In Turbulent Times, the Arts Can Help Heal

Today’s blog post is written by Jonathan Kay, Marketing Intern, PatronManager.

As we reach the end of our first month in 2019, I find myself reflecting on an event that happened in October of last year, not far from my apartment in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I have had the pleasure of living in Pittsburgh as an undergraduate student for the past four years. It is a unique city characterized by its many diverse neighborhoods, sports teams, and hard-working mentality. On Saturday, October 27th, I woke up to a disturbing text message from the University of Pittsburgh’s Emergency Notification Service. It read: “Active shooter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. Stay away from surrounding neighborhoods until we report it is safe.” Along with the rest of the country, I soon found out just how horrible this situation was. Eleven innocent Shabbat service-goers were murdered in their place of worship by what has been classified as the worst hate-crime against Jews in American history.

The response from the city of Pittsburgh was (and continues to be) amazing. Countless organizations have now raised and donated over one million dollars to the Tree of Life victims and their families. Messages like “Pittsburgh Stronger Than Hate” are still ever-present on t-shirts, busses, and other displays throughout the city. The weeks and months following the shooting really reaffirmed that Pittsburgh is a place of inclusivity, no matter your religious affiliation or skin pigmentation.

So what sparked my reflection now, months removed from the event? This New York Times article published just after the start of the new year called “Pittsburgh Report: Five Places for Healing Through Art.” Quoting the article:

Art seems minor in the wake of such events. And yet, as time and history stretch out in the aftermath of trauma, art becomes a prime place where tragedy is acknowledged, memorialized and processed. Art is an inherently hopeful gesture, and as institutions increasingly become forums (“laboratories,” in the current parlance) for new ideas — not just places to show off wealth or wield “soft power” — they can be places to heal and ponder how to move forward.

This passage really transported me back to the week following the shooting when I found myself attending the 48th Annual Pitt Jazz Concert at Carnegie Music Hall—located just down the road from the Tree of Life Synagogue. For two hours I was practically in a trance watching the likes of Ingrid Jensen, Joey DeFrancesco, Orrin Evans, Billy Hart, and other amazing musicians pour their souls out on stage, complemented by many “woo’s!” and sporadic claps from the audience. Looking around the room, the diversity of the crowd really struck me. It was in this moment that I realized just how powerful and uniting music (and the arts in general) can be, even in the bleakest of times.

With this thought in mind, it is important to acknowledge that your arts organization inadvertently offers a valuable service even in instances when going to a show or an exhibit might feel trivial. I know for me, just going to a concert and taking my mind off of the news was a therapeutic release—at least for a few hours.

Pulling from my experience with multiple art institutions in Pittsburgh in the wake of this tragic event, here are a few small things your organization can do if you find your community in turbulent times:

Reaffirm your organizational values to your patrons.

Stress that your venue—be it a theater, concert hall, or museum is an inclusive institution with a zero tolerance for any type of discrimination. Even furthermore, reach out to any groups in your community that might be specifically impacted. For instance, the Carnegie Museum of Art held a “Free Museum Sunday” the day after the shooting, accompanied by a heartfelt message to Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. I’ve even seen this sort of outreach recently with institutions offering Federal workers who were furloughed during the government shutdown free tickets and/or classes to give them some sort of outlet while they weren’t able to work. Take initiative and make sure the community knows your venue is a safe (and welcoming) space.

Donate to the cause.

You could do this in a number of ways. Maybe your organization has the financial ability to directly donate to the cause via a percentage of ticket sales. Or if that’s not feasible, even just giving patrons an option to donate themselves when they are purchasing tickets to your organization’s event could help generate goodwill. Finally, citing my example above, you could donate tickets, classes, or any other goods; it doesn’t necessarily have to be a monetary donation.

Collaborate with other organizations.

Particularly in times like these, it is important to recognize that organizations who you normally consider competitors could actually be collaborators. With the constant growth of technology, social media, and other marketing platforms, you have the means to successfully execute a joint donation campaign or event. Not only will this help expand the consumer reach of your organizations, but it can also be the catalyst for a closer-knit and more creative arts community in the future.

While I truly hope no community ever experiences a tragedy like the one that impacted mine last fall, it is important to remember that your organization is inherently a place of healing. In today’s day and age, it is normal to become desensitized to terrible acts like mass shootings, but your reaction as an arts organization is important! I challenge you as arts administrators to fully embrace this role and be a rock your community can count on for years to come.

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