If there’s one thing the coronavirus pandemic has proved, it’s our undeniable need for the arts. When we’re stuck at home, we find ways to escape—we hunker down with a video-streaming service, curl up with a good book, play a long-forgotten instrument. We find comfort in the arts.
This past year, artists of all descriptions have reimagined ways to safely share their creations with the public. Aisha Ahmad-Post, executive director of DU’s Robert and Judi Newman Center for the Performing Arts, has been determined to keep audiences engaged, even when the doors to theaters and concert halls were closed.
“We really needed to rethink: What can we do, and what do we have time to do? We decided that we would embark on a series of small virtual performances,” says Ahmad-Post.
With that in mind, the Newman Center introduced performances by the Boston Brass, Paul Taylor Dance Company and Big Band Holidays featuring Jazz at Lincoln Center Septet with Wynton Marsalis.
“I think that was a really nice way for us to reconnect with our audiences in a way that was focused and gave them something to engage with,” she says.
Ahmad-Post joined the Newman Center in August 2020 and quickly found herself in uncharted territory. Most of her staff had been furloughed since July, and the old playbook wasn’t useful in the face of shutdowns.
“I’m treating this as year zero in my career at DU,” says Ahmad-Post, who had to start from scratch. “I have to use this time to set myself up and my staff up for the future.”
For the past several months, she and her team have been thinking about the future and what they want to be going forward. They will embark on a strategic plan, re-ignite an advisory board made up of “highly engaged and thoughtful folks from the community,” and finalize the 2021–22 season to include performances that were canceled because of the pandemic.
“When you make an offer to an artist, you’re saying this institution believes in the power of this art, and we want to support you,” says Ahmad-Post. “It’s not just a commitment but also an ethical thing to do to try to refocus as many of these performances as possible.”
Ahmad-Post sees performing arts as a tool to investigate who we are as a society. She considers larger conversations happening at the national level when creating educational programming that aligns with Colorado values. She hopes the programming reflects and connects with audiences in a personal way.
“The act of going to a performance and engaging with a piece of work is not a passive one. If the experience has been passive, I don’t think the performing arts center, or the artist, is doing its job; or it’s doing you a disservice in not setting you up to have that conversation,” she says.
At the forefront of her planning process are her goals for diversity, equity and inclusion. To get her staff on the same page, she started a book club that currently is reading Ibram Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist.”
“I’m hoping to use that work to include more vocal, specific, anti-racism work that takes into account the … history of DU, Denver and Colorado, as we think about how to be a more anti-racist performing arts center,” she says.
A seasoned curator and presenter, Ahmad-Post says there is no such thing as apolitical artwork.
“Any time you make a decision to present a particular artist, or to commission a piece, you are making a decision about who you think is important and who, implicitly or explicitly, is not important enough to be on your stage,” she says. “That is something that I take very seriously.”
The performing arts scene has changed dramatically since March 2020. As live performances return to the stage, Ahmad-Post expects some changes to linger.
“One thing that I think will continue to be part of our practice is the live stream or virtual piece,” she says. “Even [before] COVID and high-risk populations for COVID, we always had high-risk populations in our midst. I think the pandemic showed how powerful video is in our practice and how much that needs to be a carefully thought-through piece of what we do.”
Ahmad-Post finds opportunity in the confluence of the pandemic and the upheaval of business practices and business as usual.
“As difficult as the last 10 months have been for my industry, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to be in a place of responsibility where I can meet that moment and think about it and try to make the Newman Center a better place for everybody,” she says.