Holding Space: The Arts’ Relevance During Traumatic Times

It has become incredibly clichéd to say that this past year has been like no other. Between the pandemic outbreak, continued racial unrest and repeated acts of violence and political vitriol—each month has brought one traumatic event after another. During this tumultuous time, many have turned to the arts for connection, social understanding and healing.

81% of the population says the arts are a “positive experience in a troubled world,” according to Americans for the Arts, and pandemic life put a spotlight on arts organizations’ potential to harness digital formats to connect far beyond their walls. As organizations strived to stay relevant while their physical doors were closed, they were forced to re-think how the public accessed their programs and collections. 53% of Americans in a CultureTrack study reported participating in one or more digital cultural activities and 81% reported doing something creative during the pandemic. More people have been able to turn to the arts in more unique and different ways—from catching a glimpse of the living rooms of their favorite musicians to drawing alongside famous artists to visiting museums across the world virtually. As challenging as the pandemic has been, it has illustrated just how nimble the arts can be in terms of holding space, helping us work through difficulties of life—together. My hope for arts organizations is that now that their doors are beginning to open again, they will not lose sight of the beautiful, healing space that emerged during this time.

I’m going to share three “vignettes” from my personal life. While I recognize that I am writing from a place of privilege, they serve as small examples of how the arts can show up at just the right place and time to hold space when it is needed most.


Connection

March 2020 found us thrust out of our offices, many of us juggling our jerry-rigged remote workloads alongside childcare and homeschooling. My household—two working adults, two kids and a dog—was not used to having our professional and school lives on top of one another (often quite literally!). I recall the beginning of remote life and the chaotic mapping out of schedules, planning educational activities at night and playing musical chairs with my husband depending on who was on “parent duty.” At the same time, there was a very moving, empathetic feeling among my co-workers and community partners that we were all slogging through together.

Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems out of the Kennedy Center provided some much-needed levity during this time, and also helped us connect as a family, even though we were individually out of our elements. The fact that the program was during lunch was a major bonus for the workers-turned family jugglers.

“All dressed up and nowhere to go…”

My eight year-old daughter, three year-old son and I followed along with Mo (who was already one of our favorite authors!), as he showed us his colorful studio and led us through easy-to-follow drawing steps. It was a perfect, light-hearted (and quick) way for us to park the normal work and school stresses and enjoy a creative outlet together. I applaud the Kennedy Center (and Mo!) for being so nimble with their Artist-in-Residence Program and for making space for this family connection that we would otherwise not have had.

Social Understanding

https://www.spraytheirname.com/projects

I distinctly remember driving into downtown Denver in late spring 2020. It was already surreal heading back to the office after months of working remotely, but during my drive I was also met with the sight of vandalism everywhere. The tragic (and well-documented) loss of George Floyd’s life thrust many cities into unrest, and Denver was no exception. It was eerie and unsettling driving past boarded-up businesses—not due to pandemic-related closures but in anticipation of violence. I remember coming to a block on Broadway where a crew of volunteers was painting colorful messages of hope, countering profanity with spray-painted stencils of the faces of George and Breonna and phrases like “choose love” and “say their names.”

In the months that followed, Denver artists Hiero Veiga and Thomas Evans (aka Detour) launched the Spray Their Name movement, putting up murals around Denver (and then beyond) to raise awareness of lives lost to police brutality and “give a voice to individuals who have been shut out, oppressed, and silenced.”

Instagram: @detour303

The process began with a call for a wall, then a sketch, and then the large-scale execution, usually with several artists collaborating—all unfolding on social media for everyone to see. Fast forward to the recent conviction of Derek Chauvin, and I am inspired by stories of how Hiero and Detour’s mural now takes on new life as a physical space to honor not just George Floyd but this defining moment of social justice.

Visual art has a unique power to inspire social understanding, providing the imagery that our subconscious is often unable to put into words. For centuries, artists have made works that capture moments in time, leaving subsequent generations with glimpses of the emotions and values of a given culture. Arts organizations are already becoming more intentional about soliciting diverse artistic voices that reflect this pivotal moment and I hope to see them utilize their resources and position of privilege to preserve them among the greater canon of art history.

Healing

I stumbled upon this beautiful video the day that news broke about the King Soopers shooting in Boulder, CO. I, like so many others, struggled to make any sense of how such a tragedy could happen in a community I used to call my own (having moved from Colorado last year). I took a break from “doomscrolling” to watch the video in its entirety, and as tears began to fall I realized that what I needed most was to stop, breathe and listen. The recording of countertenor Reggie Mobley performing the Negro Spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead” provided a serendipitous moment of healing during a feeling of hopelessness. It was originally recorded November 2020, and I only came across it after friend and Early Music Access Project Artistic Director David McCormick happened to re-post it on social media. He later told me that the timing was serendipitous—he had already planned to share the video to promote an upcoming virtual program—but I can’t help but wonder about the power of the subconscious and how it was put there right when I needed it.


Arts organizations have unparalleled access to sources of inspiration during challenging times—rosters of artists and musicians, scholars, and art collections to name a few. If organizations manage their archives well—while keeping tabs on current events and emotional climate—they can harness these greatest assets to serve their communities in deeper, more authentic ways. Through the sublime, expressive nature of the arts, organizations can hold space when members of the public need it most—providing connection, understanding and healing in ways that no one else can.

Cover photo credit: Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

Published by Ellen Spangler

Hi, I’m Ellen Spangler. With nearly twenty years in nonprofits, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly. My first love will always be museums, but I have also cherished my work in education and membership organizations. I’ve worked as a Development Director, Communications Director, Educator, Trainer and Project Manager, and now own and operate a consulting business, Three Notch’d Nonprofit Solutions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: