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How the POTUS who shall not be named inadvertently energized the arts

The outgoing administration was no friend to the arts. But artists responded during the past four years by evolving in ways both broad and powerful.

Musicians perform during a candlelight vigil and short concert in memory of Elijah McClain in Malcolm X Park July 15, 2020.
Musicians perform during a candlelight vigil and short concert in memory of Elijah McClain in Malcolm X Park July 15, 2020.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Way back in 2016, a man named Mike decided to take in a show. His presence in the theater made for an odd mix. It brought a political figure who had just run on the most xenophobic, race-baiting presidential ticket in decades nose to nose with a show that raises questions about immigration, cultural diversity, and who gets to own our national story.

The revulsion many musicians, artists, actors, and writers were feeling toward the incoming administration was already acute, and it went on full display at that evening’s performance of Hamilton when then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence got schooled from the stage.

“We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir,” said Brandon Victor Dixon, who had recently succeeded Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr in the hit musical, in a prepared speech. “But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”

Relations between Trump and the arts world didn’t improve after that, and the little scene on Broadway that night helped to make the arts a wedge issue in the Trump years. Throughout the administration, arts leaders had to fight to preserve even the meager budget of the National Endowment of the Arts.

Curiously, though, the arts in the past four years have evolved in ways that are as broad and powerful as they are now commonplace. Many artists and arts groups seem determined to do nothing less than change the world. As one example, there’s probably not a single major museum, orchestra, or arts center that isn’t thinking about inclusion in everything it does — the shows it develops, the artists it hires, the board and management it recruits, and the audience it serves.

Once change started, it came quickly during the Trump years. Yes, the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements existed before Trump took office, and they developed independent of his influence. But his resistance to social justice gave oxygen to both movements, which flowed into the arts and profoundly changed the direction of orchestras, museums, presenters, and individual artists.

“I think Trump was a big part of it, through actions and words fueling and surfacing many horrible, long-simmering truths about historic racism in our country,” says Jenny Bilfield, president and CEO of Washington Performing Arts, the D.C. arts presenter. The other factor feeding attention to social justice was the pandemic, she notes, and the way it highlighted differences in access to basics like health care and technology.

“All of these inequities were laid bare, and the enormity with which inequity played out and was focused on was catalyzing,” Bilfield says.

Of course, social justice and championing underrepresented voices has long been the work of many smaller and community-based arts groups. What’s really changed is that these goals are now embraced by the establishment. It hasn’t been explicitly noted, but most Philadelphia Orchestra programs these days contain work by a female composer or performer, or a Black artist, or both. The orchestra recently named a woman, Nathalie Stutzmann, its new principal guest conductor.

This from an institution that just three years ago managed to announce a new season without a single female composer.

In the arts, as in politics, elections have consequences. They’re just not always the ones you anticipated.

“I’ve seen many artists much less interested in arguing about aesthetics now and much more interested in addressing issues of social justice and issues that are important to them,” says Philadelphia composer David Serkin Ludwig, chair of composition studies at the Curtis Institute of Music.

Ludwig — who has long woven contemporary issues into his work — says he perceives the current compositional mind-set like this:

“It’s how can I be an agent of change as a composer? How can I advocate for the music that I love while thinking about my own role in society or my own role in the culture? How can I advocate for others who are not me, who are different than I am? These are all things I think about every time I sit down to write music.”

Individual artists have become adept at seizing the moment, using their art outside of any institutional structure to argue for justice.

This past summer, musicians took to the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps and Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia to perform vigils for Elijah McClain, the young massage therapist and violinist who died after being stopped by police and placed in a carotid hold. The music played at these vigils was some of the most meaningful I’ve experienced.

“Music has always found a way to bring peace and bring a calm to people when there is so much tragedy in their lives,” violinist Alberta Douglas, one of the vigil planners, told me in July. “It has a way of conveying emotion that words can’t always do. "

Boston-based classical pianist Miki Sawada left behind the concert hall for cafes, bars, libraries, and other nontraditional spaces across the United States in search of new classical listeners. She came up with the idea a few days after the 2016 election. “It was a really big shock to me that so many people could vote for Trump, and it made me realize how little I actually knew about the people and places in this country.”

And so she loaded a Yamaha electronic/acoustic hybrid piano into a U-Haul and drove. So far, as part of her Gather Hear Tour, she has played 23 concerts in Alaska and 12 in West Virginia, with plans to continue on later this year in Massachusetts and Utah.

She doesn’t talk politics with the people she meets, but seeks to make a human connection.

“A friend said to me that he thought Trump supporters didn’t deserve my music,” Sawada says, “but that’s not the line of thinking I’m interested in. Sure, some people have disgusting, ugly beliefs and are violent, but that’s true regardless of political affiliation, and isn’t it too simplistic to assume that half the country is made up of ‘bad’ people? Humans are more complicated than that. In this day and age when reality and facts are constantly under attack, I think the beauty of experiencing music together is one of the very few truths we can agree upon and reminds us of our common humanity.”

If there’s one thing the last four years have done, it’s been to make dehumanizing others more acceptable in the public realm. Are the arts really capable of turning things around?

There are limits, of course, and the arts must move in tandem with other forces to have real impact. But music, dance, art, and literature can bring perspective. They are an effective balm to the anger addiction so many of us have developed in the past four years and which stands in the way of finding solutions. The arts can be a bridge to other ways of thinking — something that’s sometimes been hard to locate in the dank isolation of a pandemic.

And one day, when we can all once again be together in the presence of Ntozake Shange and Gustav Mahler, or Broadway’s next breakout ensemble, it might be that much harder to do anything other than think the very best of the person on the other side of the footlights.