I first thought of this column about a month ago in a different context.
In early August, the fall ahead promised a partial, if not full, return to a typical arts and entertainment calendar in Waco: festivals and community events outside, concerts, exhibits and plays inside, thanks to a COVID-19 vaccine that reduced concerns about coronavirus spread and its impact on our health care systems.
Two major Waco arts organizations had changes that promised both continuation of their programs and the possibility of new directions in the future. At the Art Center of Waco, a new downtown facility heads into its final weeks of renovation with a new space for exhibits, education, community and private events. Helping to steer a path into the months and years ahead is new executive director Doug McDurham, who comes not from a background of formal arts or arts administrative training, but one shaped by years in Waco, nonprofit organizational leadership and a love of the arts.
There’s new blood at the Waco Symphony Association, too, where its board members selected Waco native and Dallas arts leader Carolyn Bess to succeed longtime executive director Susan Taylor, who retired last month after 44 years. Taylor helped build the WSA to one of the city’s largest and oldest performing arts organizations through decades that have seen other cities’ symphonies falter and fail due to economic slumps, declining support or, most recently, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Both McDurham and Bess have demonstrated creativity, openness and a sensitivity to diverse communities in their background and as Waco arts supporters get back to rebuilding a local music, theater and visual arts scene hit by COVID-19 for more than a year, their leadership and vision seems to promise a continued vitality of the arts in the years ahead.
That comes on top of yeoman’s work from Creative Waco and existing arts groups, new and old, who improvised community support and attention over the last year and a half, a time that saw some artists, groups and venues shut their doors due to lockdowns, limited audiences, customer declines and, well, fatigue if not outright exhaustion. We’re not out of the woods yet — more on that later — but Waco can take pride in their efforts to keep art, both visual and performing, in the public’s eye and our communal memory.
Then COVID-19’s delta variant hit.
In spite of a significant vaccinated population added to COVID-19 survivors with antibodies from the experience, McLennan County hit new records in hospitalizations this month with the disease affecting more children and young adults than before. Deaths continue to rise as do new cases.
Perhaps as foreboding this time are the dark clouds that grew over the controversy of mask mandates or vaccinations discussed as collective ways to protect the community. People have legitimate reasons not to do either, but what I found missing in the most vocal were alternatives to their actions that would still help the community, something like “I won’t get vaccinated, but I will mask and socially distance,” or “I dislike masking, but will do it temporarily for my community’s sake.”
At a time where collective action might make a difference, we draw lines when it comes to self-sacrifice. We praise a Greatest Generation that weathered a depression and a world war, but in our times of crisis, we’re acting as the Aggrieved Generation.
But, wait, there’s more. A new wave of legislation that went into effect Sept. 1 promises even more opportunity to pull communities apart into angry factions thanks to their enforcement measures. Ideology and party identity now seem to rule over pragmatism and a consideration of consequences. Consider:
The new state abortion ban and its overly broad wording depends on citizens, not state officials, to enforce it through civil lawsuits, harassing women seeking abortion and those trying to help while bankrupting abortion clinics through legal fees. Regardless of ideological stand, do citizen informants build community or dissolve it?
New voting laws empower citizen poll watchers rather than officially neutral election officials. Will their physical presence, which assume a strong possibility of election fraud without them, intimidate citizens doing their civic duty? Do citizens visibly suspicious of other citizens make a more unified, broader community?
A ban on the phantom menace called “critical Race theory,” whose overly broad wording could chill healthy and needed discussion of race and racism, will depend largely not on school administrators to police, but parents upset at what their children say goes on in the classroom. In other states, angry confrontations at school board meetings over the subject already have caused board members — public servants, a good thing — to resign because of the nastiness. Will this build a greater community?
An expansion of gun rights legislation now allows people to carry a weapon in public without a license. Most will do so responsibly, but I don’t think one would carry a weapon in public unless he or she felt in a threatening environment or expecting an attack by a stranger. Conversely, others feel safe environments turn threatening when there’s a stranger with a visible weapon nearby. What happens to public gatherings like concert crowds, festivals, family or school events — community building events — when both sides are distrustful?
We live in a time where institutions that once provided pillars on which community could rest — churches, schools, law enforcement, social organizations — no longer have the influence they did.
Except the arts. The arts offer a way to unite us as shared residents of a community, people bound by common interests in the things that make us human: a love for beauty, music or performances shared with others; the bond of human emotions; and universal experience.
The arts in Waco form important fibers in the rope that holds us together. Let’s pay attention and strengthen those fibers for the sake of their future — and of ours.