Scott Lindroth: “What Other Kinds of Infrastructure Can We Invent?”

I am moved by how the Duke arts community has responded to the pandemic. Whether presenting livestream performances, sharing exhibitions through gorgeous videos, leading dance workshops with dozens of virtual participants, or heroically mounting a theatrical production on Zoom, it all shows the “irrepressible” urge to make art that is described so well in Sarah Wilbur’s thoughtful piece for Duke Arts.

These efforts—while they make the best of sheltering at home—do not dispel a bad situation. Tens of thousands of talented and hard-working artists are, well, out of work. By the latest estimates, non-profit arts and cultural organizations are set to see cumulative losses reaching $7 billion over the next year. We neither know when things will return to normal nor what “normal” will even mean.

Perhaps there’s no point in anticipating the worst when we truly do not know what will happen.  What can we—artists and supporters of the arts—do right now?

Suddenly, we can’t attend concerts, theater or dance performances, or visit museums and galleries. But our institutions and artists are still here. Find new ways to be an audience member. Your presence, even as a livestream viewer, counts.

“Our institutions and artists are still here. Find new ways to be an audience member. Your presence, even as a livestream viewer, counts.”

Artists are facing an existential question: Why make art if it can’t be shared in community? Without the physical space and supportive infrastructure of arts venues and institutions, how do artists connect and grow their audience?

It comes back to irrepressible urges. We make art to inspire, question, ennoble, communicate—and yes, divert and entertain.

But it has never been only about our audiences.

The Importance of Making Your Own Work

Scott Lindroth with Renzo Ortega, who was in residence in the Rubenstein Arts Center last summer. Photo by Robert Zimmerman.

One thing that I feel more urgently than ever before is the importance of making your own work. It brings us back to ourselves. As I tell students in my music theory classes: You have to believe that you become a better human being by giving yourself over to the attempt to make a perfect piece, even if it’s only four bars long.  That combination of invention, focus, and technical skill sharpens our minds and—I mean this—feeds our souls.

I keep myself busy with daily composing.  It may be futile because I no longer know when these pieces will be performed, but it feels that much more important to be working on something that will come to fruition in a better future.  What’s the point?  There is no point.  That’s why it’s important!  My own focus, frustration, breakthroughs, and even inspiration are addictive. That’s enough for now.

Inventing New Arts Infrastructure

If social distancing becomes an ongoing obligation, yes, we are going to have to find new ways to think about making and sharing art with our audiences. The Ciompi Quartet at Duke has asked our composition students to write pieces that are designed for asynchronous playing over Zoom. How we use mail—to retain the physical—will be increasingly important. (Bill Fick had students share work via FedEx this spring so that they could continue to engage with handmade objects as well as virtual displays.) With so much free streaming to tune into from home, some barriers to access are completely removed (if you have a decent signal or wifi connection). Some artists have singlehandedly amassed audiences in the tens of thousands. Igor Levit’s recent series of powerful streaming performances is an act of desperate generosity. (He was set to perform in Baldwin Auditorium with Duke Performances on May 16—instead you could watch him play in his apartment, with viewers around the world.)

How will we support emerging artists, who build careers by presence in venues and galleries? And how do we retain the civic quality, the public life of the arts? What other kinds of infrastructure can we invent to produce and share art?

These are not idle questions.  The Duke arts community is thinking about these issues now.