Industry has made a comeback, but the arts are still in crisis

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 8/18/21

After a year of pandemic-begotten stagnation across global industry, the last few months have precipitated a business boom beyond what most could have predicted.

In the U.S., productivity data …

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Industry has made a comeback, but the arts are still in crisis

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After a year of pandemic-begotten stagnation across global industry, the last few months have precipitated a business boom beyond what most could have predicted.

In the U.S., productivity data exceeds anything the economy has engendered in more than 15 years. Since the pandemic began, “labor productivity — the amount of output per hour of work — has risen at a 3.8% annual rate, compared with 1.4% from 2005 to 2019,” The New York Times reported last week, and new data released at about the same time shows the upward trend is holding steady through 2021.

Last month, The Washington Post announced the U.S. economy had officially recovered and surpassed the glory days of early 2020.

“For the first time since the pandemic took hold,” the report said, “economic output eclipsed its pre-pandemic high, after adjusting for inflation.”

But the numbers paint a pixelated picture. Sure, big business, critical infrastructure and other so-called “essential” industries are flourishing. But there’s a staple sector still in existential crisis: the humanities.

“It’s been a perennial problem since people started experimenting with capitalism,” Michael Feezor, director of the North Carolina Arts Incubator in Siler City, told me. “What is essential? It’s easy to cut the humanities, right? Nobody wants to stop eating chicken, nobody wants to shut down a computer manufacturer. But what about the painter who wants to sell a piece that they worked on for a month for $900?”

I’d say the issue existed long before capitalism. Who would the clanspeople of a nomadic tribe value more, the fearless hunter or contemplative harpist? Societies never seem to appraise the humanities at more than an appurtenance — the stuff you add in later after guaranteeing what’s actually important.

I traveled to Spain a few weeks ago, my first international trip in more than two years. I went to help a friend orchestrate his long-involuntarily-shelved proposal, but really, I went to buy a Spanish guitar.

I’ve played classical guitar since I was 6, and until last month, I’d always played the same Yamaha CG-151C — probably a $400 instrument. Part of the problem is that I’m left-handed, and I play left-handed (most learn to abide the righty’s world, but I patently refuse). Guitar shops almost never have left-hand oriented guitars, and, if possible at all, it’s a hassle to convert right-hand models.

As usual, the shop I selected in Sevilla hadn’t seen a left-hand guitar in years. The luthier downstairs could make one from scratch, of course, but I didn’t have time for that. It was a shame, too; I’d never seen walls lined with such magnificent instruments.

To my surprise, though, the shop-owner was quick to accommodate.

“How much time do you have?” he asked me. “Pick out whichever ones you like and come back in a few hours. I’ll flip them over so you can play them.”

I was still reeling from his unprecedented hospitality when my friend’s fiancee-to-be explained the red-carpet roll-out. The shop had sold only a handful of high-quality guitars in the year and a half since COVID-19 first racked Europe’s southern shores. Artisans and craftspeople across the country were desperate. The entire arts ecosystem had been ravaged by economic collapse. Guitarists who made their living as performers had nowhere to perform and no money to buy new instruments. Luthiers who could live for months on the sale of one instrument were hard-pressed to sell their finest work at 50% discounts. That I might actually buy a hand-made guitar called for the full ticker-tape parade.

The shop’s dilemma was not unique. Artists, creators and craftspeople around the world have similarly suffered. Even as much of the economy finds its stride, the humanities remain trapped in a living zugzwang.

But here’s the great irony of the thing: probably not since World War II have Americans more desperately needed the catharsis endemic in creative outlets.

“You go to the theater, you listen to a symphony, you look at a painting, you watch a ballet. You laugh, you cry. You feel pity, fear. You see in others’ lives a reflection of your own. And the catharsis comes: a cleansing, a clarity, a feeling of relief and understanding that you carry with you out of the theater or the concert hall,” Jason Farago, a NYT arts critic, recently opined. “Art, music, drama — here is a point worth recalling in a pandemic — are instruments of psychic and social health.”

I did buy a guitar. It cost me a kidney, and it was worth it. It’s a 1995 Jose Romero with the sharpest sound-quality and most striking aesthetic I’ve ever encountered, and it has vastly improved my pandemic life even as Delta sweeps the nation and reinstated restrictions loom. My life is better for the essential work of artists in crisis.

“You can’t see the forest when you’re in it,” Feezor said. “And I think people don’t see the extent to which human cultural and creative communication is an enormous part of their lives and what they would value if they ever stopped to think about it.”

Other business news

• At a breakfast-event last week hosted by the Piedmont Triad Partnership — an economic development agency in Greensboro — PTP CEO Stan Kelly announced the potential for 77 new corporate projects coming to the greater Greensboro-Winston-Salem-High Point region.

They offer a combined prospect of 47,326 new jobs, Kelly said, and $41.9 billion in new investment. Since 2018, he and other economic development partners have announced more than 17,400 new jobs as part of the Carolina Core branding initiative. Potential for tens of thousands of new opportunities put the area of track for the initiative’s goal to add 50,000 new jobs by 2038.

Kelly, however, won’t be at the helm to see it all through. He will step down on Sept. 1, to be succeeded as CEO by Greensboro lawyer Mike Fox.

• The Chatham Chamber of Commerce is accepting applications for its Leadership Chatham program.

One of the Chamber’s signature programs, Leadership Chatham “is an innovative program designed to develop informed, skilled and involved community leaders,” according to the organization’s website. As part of its mission to support and promote Chatham businesses, The Chamber is dedicated to the support and promotion of businesses and to helping mold Chatham into a place that everyone is proud to do business and call home.

“With the expected growth for Chatham County,” the program application says, “more and more opportunities will arise. The demand for effective leaders is crucial.”

The Leadership Chatham program emphasizes the social, cultural and economic makeup of the community and provides access to business experts who will share firsthand knowledge of critical issues facing Chatham County.

The program will run from September to June. Participants will meet monthly to discuss such topics as team building, government, tourism, education and economic development. Registration is due no later than August 30 and costs $475 for Chamber members, $525 for non-members.

“Our leaders greatly influence the success of Chatham County,” the application says. “Through your hands-on experiences in the Leadership Chatham Program, you will gain invaluable knowledge that will help you to become one of those influential leaders.”

To learn more or to register, visit www.ccucc.net/sites/default/files/LeadershipChathamBrochureApp2021-2022.pdf. Completed applications can be faxed to 919-742-1333, emailed to (info@ccucc.net) or mailed to 531 East 3rd Street, Siler City, NC 27344.

Have an idea for what Chatham business topics I should write about? Send me a note at dldolder@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @dldolder.

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