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The week everything stopped feels like a long ago bad dream now.
On Thursday, March 12, 2020, City Paper’s weekly cover story was slated to be a package previewing the offerings at the annual Environmental Film Festival, which would teach us about plastic in the oceans, stray dogs in India, the last male white rhino in Kenya, and the wind. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in D.C. on March 7, and the city felt uneasy—we were obsessively washing our hands and making sure to not touch our faces—but many of us kept commuting, maskless, hoping it would blow over. By Monday, March 9, the staff had filed their blurbs for the week’s issue. All was chugging along as normal until that afternoon, when the Environmental Film Festival canceled all its in-person events. They were one of the first organizations in the area to realize the necessity of shutting down their upcoming programming. Soon after, cancelations and closures were announced across the city and country. By March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. On March 12, we put out a paper detailing what was closed in D.C.—and still, by our press time, the response remained staggered: I.M.P had canceled most events at U Street Music Hall, 9:30 Club, and The Anthem, but the Kennedy Center, Strathmore, the National Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian museums were keeping their doors open. (That all quickly changed, especially when Mayor Muriel Bowser banned mass gatherings on March 13.) And that was that: Coronavirus was here, our lives were irrevocably different, and quarantine was upon us.
“The days blur until it’s midnight, 1am—I’ve waited out the cacophony / of children for a silence smothered in anxiety. Privilege is a house, / the hum of a deep freezer, a steady job,” poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis later wrote for our Pandemic Poetry collection in June, aptly catching the mood of those strange early days. In an eerie echo of that old feeling, new restrictions went into effect on Dec. 23, shutting down indoor dining, libraries, and museums as COVID-19 spreads unchecked across the country and cases of the disease surge. The restrictions have a Jan. 15 end date, and Bowser has repeatedly said she doesn’t expect to expand the timing of the order.
Coronavirus has dominated 2020, but for the two months before everything changed in the U.S., life in the D.C. arts scene was chugging along. Dupont Underground was hopeful they’d be able to nail down a lease extension for the streetcar tunnels under Dupont Circle (that didn’t happen—as of October, we reported they were still holdover tenants). A Thousand Splendid Suns played at Arena Stage; we reviewed it. A dog’s paintings came with a free gift of weed—you know, the usual. On Feb. 13, we put out a spring arts guide detailing what D.C. was anticipating in the coming months: Billie Eilish at Capital One Arena on March 18! Yayoi Kusama at the Hirshhorn! Jesus Christ Superstar at the Kennedy Center! Obviously, none of those came to pass. Maybe most ironically, our Jan. 23 cover story was a meditation on how wandering the inside of a museum can help you find an anchor to weather the storms of life. Then the hurricane came and its gusts slammed those doors shut.
Some doors shut permanently. Rock & Roll Hotel closed days before the pandemic forcibly closed all of its fellow venues. U Street Music Hall and Eighteenth Street Lounge closed alongside emblematic jazz venues like Twins and community hangs like Alice’s Jazz and Cultural Society. On Dec. 10, City Paper talked to five music industry professionals who worked at Songbyrd, Union Stage, and Black Cat, some of whom were furloughed, about their lost wages and surviving 2020. “I think our little happy, crusty era is coming to an end,” predicted Lindsay Smyers, who’s worked at Black Cat for 10 years. But the toll of the coronavirus can’t just be measured in businesses closing and dollars lost. Since March, more than 700 people have died in D.C., plus more than 4,000 in Virginia and more than 5,000 in Maryland. That impact is hard to conceptualize and easy to cheapen.
Coronavirus is one of two major forces we can’t recap 2020 without mentioning. The other is the movement for Black lives—a force motivated by four centuries of history and reignited by the late May killing of George Floyd.
“People should know their names and their stories—anything to spread awareness and be a voice for people who can’t have their voices heard,” Silver Spring-based artist Ragda Noah told City Paper in June, when we interviewed her about her mural of Floyd on 18th Street NW. She wasn’t just talking about Floyd—she was talking about Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and hundreds of others. Noah’s work was part of the Radical Plywood initiative, just one of many grassroots artistic responses to the Black Lives Matter marches.
In last year’s roundup, I wrote that art institutions “can’t pretend to be apolitical anymore—they can’t afford it on a social or financial level.” I wasn’t being that prescient; I was just nodding to a reckoning that was long overdue. This summer’s movement touched every corner of the art world as Black people and their allies demanded we overturn the well-oiled racist systems at the heart of American institutions and replace them with something better.
The call was heard, at least: Dozens of groups, from the Phillips Collection to major institutions like the Kennedy Center, published social media posts and website updates in support of the movement. Whether it was—or will be—heeded is another story.
Theaters and music venues opened their lobbies for protestors to cool off, use bathrooms, grab water, and regroup. The theater world also responded to a newly formed collective called We See You White American Theatre, which advocated for the overhaul of racist theater systems through a series of concrete demands in June. Later, some theaters addressed the plan in detail; Woolly Mammoth and Mosaic, for example, put acknowledgements on their websites. In November, Mosaic’s artistic director Ari Roth resigned under pressure after allegations of mismanagement and “white supremacist behavior” at the theater.
Museums had a lot of soul-searching to do. In July, a petition demanded a public apology and immediate changes in hiring and employment practices at the National Gallery of Art, pointing at how its guards accused it of creating a hostile work environment in 2018 and its Glassdoor reviews, plus testimony from former and current staffers about the work environment. (If you’re wondering what a museum without a legacy of colonial theft might even look like, I recommend Tarisai Ngangura’s article in VICE tackling the topic.)
If last year was the year go-go was loud enough for national news, thanks to Don’t Mute DC and Moechella, this year it happily—and ably—embraced its role as protest music for the people of the District, as we reported in October. “The musicians are realizing their power. They understand that they’re right here in the nation’s capital, and that they have a voice that can echo across this nation,” go-go advocate Charles Stephenson said at the time.
In 2021, all eyes will be looking out to see who’s still doing the work of anti-racism and who’s dropped the ball.
So here’s what we have at the end of the year. A new stimulus package has been passed with $15 billion dedicated to relief for cultural institutions, live venues, and independent theaters; it includes the Save Our Stages act that the National Association of Independent Venues (and its 29 D.C. members, now minus U Hall and ESL) have been fighting for for months. Audrey Fix Schaefer, who runs communications for both I.M.P. and NIVA, called it a “lifesaver” to DCist (and said that 9:30 Club and The Anthem are going to make it through the pandemic). The stimulus package also includes an authorization for two new Smithsonian museums, focused on American women and American Latinos, to be opened (“to the maximum extent practicable”) on the National Mall.
Another spot of good news: On Dec. 21, D.C.’s Bridge Fund applications for arts venues opened. The program offers $29.5 million in relief for the entertainment industry at large, split into one program specifically for venues and another to support arts businesses that don’t control their own venues but rely on live events for revenue. Live music and performance venues, movie theaters, private museums, nightclubs, and some bars are eligible to apply for the funds. That money will hopefully help people like Smyers and their colleagues, plus the theater professionals who told City Paper that same week that they would have to change industries without some relief.
The pandemic and attendant shutdowns have led to a whole cottage industry of socially distanced entertainment: livestreamed concerts (either from home like NPR’s pandemic Tiny Desk Concerts or produced in-house like DC9’s affairs), recorded and streamed ballets and orchestral performances, online exhibitions and art viewable through storefront windows, murals covering boarded-up windows, projector-based artworks like the ones on the Phillips Collection and Source Theatre, land art depicting those lost to coronavirus, takeout books and sidewalk sales from indie bookstores, and all manner of Zoom, filmed, and audio-based theater, online film festivals and first-run films, plus drive-in showings. These forms offer artists new possibilities and new media to experiment with in the future, but it remains to be seen how they’ll be utilized once proximity no longer equals peril. Even with a vaccine for COVID-19, it’s doubtful that arts and entertainment in D.C. will be the same as they were before the pandemic.
And there are, somehow, new things to check out: Bold Fork Books brings cookbooks to Mount Pleasant; Songbyrd opened a new retail store, Byrdland Records; Planet Word made it to opening day. There were also some upsides to this shitty era for the arts: Virtual readings, online storytelling events, and Zoom book releases made literary events accessible in new ways, especially for disabled people and parents, as we reported in June.
Some experiences are harder to adapt to virtual forms, though. Transformer’s Queer Threads exhibition, available to viewers on the sidewalk through windows, wasn’t anything like spending time in a gallery. We took what we could get, and we watched a lot of TV. (We recommended series like Dash & Lily and Deaf U for the homebound.)
Now that a stimulus bill has been passed, turn your attention to your favorite venues, museums, and organizations. Buy their merch when it’s out, tune into their performances when they have them, tip their workers when you can. Here’s to the end of a terrible year, and to celebrating those of us who made it here while mourning everything and everyone who didn’t.