For Guy Ben-Aharon, the realization hit at 9:04 p.m. Tuesday night.
“Hey Canada, is it too early to call?” tweeted Ben-Aharon, producing artistic director of Boston’s Israeli Stage. Forty minutes later, the theater director’s mood had darkened considerably. “Odd to say it,” he tweeted, “but right now I think I would feel safest as an immigrant, as a Jew, as a bicultural person, living in Germany.”
Daylight brought little relief for Paul Daigneault, producing artistic director at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
“There’s no loss of life involved, but I can’t help but make the parallel to the Boston Marathon bombing or Sept. 11,” said Daigneault. “I felt like the world was going to end for that brief moment. Then I realized I’m an artist: I need to pick myself up.”
As much of the country awoke Wednesday morning stunned at the prospect of a Trump presidency, many Boston-area arts leaders found themselves deeply anxious for the country’s future, yet grimly determined that the arts, with their power to provide understanding, are more necessary than ever.
“My initial reaction was tears,” said Shawn LaCount, artistic director of Company One Theatre. “It’s hard. Our work is far from done. Arts and social activist groups have an important call to action. We must provide safe space for powerful art and inclusion like we’ve never had to before.”
Many arts leaders said they felt the ground was shifting beneath their feet, laying bare deep divisions they would have to work to overcome.
“How do we respond to something that we didn’t anticipate and don’t understand?” asked Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company. “Our greatest power in the theater is to create empathy. How do we create understanding not only of the marginalized, but how do we understand the rest of our country?”
Jill Medvedow, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, said that it could take years to know the full impact of a Trump presidency on the arts. She added, however, that cultural uncertainty could provide fertile ground for artists such as Theaster Gates and Kara Walker who tackle weighty social issues.
“I take heart in that these are artists who demonstrate this notion of grappling with uncertainty and creating something out of it,” said Medvedow. “One of the things that’s going to happen is that we’re all going to have to speak a little louder.”
Mark Volpe, managing director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, added that moments of cultural upheaval have produced some of the world’s great artworks. “When there’s strife and anxiety, it can stimulate the creative process,” he said. “People forget Tanglewood was started in 1937.”
Still, Volpe said that Trump’s tough talk on immigration may make it harder for international performers and students to come to the United States.
“We have artists coming through from myriad countries to play in Boston and to play and study at Tanglewood,” said Volpe. “Immigration’s been a huge part of the dialogue, and it’s not clear beyond building a wall how immigration policy will be organized.”
He added that a Trump presidency could also affect cultural nonprofits when it comes to tax policy — particularly if Paul Ryan remains the speaker of the House. “He’s been an advocate for flat taxes, and that has obvious implications for nonprofits,” said Volpe, noting that many charitable donations are currently tax-deductible.
For some, Trump’s rise — fueled in part by disaffected rural whites — raised questions about how urban arts organizations can speak to people who don’t recognize themselves in the multicultural vision for the country championed by many artists today.
“I’ve been working around issues of diversity or inclusion my whole life,” said David Dower, co-artistic director at ArtsEmerson. “All of these things that we’re celebrating are being viewed in this election as evidence of what’s being lost in these other communities. It’s a divide that’s being reinforced by the work that I’m doing.”
Shaw Pong Liu, a musician who has sought to bridge community divides, said the election has her rethinking her own work.
“It puts everything I’ve been doing into a completely different perspective,” she said. “It’s one thing to work in an urban environment, but there’s a whole set of assumptions there that I didn’t realize as being different from rural America.”
Several mentioned that their students were distraught over the election. At Boston Conservatory at Berklee, students hung signs promoting hope and love in the windows.
And while Trump’s election may have highlighted the country’s divisions, Maso said theater’s task remains the same.
“Part of our job is to heal that divide,” said Maso. “Maybe we feel it a little more starkly this morning than we would have otherwise, but the responsibility is the same.”