February 15, 2020, an extremely cold yet otherwise unremarkable night, was one of the last times when Bi-Co students gathered physically to experience a campus arts event. That night, FUCS held its first concert of the semester, one loud enough that the usual earplug recommendation became an earplug mandate. Until just past midnight, Think Machine and Sargasso played high energy sets to a packed audience at James House.
This concert was also the first time I had helped book a band since joining FUCS just three months prior. The several weeks of making reservations, sending emails, and looking over strange legal documents involved in planning such an event took me entirely by surprise. And though I gained valuable experience in the process, it was only through the guidance of experienced upperclass students that this event ended up being a success.
It’s almost a year later, and we’re finally starting to see a glimmer of hope that the necessity for physical distancing may be over in the next 2-3 semesters. But the future of independent student arts on campus is still very much up in the air. In a few short semesters, I and many of my class of 2022 and 2023 peers will be in a position to take on leadership and responsibility roles in organizations, many of which have operated very differently (or not at all) during the pandemic. I, for one, am feeling so much anxiety about the new and unique challenges that this transition may bring. Can we build momentum around the arts in a campus that has operated so differently during the pandemic? What will happen to all the institutional knowledge held by students who will have already graduated? And after over a year of heightened stress, will we even have the energy to take on these projects alongside being full-time students?
This past semester, we saw a large scale slowdown in student engagement with the arts on campus. Although Zoom shows and virtual showcases provided an alternative to in-person events, the realities of the pandemic meant that these were not significantly utilized. Time zone difficulties, “Zoom Fatigue,” the stresses of a COVID semester, and a general downturn in global mental health made creating and organizing artistic and cultural events more difficult than ever before. As many of us probably know all too well, being a student in a global pandemic doesn’t create the best environment for large scale extracurricular projects. The new bureaucracy put forward by the administration, though necessary for maintaining student health, also put additional hurdles in front of student organizations which had previously operated more independently. Working through technical difficulties, coordinating approved spaces, generating an audience virtually, and maintaining proper distancing all added extra layers of complexity to an already difficult planning process.
It’s no surprise then that over the past few months most performance and exhibition groups either went into hibernation, continued to create, practice, and build community internally, or went on hiatus entirely. And though this shift was likely necessary and inevitable in a semester like this fall, it nonetheless contributed to a general sense of disillusionment among first years, who overwhelmingly feel as though Haverford does not have an open and robust arts community.
As of now, optimistic predictions say that the Fall of 2021 will be the first semester when the pandemic is no longer a constant threat. At this time, the seniors will have had just over a year of pre-pandemic experience, the juniors will have had just over a semester, and sophomores and first years will have spent their entire college career living under the realities of COVID. This large-scale demographic shift and shared experience will likely result in wide reaching implications for the campus as a whole. But specifically, I believe that students will have a harder time passing on institutional knowledge, as those tasked with handing down this knowledge will not have had years of making mistakes, learning, and growing to inform their leadership.
Of course, the performing and visual arts will never stop being a force to bring Haverford students together. There will always be people out there who are passionate about creating in the community. But we should recognize that independent student institutions could easily stop existing at any time (see: Lunt Cafe, Music and Arts House, etc.). If we want student agency over Haverford’s creative culture to grow, we need to be making intentional plans to make that happen. I believe that it is extremely important that students pass on institutional knowledge, create with joy, and lay the groundwork for a robust student arts scene now and in the semester to come.
The question then becomes, what can we do to make the next few semesters of transition into a time of reinvention, rather than a time of stressful relearning?
As of now, the right way forward (if there even is one) is still unclear. For some organizations, this transitional period will involve building internal community. By being a space not only for creativity but also for relieving social isolation, these groups can continue to serve as important outlets for student culture, albeit on a much smaller scale. For others, making this transition smoothly involves passing down Google Drive folders packed with information and historical documents to the next generation of leaders. By taking care of the small day-to-day details needed to run a student organization, they hope to be able to focus on larger scale projects in the future. And for others still, the goal is to continue creating and sharing – whether that be through virtual performances, Zoom workshops, or a shift towards asynchronous mediums like articles and videos.
But in my conversations with former and current Haverford students, one possible way forward emerged as a common thread: prioritizing enthusiasm about student creativity.
In the coming months, creating content and being artistically expressive may still be challenging. But Haverford students will still be putting out great music, photography, visual art, writing, videos, etc., as they have been through the entirety of this pandemic. And not only can we be enthusiastic about the achievements of our peers, we can be the ones to spread that enthusiasm to the people around us. By making it clear that efforts to build artistic community are not in vain, we help foster a culture where student artistic agency is met with eagerness rather than reluctance.
Being a leader and creator alongside being a full time student is really hard work. Making change as a student requires organization and putting in consistent time and effort. And while appeals to traditions and obligations may be effective in the short term, sustainable and fulfilling work can only be done if the projects that students take up are met with active energy and support. In a world where we are always seemingly being swept up by forces larger than ourselves, we can continue to find motivation in those small spaces (within the arts or otherwise) where our actions have positive impacts on the culture around us. If we work towards a campus where the next generation of Haverford students can create and share with joy and purpose, then a vibrant arts scene is sure to follow.
Thank you to Anna Fiscarelli-Mintz (HC’ 22), Bilge Nur Yılmaz (HC ‘21) (both contributing writers to Shoegazing, BTW!), Henry Nye (HC ‘20), Alissa Vandenbark (HC ‘22), Ewan Lang (HC ‘21), all the student groups I cold-texted, and everyone who filled out my polls for providing so much of the time and wisdom that went into this article!