You won’t find artists on any country’s list of essential workers. But art and music are providing a powerful balm for many after the toll of the last few months.

Around the world, museums, theatre, orchestra concerts and art shows have all gone dark in the pandemic. Art biennales from Glasgow to Gwangju have been postponed to 2021 or later. Now as the first museums and physical exhibits start to reopen, the arts are emerging in unexpected ways as a therapeutic tool, going from something highbrow to more grassroots service, done almost on the fly.

When the New York Philharmonic returned in late August for its first live concert since March, it did so from a pick-up truck at three unannounced spots in Brooklyn, kicking off a series of pop-up shows featuring chamber music and new works called the NY Phil Bandwagon.

As raindrops fell, minders held umbrellas over the musicians and their valuable instruments. The masked audience was undeterred.

“We’ve missed you!” one fan shouted, according to the New York Times.

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Eleven Songs by tamtam. Photography by Roman März.
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In Berlin, the city’s nightclubs have repurposed themselves as sites for immersive art. Famed techno club Berghain, located in a former power plant, turned its dance floor over to an immersive sound installation, “

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,” with capacity for 50 masked and socially-distanced visitors per session, sitting and lying on the floor. Some waited hours in line to get in, and a total of 8,000 visitors eventually made their way through over the summer.

“After the lockdown, the need for art and culture is enormous,” Carsten Seiffarth, artistic director for Singuhr, the sound gallery that curated the show, told Conde Nast Traveller. “People are hungry for it. It’s been remarkable to see a mix of academic types, who might ordinarily go to the symphony, and kids, who might otherwise be absorbed in their phones, all together here and focused on the work.”

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Camille Walala's art in London. Photography by Étienne Godiard, courtesy of Unsplash.

In east London, artist Camille Walala unveiled a community-funded, community-designed art project – covering the storefronts of an entire high street in bold colors and geometric shapes. “Art and color have an amazing power to spread positivity, especially at the scale of the street,” she told Creative Boom.

In Jakarta, out-of-work artists painted street murals on city walls depicting the fight against COVID-19, with public service messages urging people to stay home. “We can’t stop,” said Listanto, one of the street artists featured in a Jakarta Post video on the project. “Creativity is important to boost our spirit and spread positive values.”

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Images from Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine. Photography by Kay Hickman.

The New York Historical Society had a similarly urgent imperative when it opened a new exhibit, “Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” last month. The weatherproof outdoor exhibition of oral histories and photos of 14 New Yorkers captured in April, with audio delivered via cell phone, provides catharsis through the voices of ordinary people in extraordinary times.

Kevin Powell, the writer and humanitarian who conducted the interviews and curated the exhibition, told the New York Times: “In a lot of ways, I needed to do this so I didn’t lose my mind.” The exhibition includes a booth where visitors can record their own experiences, completing the continuing circle of art for the community, from the community.

Elsewhere, older exhibits in museums have also taken on new or heightened meaning.

A few weeks ago, the Boston Globe’s art critic Murray Whyte toured the city’s newly re-opened museums and wrote of re-visiting works around racism and colonialism. “Any museum worth a damn has shifted in recent years to the vital role of questioning history, art and otherwise, and not just preserving it,” Whyte wrote. “That role has never been more important, or clearer.”

A trip to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, he wrote, “reminded me of the powerful salve places like this can offer.”

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