Silver Linings: A Reimagined Revival by Victoria Plettner-Saunders
In her new essay, Victoria Plettner-Saunders reflects on opportunities to re-open better workplaces in the arts and culture sector in the wake of the pandemic. 



Silver Linings: A Reimagined Revival
Victoria Plettner-Saunders

I continually look for silver linings in the midst of the pandemic. A weekly cocktail hour together with friends in three different cities that yields great discussions about classical music, quarantine reading lists and what we’re watching on YouTube that we can’t see live. A live performance from Florence with an artist Q & A right in our living room. Seeing so many neighbors out for walks at all times of the day with their helmeted children riding along on bikes and scooters.

Recently, I had another silver lining experience while attending a Zoom book talk live from McNally Jackson Books in New York City. We make sure to stop into the store whenever we’re in Manhattan and I often wish I could attend their author events but for living three time zones away.

The book talk was with Gabrielle Hamilton, author of a memoir Blood, Bones and Butter, and the chef/owner of Prune, a restaurant in New York City. She was joined by author Michael Cunningham. Recently Hamilton has been lauded in the restaurant industry for a New York Times Magazine article she wrote titled “My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need it Anymore?”.

As we’ve been watching the ravages of Covid-19 on our own arts and culture industry, I’ve found myself relating to the struggles experienced by the restaurant industry as theirs too is a business model that requires showing up in person, every night, to perform before an audience that has to attend in person, and in very close quarters. Returning to some semblance of normal will take much longer for restaurants and arts organizations than businesses that can work from home without much interruption to work flow.

One of the questions asked of Hamilton was what returning to the restaurant would look like for her. To paraphrase her response, she said she would want things to be different and that she thought the industry should make “serious changes before we come back to life.” She was referring to the restaurant culture as one of long days, long nights, little access to health care or worker benefits in general, low wages, slim profit margins due to high costs of production and the inability to charge customers what it really costs to produce a meal in a restaurant. Sound familiar?

Her sentiment is something I’ve been saying for a few months now. A colleague in a local museum and I were talking about how organizations were handling HR issues and the need to furlough or lay off staff. At one point we both agreed that we would love to see our industry re-make our workforce’s workplace culture as it returns.

Our workplaces have been, in essence, blown-up. Returning to normal will not be an option when people go back to the office. Workers who had once been required to be in the office every day eight hours a day under the watchful eye of a supervisor have had the opportunity to be more on their own and trusted to do their work without constant “face time” requirements. Will they now request or expect to have a more flexible schedule when they return to the office?

Workers who are now making more money each week on unemployment than they did while on the organization’s payroll won't be able to help questioning their choices when return to work orders are put in place. Will they look elsewhere for work? Will they have spent the last several months professionally reinventing themselves or reexamining their options? Will everyone just go back to their jobs and begin making lower pay as though nothing happened? Or will they start to demand higher wages. Will the current “minimum wage” on unemployment become the new salary floor for keeping current employees or hiring new ones?

Will people with little or no workplace health insurance benefits, who have had the frightening experience of being infected with Covid-19, seeing friends or loved ones require significant medical assistance, or worrying that they will require help themselves, begin to demand workplace benefits?

Gabrielle Hamilton’s comments were met by many Zoomers with nodding heads and thumbs-up while on mute as she talked about not wanting to rush back to reopen “just to make money” without making changes. She spoke of wanting to make thoughtful, measured decisions about what she would bring back to life in the wake of the crisis.

This is the time to start fresh with a new way of doing business because we have a choice to use this as an opportunity to make our work places better for ourselves and our employees. A silver lining to the pandemic is that it has forced us to strike the set in every way possible. Let’s not just remount the same production again, but rather rebuild something worthy of our dedicated workforce.