Town Square

Houston Arts Return With New Leadership, After Being Hit Hard By The Pandemic

We meet three of Houston’s newest arts leaders and discuss their visions post-pandemic – including the future of live performance, equity and community impact.

Khori Dastoor, General Director & CEO of Houston Grand Opera (starting Jan. 2022); Janice Bond, Deputy Director of Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; Juraj Valcuha, Music Director of Houston Symphony (starting fall 2022)

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Town Square with Ernie Manouse airs at 3 p.m. CT. Tune in on 88.7FM, listen online or subscribe to the podcast. Join the discussion at 888-486-9677, questions@townsquaretalk.org or @townsquaretalk.

Houston’s art scene was hit hard by the pandemic, resulting in the closure of several theaters, galleries, and venues throughout the past year.

But despite those odds, the city’s art scene persevered, and in some cases, flourished into something completely new, according to community arts leaders.

After the city of Houston — along with rest of the world — shut down due to the pandemic, the local arts scene had to adapt in order to survive. That meant transitioning to a digital space, like the Houston Grand Opera did with its fully digital 2020-2021 season.

According to Khori Dastoor, the incoming general director and CEO of Houston Grand Opera, the company will continue to explore virtual creation, even after audiences return in person for the 2021-2022 season.

“We will absolutely continue to mine the digital form,” Dastoor said. “Opera, human expression, and more intimate, shorter-form content can be very enriching.”

However, as physical attendance begins to rise, Dastoor said the Houston Grand Opera is prepared to restructure in order to accommodate the community post-pandemic.

"I think people are going to need a very compelling reason to come out again," she said. "It'll give us an opportunity to really reevaluate."

Dastoor and other local arts leaders joined Town Square for a prerecorded show that aired Tuesday, with guest host Catherine Lu, about the future of the arts in the city after more than a year dealing with the impacts of the pandemic.

Over the past year, some physical spaces permanently closed as COVID-19 ravaged the community. But others were able to stay afloat.

The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston reopened its doors in February, allowing people to visit the museum — some for the very first time — by utilizing the large open space inside and instituting pandemic safety protocols, according to Janice Bond, the deputy director of the CAMH, who came aboard in June 2020 as deputy director of CAMH.

"I think that this will continue to evolve," Bond said. "Museums will continue to create space for people to think. They'll continue to create spaces for people to be."

That evolution has been seen in other aspects of the local arts scene as well, including the Houston Symphony, which just named its new music director last week.

Slovak conductor Juraj Valcuha will take the helm in fall 2022 after current music director Andres Orozco-Estrada, who has led the orchestra since 2014, ends his tenure following this coming 2021-2022 season.

John Mangum, the executive director and CEO of the Houston Symphony, said the change in leadership marks a new era for the symphony — with an emphasis on equity and representation.

“I think he will continue…this diversification of the repertoire that we’ve started over the past year,” he said. “We need to be more reflective of the diversity of our community in what we choose to play on the stage.”

He added that the focus on diversity would also extend to carefully choosing who plays with the orchestra to better reflect the Houston community.

The pandemic also allowed the Houston Symphony to reach new audiences, as it took advantage of the digital space by offering live streamed performances for more affordable ticket prices throughout the pandemic, Mangum said.

“The live streaming is one of the big sort of learning moments that we had last year,” Mangum said. “It ended up kind of developing this new audience group for us, so that was really exciting.”

But as the symphony transitions back to its traditional live audience, Mangum said that he believes it will take a few years to reach pre-pandemic levels of attendance.

“What I’m hoping is that there’s a pent-up desire for live music, for live performance,” he said. “I’m hoping that’ll really remind people why they used to be subscribers, why they used to come to the Houston Symphony, and that they’ll come out again.”

As for the Houston Grand Opera, incoming CEO Dastoor said she wasn’t worried about what the future may have in store for the city’s arts and culture.

"What everybody wants is to write a new chapter that makes sense for Houston today,” she said. “Not Houston 10 years ago, and not Houston pre-COVID, but Houston today and moving forward."

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that CAMH stayed open through the pandemic. They closed last year and reopened in February.

Town Square with Ernie Manouse is a gathering space for the community to come together and discuss the day’s most important and pressing issues.

Audio from today's show will be available after 5 p.m. CT. We also offer a free podcast here, on iTunes, and other apps.

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This article is part of the Town Square with Ernie Manouse podcast

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