‘I won’t ever get this time back:’ NYC arts community coping with coronavirus shutdown
Nathaniel Hunt, one of the best ballet dancers in the world, is having the best season of his life.
This year he’s performed with the Metropolitan Opera in four different shows. On Friday he was scheduled to dance in Verdi’s romantic “La Traviata.” Seventeen hours later he planned to return to Lincoln Center to dance in “The Flying Dutchman,” a haunting work regarded as Wagner’s first masterpiece.
But first, Hunt was fired.
In an email to employees on Thursday, the opera company cancelled its March performances due to coronavirus. If the pandemic stretches into April, Hunt’s season is finished.
Ballet dancers age faster than other artists. The work is grueling. Injuries debilitate most professionals before they reach age 35.
“I’m at the peak of my career,” said Hunt, 28. “I won’t ever get this time back.”
All week, workers in New York City’s cultural institutions said, they’d wondered when their bosses might suspend operations due to the coronavirus pandemic. On Thursday, the expected news arrived. First the Metropolitan Museum and the Metropolitan Opera, two of the city’s most prominent arts groups, announced they would close immediately.
What followed was a deluge. By Friday morning nearly every arts, culture and sporting organization in New York had turned off the lights. The shuttered doors stretched across the city, from the Bronx Museum of the Arts to El Museo del Barrio in Harlem to the Staten Island Museum.
“It’s never happened in the history of sport, to my knowledge, that things have been totally shut down like this,” Creighton University men’s basketball coach Greg McDermott said at a press conference. His team played the first half of a game at Madison Square Garden. At halftime, officials with the Big East Conference — in which Creighton plays — cancelled the entire post-season tournament.
Artists, students, freelancers and full-time staff members at some of America’s most prestigious cultural institutions all felt the effects of the sudden closures. Luca Anaya is a student at the School of American Ballet. In five weeks, he will audition for some of the best ballet companies in the world.
Now that his school is closed, along with every other institution at Lincoln Center, he has no place to practice.
“It’s a New York apartment. There’s not that much space,” said Anaya, 17, who spoke by phone from his family’s home in Washington Heights. “And even if I could practice here, my neighbors would probably kill me.”
Anaya’s mother, Leila Colom, performs as a voiceover artist on Grand Theft Auto video games, the “Dora the Explorer” television show and other popular titles. For the first time in years, she is getting no emails about upcoming auditions. The last time she experienced a slowdown of this magnitude was the 2008 financial crisis, she said.
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“All my work involves headphones and microphones. With this virus, nobody wants to be anywhere near that stuff,” said Colom, who hopes to live on her savings until the industry rebounds. “I’m just really scared right now.”
Thriving members of the city’s art world, including Broadway’s leading actors and those with full-time jobs, took the shutdown as an opportunity to catch up on some long-delayed projects. James Harkness co-stars in the Broadway musical “Ain’t Too Proud,” about the Temptations. After dancing and singing eight times a week for the last year, “everything hurts,” he said.
The decision to close all of Broadway’s theaters through at least April 12 gives the actor time for acupuncture and physical therapy, he said. He might even visit his mother in El Paso, Texas.
“It definitely gives my body an opportunity to rest,” Harkness aid. “I’m actually looking forward to that.”
Sean Brown runs a crew of production engineers at the Museum of Modern Art. He’s responsible for all the building systems that support MoMA’s shows, from aiming the lights on selected pieces of art to setting up audio and visual displays. With a steady paycheck guaranteed throughout the shutdown, Brown plans to spend his time removing junk from his attic and garage.
“I wasn’t concerned. We have a solid union,” said Brown, of Stockholm, New Jersey.
Some unions are stronger than others. Colom is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, “but there’s nothing they can do” to help her find work, she said.
People who work as freelancers for New York’s cultural institutions may have the most to lose. Bryan Cook installs art exhibitions at museums around the city. He was busy mounting paintings, sculptures and video illustrations by the artist Jonathan Horowitz at the Jewish Museum when officials announced by email that the museum would close for at least two weeks.
The message reassured Cook that he would be paid for all his contracted hours, regardless of the museum’s closure. A similar email from Richard Armstrong, director of the Guggenheim Museum, stated that “staff who need to work onsite will receive at least two-weeks compensation.”
Meanwhile, freelancers like Cook must wait for “news on various pay procedures.”
Such nebulous language makes Cook nervous.
“The right thing is to pay people in full for the work they were going to be doing,” he said. “We’ve all got to pay rent.”
Nathanial Hunt has no guarantees whatsoever. The possible end to his season meant a definite end to his pay. Shopping at the Key Foods grocery store near his apartment in northern Manhattan, Hunt usually buys organic apples. But on Friday morning, on his first shopping trip since the layoff, Hunt decided to scrimp.
“You know what? Organic apples cost 30 cents more apiece,” he said. “Maybe that’s 30 cents I can use to pay my bills.”
Christopher Maag is a columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his unique perspective on New Jersey’s most interesting people and experiences, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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