Arts in the Pandemic Age

15 September, 2020

The Arab Fund for Arts and Cultures features

The Arab Fund for Arts and Cul­tures fea­tures “Stag­ing the Imag­ined” by Sama Alshaibi

The Covid-19 cri­sis is hav­ing a tremen­dous impact on artists, per­form­ers and cul­tur­al indus­tries across the globe. While many feel that deep, cre­ative respons­es to this dif­fi­cult year are more need­ed than ever, finan­cial sup­port for cre­ators is dras­ti­cal­ly endan­gered world­wide. That’s why we must encour­age sol­i­dar­i­ty and ask for gov­ern­ment and pri­vate funding. 

Melissa Chemam

“The French cul­tur­al sec­tor is in a coma” screams a recent head­line in Spain’s La Van­guardia news­pa­per. “51% of exist­ing orga­ni­za­tions may dis­ap­pear if activ­i­ty does not resume.” Even though Pres­i­dent Macron has invest­ed some two bil­lion euros in the arts, things con­tin­ue to look dire.

In New York, more than 200 arts groups have been hav­ing extra­or­di­nary online coun­cils to brain­storm their way for­ward, accord­ing to a New York Times report, in an effort led by “Taryn Sacra­mone, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Queens The­ater, and Lucy Sex­ton, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of New York­ers for Cul­ture & Arts, an advo­ca­cy group. They argue that cul­ture employs 400,000 work­ers and gen­er­ates $110 bil­lion in eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty for the city.”

As the Covid-19 cri­sis is mov­ing toward a sec­ond wave, forc­ing cities and some coun­tries into more quar­an­tines and fur­ther lock­down, with­out music, cin­e­ma, lit­er­a­ture and artis­tic events, can we hold on much longer?

Music or books may be the great­est com­fort for many peo­ple, art the most mean­ing­ful way to address and chal­lenge com­plex issues, but when the finan­cial cri­sis kicks in, musi­cians and artists are the first ones to lose fund­ing and support.

By March 2020, most cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions across the world had to close for an uncer­tain amount of time. Muse­ums, gal­leries, the­atres and oth­er pub­lic insti­tu­tions migrat­ed online and asked for dona­tions. Ear­ly that month, for exam­ple, the British Muse­um in Lon­don had announced a major exhi­bi­tion of 150 works by Mid­dle East­ern artists, but has since shelved plans to open until ear­ly next year. At the same time, the Sur­sock Muse­um in Beirut com­mis­sioned the devel­op­ment of a vir­tu­al tour of its col­lec­tion “so that peo­ple could vis­it the Muse­um and explore its many spaces and exhib­it­ed art­works safe­ly, and from the com­fort of their home. We took this deci­sion in the midst of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, not know­ing, at the time, when we would be able to reopen to the public.”

 In Europe, in the USA, in India, in the Mid­dle East, the clo­sure of art and music venues has brought song­writ­ers, singers, per­form­ers, the­atre mak­ers and visu­al artists to their knees. The pan­dem­ic has also hurt the bot­tom line of the art world as both Sothe­by’s and Christie’s have seen a pre­cip­i­tous drop in sales.

A major con­cern in the Unit­ed King­dom and in the USA is the lack of pub­lic sup­port for artists, free­lancers and self-employed work­ers. Accord­ing to the Fed­er­a­tion of Small Busi­ness­es, 4.9 mil­lion British work­ers are self-employed, around 15% of the total work­force. These work­ers urgent­ly need a sup­port plan.

The sit­u­a­tion is even worse for the­atres and cin­e­mas. For instance, 50 Lon­don the­atres, and 250 through­out the UK, have closed in the spring accord­ing to the Soci­ety of Lon­don The­atre (Solt) and UK The­atre, the indus­try body that rep­re­sents them. Equi­ty, the actors’ union, declared,: “No one should be left behind just because their employ­ment is inse­cure.” They’re strug­gling to reopen. As for cin­e­mas, some even won­der if they will sur­vive. “I am dread­ing and weird­ly look­ing for­ward to cin­e­mas reopen­ing,” Ghana­ian-British film­mak­er John Akom­frah told Isabel Stevens on the BFI’s web­site, in a piece aimed at sav­ing an icon­ic decade-old cin­e­ma of East Lon­don, the Rio in Hack­ney. “The view­ing expe­ri­ence in our homes has been fan­tas­tic but I want cin­e­mas back. I can’t think what a world would be like that did­n’t have them as cen­tral to the cul­tur­al landscape.” 

In his arti­cle titled ‘Time For Artists’ Mutu­al Aid?’ post­ed on July 27, 2020 on Free­dom News, Stephen Pritchard, an art his­to­ri­an, researcher and co-founder of Rewild the Arts, wrote that “Mil­lions of work­ers face uncer­tain futures and the real prospect of unemployment—perhaps long-term unem­ploy­ment. Artists and arts work­ers epit­o­mize pre­car­i­ous working—our dreams of auton­o­my eas­i­ly cap­tured by neolib­er­al cap­i­tal and the state.”

But he also blames the lack of sol­i­dar­i­ty and self-orga­ni­za­tion. “Artists and arts work­ers are in dis­ar­ray, tied to neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism and state fund­ing,” he con­tin­ues. “Yet artists were once dan­ger­ous. We have paid a ter­ri­ble price as we all-too-often capit­u­lat­ed to those spear­head­ing the free mar­ket counter-rev­o­lu­tion, too often sell­ing our­selves to the dev­il for the pauci­ty of the next Faus­t­ian pact.” 

He advis­es peo­ple to get inspi­ra­tion from the COVID-19 Mutu­al Aid groups that are self-orga­niz­ing and rais­ing their own funds across the UK and the globe: “Imag­ine if artists set up local Artists’ Mutu­al Aid groups to sup­port each oth­er through these dif­fi­cult times; to begin set­ting out ways of speak­ing to pow­er with coher­ent voic­es; to start using art to demand rad­i­cal changes to the way we work and live togeth­er. Imag­ine self-orga­nized and self-orga­niz­ing local groups shar­ing and coop­er­at­ing, and shar­ing and coop­er­at­ing with oth­er groups in oth­er areas to start an Artists’ Mutu­al Aid Net­work (or Alliance) that linked in with com­mu­ni­ties and formed new alliances with oth­er pre­car­i­ous work­ers. Imag­ine a renewed sense of sol­i­dar­i­ty and com­mu­ni­ty that is at once autonomous and col­lec­tive­ly powerful.”

As a free­lance writer and broad­cast­er, I could­n’t agree more. But for this mis­sion to work, these ini­tia­tives should include the wealth­i­est of the artists. These, for now, haven’t spo­ken out.

If the UK and the USA are strug­gling to rearrange pub­lic fund­ing and nation­al sup­port for their cre­ative free­lancers, the sit­u­a­tion is inde­cent­ly worse in Lebanon, after a year of dev­as­tat­ing eco­nom­ic cri­sis, protests and the ter­ri­ble blast that rocked the whole cap­i­tal in ear­ly August.

A man taking a photograph of the destroyed Beirut port, Lebanon, August 16, 2020 [Chris McGrath, Getty Images]

A man tak­ing a pho­to­graph of the destroyed Beirut port, Lebanon, August 16, 2020 [Chris McGrath, Get­ty Images]

Writ­ing “‘Bro­ken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast’ ” for the New York Review of Books, the Amer­i­can pedi­a­tri­cian and human­i­tar­i­an aid work­er based in Beirut , Seema Jilani, retold on 18 August the hor­rif­ic events: “The air was still whirring with debris. Every­thing was eeri­ly silent. But it was­n’t. I just could­n’t hear any­thing. My ears were ring­ing.” Adding She went on: “Some­one has spray-paint­ed the words ‘“My gov­ern­ment did this’ ” on a con­crete high­way bar­ri­er close to ground zero at the Beirut port. No one now expects any­thing to get bet­ter. The only real ques­tion seems to be: How much worse can it get?”

Every­one impact­ed, both inside and out­side Lebanon, includ­ing , jour­nal­ists and, key thinkers, blamed the inac­tion and cor­rup­tion of the polit­i­cal class, as did writer Elias Khoury did in the French dai­ly Libéra­tion, invit­ing his fel­low cit­i­zens to rebel against the sys­tem in place to rebuild the city. 

It’s espe­cial­ly true for the art world.

In her piece “‘We Are Hav­ing Trou­ble Liv­ing With­out Fear“ ‘ pub­lished in Art­Net, for­mer Edi­tor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar Art and con­trib­u­tor to Vogue Ara­bia, Arab News, Rebec­ca Anne Proc­tor, who is based in Dubai, wrote that “to tru­ly appre­ci­ate the chal­lenges Beirut faces, one must first under­stand the con­text in which the explo­sion erupt­ed.” As one of her inter­vie­wees explains, “Beirut, more than Lebanon, is a cen­tral place for the whole region.” The words are from Saleh Barakat, who runs Agial Art Gallery and Saleh Barakat Gallery, which was severe­ly dam­aged in the explo­sions, los­ing one mem­ber of their staff, Firas Dah­wish. Beirut also “rep­re­sents a free cul­ture that is being endan­gered today,” they all fear.

“In the wake of the explo­sion, cul­tur­al orga­ni­za­tions from around the world—including UNESCO, the Inter­na­tion­al Coun­cil of Muse­ums, the World Mon­u­ments Fund, and the Louvre—pledged to offer sup­port in the rebuild­ing of the city’s muse­ums and arts orga­ni­za­tions,” Rebec­ca Anne Proc­tor added. “But local experts say the phys­i­cal dam­age is just one ele­ment of a much more com­plex web of prob­lems,” after a year of incred­i­ble chal­lenges and months of protests.

The Sur­sock Muse­um before and after the Port of Beirut explo­sion (Pho­tos cour­tesy Sur­sock Museum)

With gal­leries and muse­ums severe­ly dam­aged, includ­ing the Arab Image Foun­da­tion (AIF) and the Sur­sock Muse­um, a lot of artists have for now no oth­er choice than to flee going abroad, at least for a while, like so many fel­low Lebanese have had to do over decades of con­flicts and civ­il war. 

Rebuild­ing Beirut will demand more than mon­ey, and with­out inter­na­tion­al fund­ing the task will be near impos­si­ble. But the coun­try’s true wealth is in its civ­il soci­ety, which has through the years “kept the coun­try’s roots watered, cul­ti­vat­ing the seeds of hope and build­ing it to shine through its cre­ativ­i­ty, cul­ture, or entre­pre­neur­ial skills,” sug­gests an op-ed post­ed on the cul­tur­al plat­form Art Breath.

The cul­tur­al sec­tor is thus cre­at­ing its own ini­tia­tives, like For the Love of Beirut. As far away as the Unit­ed States, Inter­link pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny has pledge to donate 30% of sales from 26 books of Lebanese authors it pub­lish­es to help Beirutis rebuild.

The com­mu­ni­ty from the arts and cul­tur­al dis­trict Alserkal Avenue, in Dubai, orga­nized a day to raise funds and donate for Beirut. The Arab Fund for Arts and Cul­ture – AFAC and Cul­ture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy) launched an inter­na­tion­al fundrais­ing cam­paign to sup­port the cul­ture and the arts com­mu­ni­ty with­in Beirut. Both Cul­ture Resource and AFAC will con­tribute to the fund with seed cap­i­tal and han­dle its man­age­ment and dis­tri­b­u­tion to insti­tu­tions and indi­vid­u­als in the arts and cul­ture sec­tor. And the plat­form Mophra­dat, co-found­ed by Lebanese-born artist Walid Raad, to help artists from the Arab world cre­at­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties through an inven­tive approach to fund­ing, com­mis­sion­ing, col­lab­o­rat­ing and gath­er­ing, has start­ed fund­ing for the cre­ative sec­tor in Beirut.

Christie’s also launched a char­i­ty auc­tion to sup­port Beirut’s art scene, sched­uled for late Octo­ber / first half of Novem­ber 2020. “Beirut has always been one of the most vibrant and cre­ative cap­i­tals of the Mid­dle East,” said Car­o­line Lou­ca-Kir­land, Man­ag­ing Direc­tor Christie’s Mid­dle East to Arab News, and the city “had the chance to call its own some of the best artists of the region in past and present times. The art scene in Beirut com­bines all the cul­tur­al fab­ric of an active ecosys­tem, artists, muse­ums, gal­leries, foun­da­tions, col­lec­tors and patrons.”

This unprece­dent­ed­ly acute mul­ti­ple cri­sis means that we need cul­ture more than ever before.

In France, Italy, Germany…governments are tack­ing action and cre­at­ing extend­ed fur­lough schemes. In May, French Pres­i­dent Emmanuel Macron promised that the gov­ern­ment would not aban­don cul­tur­al indus­tries, and met with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the French arts sec­tor, to whom he laid his plan for sup­port. It includes pro­long­ing finan­cial sup­port for “inter­mit­tent” artists, mak­ing authors eli­gi­ble for the sol­i­dar­i­ty fund for the self-employed and guar­an­tee­ing bank loans for small fes­ti­vals. The­atres and per­form­ers now expect this plan to be extend­ed for at least the whole winter.

Through­out Europe, the sit­u­a­tions vary. Accord­ing to Luke James, press offi­cer for Euro­pean trade unions, the cur­rent coro­n­avirus sup­port for the self-employed is of 80% of aver­age wage over last three years in Nor­way, up to €1,582 per month in Bel­gium, €1,500 for those who lose over 70% of income in France, €203 per week for six weeks in Ire­land, and €600 a month in Italy, and… £94 a week in the Unit­ed King­dom, a coun­try that has for long been insen­si­tive to pub­lic finan­cial sup­port for artists.

In Cana­da, cul­ture con­tributed over $53 bil­lion to the econ­o­my in 2017, yet the medi­an indi­vid­ual income for artists was $24,300 per year, i.e. 44 per cent less than the medi­an for all Cana­di­an work­ers ($43,500) accord­ing to The Con­ver­sa­tion. “The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment recent­ly extend­ed the term of the Cana­da Emer­gency Response Ben­e­fit (CERB) until the end of August,” wrote the authors, “but many are con­cerned that even with these extend­ed ben­e­fits, a return to per­form­ing might be months, if not years, away.”

In the mean­time, art insti­tu­tions start­ed to reopen. In Shang­hai the Shang­hART gallery unveiled a new exhi­bi­tion as ear­ly as 12 April 2020. But phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing is every­where strict­ly enforced, masks manda­to­ry, and some­times tem­per­a­ture checks are unavoid­able; fur­ther­more, food and drink are not served. These sorts of events can­not be prof­itable. And con­certs are for now still out of the ques­tion on all con­ti­nents. In Eng­land, most cin­e­mas and the­atres haven’t reopened.

The only rea­son­able response is to do what­ev­er is pos­si­ble to make this cri­sis change our eco­nom­ic mod­els for good.

As Nao­mi Klein wrote in The Inter­cept, in her piece on how to beat “coro­n­avirus cap­i­tal­ism,” we must avoid anoth­er “dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ism” cri­sis: “Dur­ing moments of cat­a­clysmic change, the pre­vi­ous­ly unthink­able sud­den­ly becomes real­i­ty. We can look at tools to build up new plans. This crisis—like ear­li­er ones in history—could be a cat­a­lyst to show­er aid not on the wealth­i­est inter­ests in soci­ety (includ­ing the ones most respon­si­ble for our cur­rent vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and the cli­mate emer­gency), but to the work­ers.” That’s how Roo­sevelt’s New Deal came about in the USA, the wel­fare state in Europe and in the UK the NHS. 

World­wide, many polit­i­cal par­ties, econ­o­mists, activists are now ask­ing for a com­pre­hen­sive income pro­tec­tion scheme, statu­to­ry sick pay for all work­ers, and uni­ver­sal basic income. And a “green” recov­ery plan for the economy.

“Uni­ver­sal Basic Income is an afford­able and fea­si­ble response to coro­n­avirus,” SOAS Pro­fes­sor Guy Stand­ing told me in an inter­view, speak­ing from Italy. Hand­ing out £1000 per per­son per month in Britain would cost £66bn a month—a frac­tion of near­ly £500bn bailout dur­ing the 2008 finan­cial cri­sis. And artists are key work­ers, in these times as much as many oth­ers. And for them, there is no bet­ter plan than this rad­i­cal idea.

Down the road, we will have to rein­vent our sys­tem of pro­duc­tion, and to think about what we give val­ue to. Edu­ca­tion and cul­ture play a great role in keep­ing peo­ple safe from iso­la­tion and mak­ing them more resilient, pro­fes­sion­al­ly but also sim­ply emo­tion­al­ly and men­tal­ly. Artists and edu­ca­tors also define what sort of soci­ety we build, based on which val­ues. More than ever, all around the world we will need to look for bet­ter solu­tions to make life live­able for all, not only for the 0,1% rich­est or “most pro­duc­tive” work­ers. Or our cul­tur­al lega­cy in this world might soon be reduced drastically. 

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