After the pandemic’s catastrophic hit to the arts, UI graduating artists charge ahead

The pandemic shut down theaters, altered how artists make music, and put harsh limits on live performance. From theater, music, and visual arts, University of Iowa seniors look to what the future holds for them after graduation.


Brianna Brown

Trinton Prater, a graduate student studying for a master’s degree in music composition, is seen outside of the Voxman Music Building on Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

DI staff

The pandemic has left a long trail of destruction. For the arts industry, peoples’ livelihoods were no exception: closed theaters, canceled festivals, and a long economic shadowed many entertainers. Despite this, University of Iowa seniors studying the arts are hopeful as they prepare to graduate from a university that altered programs dramatically to give their students as normal of a year as possible.

At the UI, the arts have remained vibrant. Theater productions have been filmed for online audiences or moved to Zoom, Hancher hosted an outdoor dance concert in conjunction with the Department of Dance, and the School of Music made several strict adaptations to their program in order to make in-person rehearsals possible and safe.

For Brandon Treviño, theatrical performance is his future. The graduating senior didn’t know that at first — he’d come to the UI as a biomedical engineering major. It wasn’t until he watched comedian and musician Bo Burham’s special “Make Happy” that his life and career ambitions changed.

“I realized I wanted to use my creative side to inspire others to explore theirs as well,” Treviño said.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts, arts and culture jobs contribute 4.5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. Given art and design’s increased presence in health care, manufacturing, and local community and economic development initiatives, a 2021 report from the organization stated, economic repercussions to arts because of the pandemic could have widespread economic effects in those industries as well.

The Theatre Department alone made several adaptations to their program to give actors like Treviño a normal year. A partnership with a UI research lab allowed the department to use saliva tests to monitor COVID-19 among actors before they came in for any limited in-person rehearsals, Zoom allowed one mainstage production to be directed from New York, and film cameras were set up in the seats of the theater to capture everything for the screen, including Treviño’s performance this year in Generation Candyland: A Fable.

Treviño has big plans after graduation, which include moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. The move could be just in time: California plans to reopen theaters and concert halls on June 15. The economic losses within its booming creative community is great, however, totaling over $121 million and 2,700 jobs just in Orange County, according to a survey from Arts Orange County.

The actor said that while there are risks, the opportunity to break into the industry and feeling of “Hollywood magic” are worth it.

“I’m playing with the risk of failure and success,” he said. “However, I know that the skills I learned at Iowa and my character development here at the University has set me up for the latter.”

While the changes the UI made for their arts students have made performing easier, the loss of a live audience has been great. For Trinton Parker, a second-year student in the UI’s master of composition program, while the act of composing music is something that can be done alone, the lack of a live orchestra to perform the music can be dull.

“We write to be performed. The removal of performance opportunities has been something that we’ve all had to deal with,” Prater said. “The University and the School of Music have given lots of opportunities for recording projects and distant concerts, so I’ve still been able to improve my work and continue growing in spite of everything.”

Prater will release their master’s thesis Memory III/IV: Chimaeram on May 9, which entails the idea of moving from one place to another. Next year, Prater will pursue their Ph.D. of Composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where they will work as a TA for Eastman’s electronic music studio EARS (Eastman Audio Research Studio).

Prater said they hope to eventually work as a professor of music composition in order to forge relationships within the music industry and help to advance their own creativity in the process of educating others.

In the words of printmaking student Alex Fox, the job market is “not kind” right now to those in creative fields.

The two entry-level jobs he’s managed to find in his desired location are a caricature artist at the zoo, and a job making fur suits.

“[It] would kind of be funny, but not ideal,” Fox said.

At the UI, the artist held his first ever art show, a BFA exhibition he called Facade, at the end of April. Incorporating painting, fabric, cyanotyping, and printmaking into various forms of bodies, Facade explored how the identities a body presents may be different than its true identity.

Fox said the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic tainted many parts of his final years in art school. What he described as the once vibrant and lively visual arts building, he loved, turned quiet, and the time he had spent surrounded by like-minded classmates was cut into time slots in studios with limited capacity.

What’s more, in the summer of 2020, Fox’s art internship in Berlin was canceled. Fox said the internship was one he felt was his chance to be seen as a “serious” artist, and the loss took a toll on his self-esteem and motivation. He did all the things recommended to him to polish and elevate his resume, but in the end, it was up to forces beyond his control.

Following graduation, Fox plans to move to Chicago and open up an Etsy shop — his first attempt at selling his work.

“There’s a whole lot of competition out there, so you really have to like to focus on yourself and kind of build your confidence, and make connections as an artist, which are both things that I’m working on,” Fox said.

Josie Fischels, Maddie Johnston, Delaney Orewiler, and Tatiana Plowman contributed to this article.