The San Antonio Symphony had just finished a dress rehearsal for one of our classical subscriptions on March 13 when the decision was made not to perform that night. Shortly after, the entire season was canceled and venues across the city were closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. As heartbreaking as that was, there’s no question that it was the right thing to do. 

Slowly but surely all my other engagements for the season were canceled, including all summer festivals. I think we all realized very soon, that this is not only threatening our current work and livelihood but the performing arts industry as a whole. 

I miss the concerts, the rehearsals, the inspiring music-making with our talented musicians. We all miss performing for you, our beloved audience, at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, and across the city. This spring season of our programming would have had a lot of exciting programs and amazing artists for you, but instead, a big part of our collective life is missing. For us musicians, it’s the part we dedicated all our talent, work, energy, and efforts to, since we were children. And while I enjoy playing the piano, cooking, or learning Korean while isolating at home, I miss y’all tremendously.

Just as musicians miss their audiences and audiences miss being able to attend performances, the city is missing a big part of its culture. While we try to digest the first shock, we have to start looking into all possible scenarios for the future of the arts in San Antonio. I’m very worried about the future of our beloved, rich, and diverse cultural infrastructure.

The arts define us as a city, they give quality to our lives, they give value and inspiration to our citizens. Most importantly, the arts educate our children to become the next generation of innovators. Artists inhabit our city as the core of the creative class, as essential workers for San Antonio as a cultural capital and tourist destination. City leadership has repeatedly said as much, before and during this crisis. 

The arts are also an extremely powerful economic driver in our cities. Between 2000 and 2010, the San Antonio Symphony helped to generate $222 million in annual employment income.

These $222 million were generated with an annual budget of $8 million. That’s a whopping return on investment. It also proves that the impact of an arts organization goes way beyond the direct clientele they reach. Especially in relation to the hotel and restaurant business in San Antonio, this impact is very significant. Less music, less art, and fewer performances will have a devastating effect on these industries alone, hit equally hard by the current crisis. 

The City of San Antonio is collectively doing a terrific job weathering the current crisis. While a lot of us slowed down in our activity, these days mean very long shifts and sleepless nights for many elected officials, health care workers, policemen, firefighters, and other essential workers. We fellow San Antonians appreciate this enormously, applaud their commitment, and are deeply grateful. 

But, in the wake of all this, it’s not surprising that arts funding has been cut. And in times of a flood of bad news this might go unnoticed. All arts funding systems across the globe have to deal with the same dilemma: empty halls everywhere, no ticket revenue, no long-term planning security. Frankly what choice do we have? I know we have to prioritize and be pragmatic. 

When resources dry up, there is nothing to distribute. The resources of the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) have dried up and probably won’t recover to the levels of 2019 quickly. But should we depend on those who visit our beautiful city to support our wonderful cultural assets and performing arts organizations? The ownership of the arts institutions, especially when they carry the name of their cities, should be in the hands of their residents.

While everything we do now is an immediate reaction to this crisis, the impact will last much longer. Performance halls were the first to shut down and probably will be the last to reopen. This might be the time to rethink the system. It’s time to be proactive and open to reform. We need a long-term vision for the cultural fabric of our society. 

This coronavirus crisis signals an opportunity for a community conversation about how to change the model. It’s a life-or-death question for the arts organizations, so let’s not put this off. Let’s address the issue now as part of a larger effort to map out a community-wide recovery. 

We’re in the midst of a crisis where solidarity is what holds us together. This newly strengthened sense of solidarity is an enormous chance for all of us. We’re extremely powerful when united. It’s a chance to reshape many aspects of our lives. This includes recognizing that arts are not a luxury accessory. They’re essential to us and essential to defining humanity. 

I have worked all over the world and seen all sorts of funding models. What most have in common is arts institutions are owned by all. Like our beaches, our historic landmarks, our national parks, our public places, the arts are part of what belongs to all of us. The main difference is the “material” that art is made of are people. Art is alive. An empty concert hall has no value. And collectively we all have a responsibility to maintain those material assets and fill them with life. 

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We now have the occasion to rethink traditional models of funding. In part because we have to, as resources might vanish, and in part because we want to redefine our priorities. It will require flexibility on all sides, including within arts organizations. 

I’m convinced that being proactive, having various hybrid models to play with, will give us strength. We need to be creative now, as being reactive always leaves us a couple of steps behind. This might be a chance to think out of the box and be unconventional in our approaches.

The overwhelming majority of countries fund the arts publicly. In the U.S. a generous philanthropic base carries the biggest part of the financial burden. But we need to find a balance between private and public support in order to maintain our cultural assets. This is even more important in times of economic distress. 

The San Antonio Symphony was founded in 1939 right before the start of World War II by courageous and ambitious residents. Even during those very difficult years that followed, it developed very quickly into a thriving, generously funded organization. 

We cannot predict the full impact of the coronavirus crisis. The world will not be the same after we see the end of this pandemic. We all will have changed during isolation and the self-reflection it inspires, and many of us will hit a reset button to reevaluate many aspects of our lives. How are we investing our time, what are our real interests, and what values remain important to us? This will be a hard process, but also a healing one. 

My belief is that our longing for meaningful cultural nourishment will have grown. As we enter the post-pandemic future, we will need the arts, we will need live performances, we will need an active creative class in our city.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing

Sebastian Lang-Lessing

German conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing has been Music Director of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra since 2010. He concludes his tenure at the end of the 2019-20 season, after which he becomes Music...