New York Times Asks 75 Artists About Their Pandemic Year

New York Times Asks 75 Artists About Their Pandemic Year

New York Times Asks 75 Artists About Their Pandemic Year

New York Times Asks 75 Artists About Their Pandemic Year

Times Insider explains who we are and what we do and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

The playwright Tracy Letts pulled no punches when asked what art he created during the year of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I made nothing,” he told The New York Times’s Arts & Leisure section in February. “Creatively, I’m lost. It’s why I’m doing this interview. I’m guessing there are some other artists who identify.”

That statement was cathartic for a lot of people, said Meeta Agrawal, The Times’s Arts and Leisure editor who oversaw a collection of culture articles that published online last week commemorating the one-year anniversary of New York City’s cultural shutdown. “They were like, ‘Oh, if Tracy Letts made nothing this year, I don’t have to feel as bad that I couldn’t make anything, either,’” she said.

Mr. Letts’s candor was just one revelation that emerged from the package. Across six stories, a team of more than 20 editors, reporters, photographers and designers recounted scenes from the last night before the lockdown, offered perspective from a 77-year-old theater-deprived superfan in Chicago and asked 75 artists to reflect on their creativity during quarantine.

The project was led by Ms. Agrawal; a visuals team including Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben and Tala Safie; and the designers Gabriel Gianordoli and Jennifer Ledbury.

In a conversation, Ms. Agrawal shared a behind-the-scenes look at how the project came together — and how working on it gave her a new perspective on the pandemic.

How did you decide on your approach?

When we were approaching the one-year mark of the shutdown, we started thinking about what story we hadn’t told. We wanted to mark it in a way that was different from our minute-to-minute coverage on the desk. One thing we had been considering was what art was going to come out of this time — that wasn’t something we could get at yet. But what we could do was ask artists about what happened to their creativity and imagination, which was how the article about 75 artists came together.

How did you choose the 75?

We broached the idea with probably twice that number, starting in January. And we ended up with people who wanted to share something about the year or felt as if they had something to say — it just happened to land at 75. Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben and Tala Safie found artists who were excited to respond visually with illustrations, data visualization and video. It was a real passion project.

That piece ran at more than 10,000 words. What was the editing process like?

The first version started out at like 30,000 words, and every couple of days I’d go back in and winnow it down some more. I’d make myself edit out some favorites to make the article into something that was readable but still captured a breadth of responses.

What was the most challenging part?

Just trying to nail down whether we could get enough artists to participate that it would be viable. It’s a lot to ask of artists because they open themselves up to scrutiny of their lives and experiences. Yes, they’re public figures, but these questions are also pretty personal ones.

What’s the story behind Michael Paulson’s profile of the 77-year-old theater superfan who’s had to turn to TV?

We write a lot about art and artists, but not as much about audiences. But we all know those people who structure their lives around theater and opera and the live arts. And one thing Michael and I had been thinking a lot about is what happened to those people in the past year. They had a major part of their lives stripped away. I really wanted to tell the story of one appreciator, and Michael set out to find such a person. And he delivered this really delightful, moving portrait of someone who had just absolutely lived for the performing arts in the before times.

How did working on this package change your own perspective on the pandemic?

Just having a window into all of these different people’s lives and seeing the range of human experience was enlightening. I was surprised by the sides of themselves that people shared.

What was your biggest surprise?

When we asked people what they made this year, I expected more people to say banana bread.

What do you hope people take away from this project?

I hope people are moved and inspired and see themselves in these responses. We’ve all been in isolation, and if this package has made someone feel a little less alone, that’s a wonderful thing.

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