It’s been said that true leaders are found in times of adversity, and certainly we are all seeing examples of public figures who are asserting impressive leadership during this challenging time. But, we’re also seeing true leaders emerge in unsung heroes such as front-line health care workers, factory workers, delivery people, small grocery store and restaurant owners, call center representatives and mass transit workers.
I’m sure that we all have friends and family members who fit one of these unsung hero categories. For me, it’s a friend’s daughter who is a young resident at a hospital in New York handling the intake of patients at its clinic. She and her colleagues have been laboring without enough protective masks, gloves and gowns, and the work is both rewarding and disheartening because the need is so great, and the resources are so few.
So too, an emergency room nurse who now has to isolate himself from his wife and young child in another apartment or the restaurant cook who has been forced to lay off her entire staff so that they can collect unemployment while she carries on trying to prepare meals for delivery or pick-up.
Or, the production manager of a nonprofit theater that has been closed to the public for three weeks with no end in sight, driven to furlough her ushers and security team as she deals with the ongoing operating costs of a theater with no possibility of earned income from ticket sales.
And, let’s not forget the parents who are working and trying to teach their children with schools and playgrounds closed and their hard-to-juggle lives getting harder by the day.
These are the real heroes of this moment.
To this group, we should add artists and their muses.
While some of us are lucky enough to work from home, we are also spending non-work time watching movies or drama and comedy series on television, reading books and poetry, listening to music or playing video games – all of which were created and implemented by artists and craftspeople of all disciplines.
It is easy to say how crucial the lyrical arts are to a vibrant, humane society,” choreographer Mark Morris recently said in a message to his nonprofit board members. “And, unfortunately it is possible to view the work we do as obsolete or immaterial. We do not concede to that.”
His dancers are gathering virtually every day to take classes and teach the children and families in their community of Brooklyn. Mark is also planning to release a new dance online soon.
Many arts organizations are moving their programs online as well.
Just this week, I’ve received notifications from the Public Theater with its “Watch at Home” and “Joe’s Pub Live!” series; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has launched a streaming series; the New Jersey Performing Arts Center is starting “NJPAC in Your Living Room” as a virtual concert hall; and Live@NationalSawdust promises a free digital home for the kind of contemporary music that it has been hosting for over five years in its Williamsburg venue.
Likewise, over 2,000 museums now have online tours of their collections and exhibitions, and historic sites like the Philip Johnson Glass House have online tours that are almost as good as being there.
These are just some of the many examples of work that arts organizations and artists are creating for our benefit. It’s time to recognize the great value of what they do by supporting increased government and private funding or by paying for the services they provide for us.
Whether this current crisis will permanently alter the way we feel about our unsung heroes, artists and muses or just be a passing fad will say a lot about our societal role in fostering and rewarding hard work as well as creativity. My hope is that we won’t concede to the doubters and the naysayers, and we’ll instead find new and innovative ways of supporting our front-line workers and creators.