The Elephant in the Room

A blog by guest blogger Denise Lysak on COVID and its impact on the Arts

poster of elephant holding an umbrella over a flower - text says - In a world where you can be anything, be kindPhoto Credit: Be Amazing

I live in rural and remote northwestern Ontario. I live off-the-grid on a small tea-coloured lake that is home to more fish than people and the most common species are northern pike, pickerel, perch, large and small-mouth bass. The fish share their space with an abundance of wildlife – from water mammals like beavers and otters to large birds of prey. Almost every day in the summertime, you can see rabbits, pine grouse, painted turtles, red squirrels, geese, ducks, blue jays, woodpeckers, loons and if you are lucky – trumpeter swans.  On rare occasions, our paths have crossed with white-tailed deer, foxes, lynx, wolves, black bears, and yes, even moose. 

The world we live in is the boreal forest and it spans 50 million hectares in the Canadian Shield.  The physical features of the Canadian Shield include rocks, bares and plateaus. The Canadian Shield has uplands which are high or hilly areas, and there are also a lot of rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands.  Here social distancing can be the norm, 365 days of the year and that is certainly true pre COVID-19. But to be sure right here, right now, COVID-19 is the elephant in the deep, dark woods.  

I have been at home in the performing arts for decades.  My church – for many, many years was the theatre at MTYP at The Forks in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where two rivers meet. My favourite seats were in the balcony and from there I could watch the artists and the audience. There are other sacred spaces, homes to creative endeavours and incredible works, that hold me and keep me…the ruins in St. Boniface, the cage beneath the 232-seat black box Gas Station Theatre in Osborne Village, the Leighton Artists Studios at the Banff Centre, the number 14 bus in Vancouver, BC, the Oodena Circle at The Forks, the On The Rock tiny studio in Nestor Falls, a long ago rehearsal hall on the 5th floor of the old PTE building on Princess Street (that is now the downtown campus for Red River College), and the Cargill Theatre in St. Paul/ Minneapolis– just to name a few. 

The elephant in the room is like the house hippo. Real or imagined? Well, it must be real. Each and every space listed above is shuttered. Artists are at home. Creators in a “gig economy” are facing financial hardships with no end in sight. Seasons are cancelled. Symphonies are not playing music and the only sound you hear, is silence. Careers are on hold. Our makers, our artists, our musicians all have names.  They are not just statistics or numbers on a pie graph.  

On the radio today, I heard that after four months – The Louvre is opening. The Louvre Museum, is the world’s largest art museum and a historic monument in Paris, France. A central landmark of the city, it is located on the Right Bank of the Seine in the city’s 1st arrondissement. This good news story sent me on a google expedition to see what else might be opening in the near future. It turns out that much closer to home, both the Lake of the Woods Museum and the Douglas Family Arts Centre is now open to the public. I love the Lake of the Woods Museum and I have yet to visit the Douglas Family Arts Centre.  I will put that on my must-see list for later this fall.  Why, wait – you might ask?  Back to that elephant in the room and the coronavirus that when somewhere, can be anywhere. 

My personal choice is at odds with the very tenets I hold most dear.  Art and culture live in a continuum. Without either we wither – we are simply empty shells existing across time and space. Art influences society by changing opinions, instilling values and translating experiences. Research has shown art affects the fundamental sense of self. Painting, sculpture, music, literature and the other arts are often considered to be the repository of a society’s collective memory. I know so many people who need each and every one of us – to take up space in galleries, studios, theatres and museums. Their very livelihoods depend on it. And, yet – like the willow I bend. I fear that if I act too much like the oak – I will break.  For me, for right now – the elephant looms large and is still very much in the room. The pachyderms have taken over the very spaces that I once entered and exited with freedom, excitement and wild abandon. I am going to wait this out, with patience and kindness. I will find ways to act – to help keep the lives of people I know, as intact as possible under the circumstances.  There are “donate now” buttons to google. And, there are gift cards and subscriptions to purchase. I will also join in important conversations with leaders in the industry, with elected officials, and with arts and cultural funders. 

Now is the time to act, boldly and swiftly.  During this very, long pause – this unscripted intermission we need policies that support professional artists and arts organizations from all disciplines.  Guaranteed incomes for artists and operating funding for organizations should replace the old standby that is often called “project funding”. I once sat in a room filled with people – back when workshops and conferences happened without hesitation. One of the sessions encouraged us to look at the outline of a purple cow. This purple cow represented what could be – if only we allowed ourselves the free will to get past the very idea, that the cow was purple.  Imagine how different our world could be, if we challenge each and every one of us, to come to this new normal with every good idea that has ever been raised. To change perceptions and to challenge the status quo.  Let’s strive for something better, fairer and more just.  Let’s dig deep and do the hard work.  I am happy to say that the elephant in the room has now been replaced with the purple cow.

 

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