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In Des Moines News

Three years of resilience: Des Moines performers speak about overcoming COVID’s challenges 

Photo by Mack Swenson | News Editor

Madison Ray was in the middle of his big break: signing a record deal. When negotiations were finished, the Des Moines-based pop-funk artist would have resources, a team and opportunities – everything he needed. 

Then, in a turn of events that became all too familiar for performers and artists, the deal disappeared. It was March of 2020. The record label stopped signing new acts. Ray, like thousands of artists around the country, was left struggling.  

“What do I make of my life?” Ray remembered thinking, “and where do [I] go from here?” 

Almost three years later, many theater companies, performing arts organizations, musicians and more are still asking that question. According to a report created by the BRAVO Des Moines arts council, in 2020, Iowa’s arts lost 50% of its workforce and approximately $40 million. 

Nationally, it was worse. A report from Americans for the Arts found arts organizations in the U.S. lost a total of $17.97 billion to the pandemic. In April 2022, although the industry was recovering, there were 10% fewer arts jobs available than there were before COVID. 

Mickey Davis, director of the Des Moines Music Coalition, said these problems have persisted, even as the pandemic’s other impacts fade. Des Moines lost three music venues and one festival to COVID. They haven’t been replaced. 

“What we’re left with is a city that has fewer places for artists, and particularly young developing artists, to play,” Davis said. He predicted revenues at existing venues won’t return to pre-COVID levels until at least 2024. 

On top of that, performance industries are experiencing a mass exodus of technical experts. Davis said the industry lost sound engineers, technical designers and crew members – people who left in 2020 and chose not to come back. 

There are also non-numerical impacts. Sally Dix, director of BRAVO arts council, says although some performing arts continued virtually, audiences have suffered from losing live performance. 

“Part of the power of art is experiencing it as community,” Dix said. “And it’s really hard to recreate that, no matter how amusing your virtual platforms are.”

COVID also caused divisions in the performing arts community, Ray said, starting when quarantine began and there were debates about how cautious to be when canceling performances. He said divisions have only gotten larger as performing arts companies either return to what existed before or find different solutions. 

“It’s a sense of ‘tradition’ versus progress, you know? Are we growing, or are we leaning on what’s familiar?” Ray said. 

Dix believes different solutions are necessary. She said arts nonprofits need to have more conversations about why art matters to increase support. 

“As our society leans towards more data-driven decision making, if the cultural sector doesn’t get to a place where we can talk about why what we do matters, we will have a hard time,” she said.

Dix is optimistic about society valuing the arts, though. She said the isolation of the pandemic made people more reliant on the arts. 

“I challenge you to talk to anyone who got through the pandemic without arts and culture,” she said. 

Davis agreed, adding that the pandemic opened eyes about the struggles of pursuing art. 

“The pandemic didn’t create economic challenges. In fact, it’s just exaggerated them,” Davis said.  “Maybe it’s a chance for us to say, ‘OK, how do we better support local musicians?’” 

For him, that looks like supporting grassroots venues and artists and advocating for more sustainability in the industry. 

Ray added that the pandemic gave the performance industry the opportunity to address its existing issues – to slow down and change what had been ignored. He said he hopes companies continue to grow and change, as opposed to reverting to previous standards. 

In the summer of 2020, Ray finished his record deal remotely. Then, he had to deliver music for his contract, all while stuck at home. At this point, he said he had the idea of “failing forward”— creating despite new circumstances and a lack of resources. He continues to do that, even as COVID’s impacts prevail. 

“I don’t know what’s next, but either way, we’ll keep making stuff and we’ll stay creative and we’ll try to stay inspired,” Ray said. 

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