I guess I’m well-suited for these times. Anyone fascinated by history would be.
Appreciation came easily. In family stories about weathering the first half of the 20th century. In my awe while working in the oldest baseball stadium in the nation, where the ghosts of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays roamed the infield. History seemed as vivid as the fireworks from the state fair down the hill from our home.
A few of my life’s largest historic markers — the Apollo 11 moon landing; the Berlin Wall’s destruction — called for celebration. Regretfully, most bore the solemnity of war, economic calamity, assassinations, political upheaval and disease.
If you don’t realize the current situation is historic, straighten up and take notice. Even crowded into a historian’s wonderland like the Azalea City, the COVID-19 outbreak will end up on the History Museum of Mobile’s timeline of notable gateways, alongside yellow fever and flu epidemics.
One Mobile historian I spoke to has his young son keeping a journal. The youngster’s early entries are amusingly anodyne thus far.
We’re only a week or so into worrisome local changes and their economic effect is obvious, especially for those who have put 30 years of work into downtown’s revitalization. Eateries, museums and performance spaces are darkened and quiet. Extrapolate that into months and it gets ugly.
If financial dominoes topple into dire forecasts of global doldrums, then the cultural world — often on a lower hierarchical rung — will likely feel it especially hard. Even now, spring schedules are flying by, replacing inspiration with cancellations. Uncertainty will mount if this continues.
Cultural entities are entirely dependent upon philanthropy. Sometimes it’s in individual giving, sometimes through foundations and grants. Ticket sales for performing arts usually make about half a group’s revenue. Those additional revenue streams are essential for operas, symphonies, chamber music, dance troupes and others.
As budgets tighten, institutional belt-cinching spreads. A museum uses security personnel, facilities maintenance workers and educational staff. Think of how many people occupy an orchestra’s seats, or toil backstage in the rafters or in a sound booth.
Outreach programs will pay the price, too. So will artists who often live by the slimmest of margins anyway.
Granted, calls for semi-isolation can play into creative pursuits since time in the studio or with hands on the keys is solitary pursuit anyway. But if no one else is making money, who buys your work?
Even those who seem secure can be shaken. The Mobile Museum of Art might be part of the city government, but if tax revenues drop, cuts will be unavoidable. Other institutions without those official ties and avenues for resources have an even harder slog ahead.
Unlike our last recession, this is driven by contagion and its fears, so some places adjust better than others. Though exhibit spaces have closed for now, viewing isn’t usually tactile — facilitating contamination — and you rarely encounter crowds.
But anything that needs an audience? Ain’t going to happen. I heard attendance at the March 7 Mobile Symphony Orchestra (MSO) concert was noticeably down. We were a week away from the first local confirmation of a COVID-19 case, but anxiety was already rippling through MSO’s following, their average age falling into the range cited as most vulnerable to the disease.
I understood because of another reason I’m familiar with these times. Thanks to genetic emphysema, I’m vulnerable. A head cold, seasonal allergies or standard influenza can result in bronchitis, then pneumonia. It’s why I’ve been hospitalized around seven times in the last 15 years. If I contract COVID-19, I’m dead.
Hyper-hygiene and social distancing are my reality since diagnosis in my late 30s. My trips to retail stores during flu season are planned like a “Mission: Impossible” heist, minus the self-destructing message.
You learn how to work around it. Your life doesn’t disintegrate, you just adapt. It’s why I am my pulmonologist’s longest-surviving patient. That’s good news for our collective sanity should new measures last.
How else might this change us? What does history forecast? The 1918-20 Spanish flu pandemic was monstrous, but many had forgotten it until recently. Same with 1957’s Asian flu and 1968’s Hong Kong flu with their 70,000 and 100,000 American deaths, respectively.
We recall the Great Depression but without caution for bull markets. We remember 9/11 and wave off surrendered liberties.
History says we’ll adapt, then concede our memory to distraction again. But if the economic fears proved founded, it will take more than Purell and Lysol to revive our cultural life.
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