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The year that changed the arts

OPINION | Guest editorial by David Lyman

It sounded simple enough. My assignment for Movers & Makers’ silver-anniversary issue was to reflect on the arts in the year that wasn’t – 2020.

But very quickly, my article started to read like an obituary. There were so many things that I had planned to see and hear that didn’t take place: “Hamilton” at the Aronoff. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Louis Langrée’s “Mozart’s Paris” program with the CSO, followed a week later by the world premiere of Julia Adolphe’s “Paper Leaves on Fields of Clay.” I couldn’t wait to see the pared-down, one-person version of “A Christmas Carol” at the Playhouse in the Park.

There was Cincinnati Opera’s 100th season, too, and a grand farewell to longtime General Director Patty Beggs. Over at Cincinnati Ballet, there would be special performances commemorating the career of Cervilio Miguel Amador, arguably the most riveting dancer to perform with the company this century.

I was determined that 2020 would be the year I saw more of Eckart Preu’s remarkably inventive programming during Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra’s Summermusik. I would learn more about David Choate’s Revolution Dance Theatre, too, and dig deeper into the expanding empire of the Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati.

You probably have your own list – exhibitions, concerts, performances that stood out from the crowd, things that demanded to be experienced and would shepherd you through the darkest months of winter.

And then, they were gone. Not at once, though. COVID-19 has been a cruel and slow-moving nemesis, as each successive month brought with it new rounds of cancellations, crushing whatever optimism remained in us. At first, we thought things might get better by June. Then September. Or December. And now, we’re hoping for a return to normalcy – whatever that may mean – by the fall of 2021.


I feel bad for our major arts institutions. They have closed their doors and laid off many hundreds of people with exceptional skills. But I am confident those organizations will survive. And most of them will come out of it changed, perhaps, but relatively unscathed.

But I fret for smaller organizations: the galleries and dance studios, storefront theaters and pick-up music groups that don’t have the deep pockets that the big guys do. Will they make it?

Even more, I worry about the individuals – the people who really make up what we call our arts community. We’ve seen many of them, the actors and directors and musicians and other onstage performers. But there are even more people with arts-related careers who are largely invisible to us – designers, marketers, box office personnel, janitorial staff, scenic artists, stagehands, house managers ...

Think about it. Even if an organization manages to livestream a concert, there is no need for a house manager to assist a non-existent audience.

David Lyman and his son, Oliver

David Lyman and his son, Oliver

Now, the majority of these people who have done so much for us are unemployed. Worse yet, they have no guarantees that their jobs will be there when COVID-19 loosens its grip on us. In the meantime, bills have to be paid. How many careers will be permanently redirected? It’s disheartening to think about. Will people’s careers be so hopelessly thrown off course that they never recover? What if they have spent years aiming for a career path that will no longer exist?

So despair all you need to. The situation warrants it.

But here’s what I keep reminding myself. No matter how grim things feel right now, the arts will survive. That much I can guarantee you. Every single arts group, large or small, could cease operations and people would still want to sing. They’d want to dance or tell stories. There will always be someone to put on a show, draw a picture, hum a tune. Always.

Those who make art for us will, no doubt, experience many sleepless nights as they agonize about all of this. But in the end, they will endure. Somehow.

They’ll livestream readings. They’ll stage socially distanced events. They will paint and build and create things that will leave our lives better than they might have been.

And those organizations? They’ll continue to move forward. We can see some of it taking place in front of our eyes, such as the construction of Cincinnati Ballet’s new home on Gilbert Avenue and the preparations for the Playhouse in the Park’s new theater complex. We can read more about Children’s Theatre of Cincinnati’s plans for the Emery Theatre. Over at the Cincinnati Art Museum, we can already clamber up the glorious new sculpture-lined Art Walk. Perhaps this will be the year you finally make that long-overdue trek to the Pyramid Hill Sculpture Park & Museum.

The arts have survived far worse than COVID-19. For more than 2,500 years, people have gathered together to see stories acted out in front of them. We’ve played music even longer. And dancing? From the moment children are able to walk, they show their joy by bobbing and skipping and moving their bodies.

The arts, in their most elemental forms, are what we do.


David Lyman is the dance and theater writer for The Cincinnati Enquirer, as well as a contributing writer to Movers & Makers and Cincy. Previously, he was a features writer for the Detroit Free Press and an arts generalist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. For nearly a decade, he was a consultant for the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the author of “Cincinnati Ballet Celebrates 50” and spent a year traveling the world as the editor of the Chivas Life Guide. He also drove a taxi in New York City, stage-managed off-Broadway and created a Music Hall production that featured nearly 400 tubas.