Detroit’s arts organizations share unity, sense of mission amid COVID

As the urgency of the emerging pandemic swept across the nation, dozens of key Detroit arts and culture players convened March 12 for an emergency meeting online.
“People were realizing there was a tsunami,” recalled Culture Source director Omari Rush. “You were on the beach. You could see it. And there was nowhere to run.”
Culture Source is an association comprised of 160 nonprofits in southeastern Michigan, from heavyweights such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and Detroit Symphony Orchestra to community theaters and youth programs.
Rush’s hastily arranged Zoom conference call drew about 50 leaders from cultural institutions across the region. The mood was somber, at times disoriented, as officials confronted the weird, frenzied uncertainty of the moment: Should we be canceling events? Do we shut our doors entirely? Starting when? For how long?
As the conversation unfolded, a loose consensus emerged, and the next 48 hours brought a flurry of temporary closures and postponements from museums and performing arts groups across metro Detroit. Days later, those individual plans were superseded anyway: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued her statewide stay-at-home order, shuttering Michigan arts and culture facilities along with other nonessential business.
For all the confusion of that first “intense day,” as Rush called it, a shared mission quickly took hold among organizations.
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“There was an immediate sense thing-together is what we have to do,” he said.
Since that first crisis call, the Zoom video meetings have become a weekly routine for southeastern Michigan’s arts and culture leaders. They continue to gather online on Thursdays — a subtle, stubborn reminder of that Thursday in March when everything changed.
While Rush and other arts leaders say they’ve been heartened by shows of emergency financial aid from foundations and philanthropists, there’s a grim recognition that not every nonprofit is guaranteed to survive the pandemic.
At the moment, Rush said, “it’s not about saving organizations permanently, because that’s not possible, but about giving them a runway to make sound, prudent decisions.”
Some organizations will receive federal aid via the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) and the CARES Act, including $504,000 in funding that is being steered through the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Eligible groups may receive grants of up to $5,000.
The NEA is also distributing $45 million directly to organizations nationwide.
When will they reopen? That is, of course, the big, unanswerable question on everyone’s minds, and ultimately gets to the heart of survival for regional arts institutions big and small.
As things stand, all are waiting out a global pandemic that has no scripted outcome. But with the world’s brilliant minds now focused laser-like on solutions in a kind of global Project Apollo, there’s hope the benefits of human ingenuity come sooner than later.
For now, the main messaging for cultural organizations across metro Detroit is consistent: prudence and safety above all.
“Our board is committed to opening only when it is absolutely safe,” said Motown Museum CEO Robin Terry, echoing other institutions regionally and nationwide.
“We’re in conversations with a lot of other folks trying to solve the same challenges,” she said. “This is a serious, serious time we’re in. But we’re committed to not sacrificing safety — or authenticity and quality.”
Like institutions in Michigan and elsewhere, the Motown Museum pivoted to online programming, including weekly Instagram dance parties that have drawn viewers around the world.
“From the moment we shut down, our team pretty quickly shifted into a mode of focusing on how to retain connections to our constituents and fans,” said Terry. “We used the opportunity to drill down on programming, get creative, and as a result, end up producing several different programs on our social channels.”
At Mosaic Youth Theatre, much of the performing arts training has moved online, including regular tutoring and workshops with music instructors and acting coaches.
“There’s so much magic made in the moment when we’re in rehearsal together in person. A lot of things come alive. And we certainly miss that,” said Mosaic artistic director DeLashea Strawder. “But this has allowed us to dig deeper and figure out how to meet people where they are, informed by the understanding that art is something people need for thriving in times like this.
“We understand everyone is experiencing some level of trauma and grief. We want to make sure those healing and therapeutic opportunities are still there for people as much as possible. There’s comfort in it.”
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