoom discussions were highly animated and rich with contributions from fantastic graduate and undergraduate students from a variety of fields.

I had already integrated one strategy at the start of the course that served me well during the immediate shift to distance learning.  Google Drive online workspaces became a very useful site of communication and exchange once our real-time gatherings were curtailed. I felt lucky for that.

I adapted to the circumstances by inviting students to reorganize their final research projects—cultural studies of local arts work and work-worlds—to engage with ever-more-urgent question of how artists might sustain working livelihoods within the fraught economic conditions of the present. Several students stuck with their original research trajectories, but others seized the destabilizing conditions of the present as an opportunity to interrogate how the arts are being valued, right now. For example, one student investigated how retail entrepreneurs on turned an object-commodity site into a service-commodity site in light of the current massive push toward at-home labor and retail. As a still-new faculty member in dance, the fierce curiosity of Duke students inspires me.

“Duke Arts and Duke Arts Researchers are Uniquely Equipped to Intervene”

Wilbur helped organize the inaugural Duke Community Dance Day at the Ruby on Jan 24, 2020. Photo by Megan Mendenhall.

My biggest challenge, honestly, was trying to avoid showing my own sense of devastation in seminar about the dire and still-changing statistics on the US cultural workforce under COVID19. We already know: 30% of museums that have closed will not re-open; a projected $4.5 billion in losses among arts nonprofits is expected in the next fiscal year; and institutions are laying off cultural workers and implementing pay cuts. In the performing arts, widespread cancellations, residency deferrals, and contractual defaults are leaving the majority of gigging artists more unemployed than ever.

Institutions, media outlets, and some arts organizers themselves have adopted a celebratory stance toward the adaptive resiliency of artists amidst the mass estrangement and economic losses of the present. It is not my instinct to celebrate, nor am I compelled to make judgements about artists’ strategies to create abundance or just make rent. I am a dance artist/researcher who studies the contradictory political economies that shape opportunities in the arts. And I agree with cultural economists who settled long ago that artists’ desire to create is flatly irrepressible, and therefore always at risk of exploitation. The risk of exploitation of the creative irrepressibility of artists is particularly high right now.

Following my mentor (and UC Berkeley arts leader) Shannon Jackson, I am careful to avoid embracing the “artists as essential workers” narrative. As much as I’d love to see some kind of Arts Marshall Plan emerge and public funding for the arts restored robustly in this country, the risk of “celebrating-too-soon” seems especially farcical in dance, where gathering in local spaces and through fleshy forms of exchange constitute conditions of creative possibility. It is hard for me to stay optimistic about the field of arts production, labor, and fair remuneration that future generations of artists will inherit.

If I’m being asked to be hopeful, then this is my answer.

I hope that people invested in the arts at Duke can clearly see the deleterious impacts of cancelled contracts and the dissolution of gigs in this painfully gig-ridden sector of the US economy as the warning signs that they are. Our current challenges signal that the already skeletal systems of recognition and resourcing upon which artists depend are being sledgehammered, some for better, others for worse.

I hope that Duke arts advocates agree to stay suspicious of institutional interpellations that demand that artists maintain flexibility as a sign of their perceived value. I had the great fortune to debate these topics with Duke students in my spring seminar. They shared some amazing insights. But the political expediency of art and culture under COVID conditions has yet to be fully reckoned with.

At my most hopeful, I see this debate as an area where Duke Arts and Duke arts researchers are uniquely equipped to intervene. I am fortified by this forum and future opportunities to debate these political entanglements with students, fellow faculty, administrators, and members of the Durham arts community at large.

Sarah Wilbur. Photo by Megan Mendenhall.

An Evolving “COVIDaesthetic”

Another course I led this semester was the initiation of a full-credit “Production Arts Seminar: Special Topics in Interdisciplinary Performance” (Dance491S), which featured guests whose work spanned the fields of dance, performance, spoken word, poetry, electronic multimedia, and video. It was heartbreaking to experience the news that our resulting collaborative installation—slated to take place at ChoreoLab in the Rubenstein Art Center’s “Cube” dance studio—was no longer going to be able to meet a live audience.

When we moved our weekly meetings online, our work had to shift from collective creative exploration (akin to a kind of hive-mind-mapping), to individualized endeavors. Here, again, I think that it would be disingenuous to feign optimism or otherwise celebrate students’ adaptability in a moment when all of the promised material and creative conditions went, “POOF!”

The sense of loss was hard for all of us to accept. But the space of seminar provided some comfort in that it also forced us to engage in some serious re-education about what on earth we might “make” right now. Being generative, creative, and inspired in crisis is tough.

“Being generative, creative, and inspired in crisis is tough.”

Losses notwithstanding, this team of brilliant and generous graduate and undergraduate students (representing music, dance, math, and philosophy) did, ultimately, find their proverbial groove by sharing small, medium, and large creative endeavors with one another each and every week. The resulting conversations were rich. We discussed what forms of art seem to be disappearing and also emerging in this hyper-tech-mediated moment. And we wondered about our personal dexterity or clumsiness handling the digital creative tools that have been squarely placed into our hands.

By the end of our last seminar, I began to wonder more broadly whether we had managed to collectively shore up what might one day be called the formal principles of a “COVIDaesthetic”—one that craves lost proximity, that mobilizes technology as art medium, that activates new sites of performance, and one that, however configured, newly sutures culture together with something like public health!

It’s an interesting time to ponder what forms are evolving and how the world of artistic production will be altered after this moment.

COVID-19 Has Turned “Care Work” Into Everyone’s Work

Photo of Wilbur by Da Xu.

I’ll close by pointing to one silver-lining-of-sorts. At the risk of sounding celebratory, I currently belong to the Dementia Inclusive Durham community, and we have adapted all our summer creative engagement work online. I am one of four artist-facilitators now leading once-weekly, twenty-minute creative care convenings over Zoom through mid-June. Part of this project will evolve into the Duke Service Learning component for my fall course, “Artists in Healthcare.”

When we learned that we could no longer convene in real space and time, these online creative sessions seemed deeply important to avoid the increased isolation of social distancing. These weekly creative sessions offer experiential examples of exercises that we plan to use in Durham gatherings in the fall to build sustainable intergenerational connections with older adults living at home alone with dementia and cognitive or intellectual disabilities.  Internal to these digitally-mediated exchanges, I am gaining much optimism and deep generational wisdom held by people that have been battling isolation as a permanent fact of life.

Being creative, together, for a tiny pocket of time every week, reminds me that, to a certain extent, COVID-19 has turned “care work” into everyone’s work. Creative care strategies seem, to me, to be “essential” in this time of isolation. This has certainly moved me and brought a little hallelujah into my life.

Sarah Wilbur (Assistant Professor of the Practice/Dance) is a cross-sector choreographer and performance researcher who studies arts labor, economies, and institutional support principally in a US context. Her current manuscript, Funding Bodies: Five Decades of Dance “Making” at the National Endowment for the Arts [1965-2016] asks the choreographic question: How has the movement of US federal arts philanthropic capital motivated the movement of dance organizers across the last five decades? and is under contract with Wesleyan University Press.

Learn More about Dementia Inclusive Durham Programs