Tuesday, 15 September 2020

'The Scream' for resources from the arts

If anyone has ever looked at Munch's painting or a print of The Scream, they will understand that it communicates so much. The image conveys the depth of fear and anxiety and sheer incomprehension that the strange almost skeletal figure struggles with, while with standing starkly and forlornly in the foreground, on a platform jutting out from land, alone, bar two people with their back towards him. It is a picture that resonates with the immediacy of a threat, the anguish of the moment and the inadequacy of understanding how to respond to it.  For a great many people at this minute, in this crisis, we are screaming!


The arts community for so long has suffered an existential anxiety ("will we even survive?") but nothing at this level created by COVID-19 and the consequent necessity to close doors and shut up shop. But of course, exactly the same goes for the community that we serve. Not only the public, nor audiences, nor artists and workers, but the great bulk of small, local organisations, groups and schools that the arts, and in particular community arts, strive to support in creative and expressive ways year after year.  We are all experiencing a whole range of challenging circumstances and indeed ongoing anxiety and uncertainty. 

Much is consistently said about the resilience of the arts sector. Of course that's because for decades we have toiled without adequate investment and worked in a perilously underfunded area of the creative industries. That insecurity has impacted on many within the sector, but today, that anxiety is amplified to deafening levels, across so many organisations and their staff and freelance workers. This cannot be sustainable either on a personal nor indeed, organisational nor strategic level. And we have still have a long way to go before any optimistic notion of normality, never mind "new normal" emerges.  

This is an emergency not only for the arts but for our society as a whole. In terms of financial support, we have all understood that we have had an ongoing crisis in the arts, due to historical under-investment, but Covid 19 has further undermined our collective viability. Much has been made of how resilient the sector is but it has to be said again and again, that resilience comes from being exposed to challenges that are not overwhelming but with which we can actually cope. However, for a great many within our corner of the sector, the additional burdens and challenges related to the multi-layered impacts of Covid 19 pandemic may mean that this period of upheaval may overwhelm us all. 

In my opinion, the abject failure of an enterprise culture within the arts, predicated on growth and outputs, with only narrow notions of outcomes-focused research and output-focused accounting, has meant we are less able to meet the contemporary challenges of the impact of this pandemic. This has been remarkable and devastating. In the Republic of Ireland, a value for money argument is/was applied to paying artists during the pandemic, even though they could/can not actually carry out the work contracted for. It's understood that maintaining arts workers' incomes is strategically and structurally so important to the notion of 'national good' that it was mandated by funders, principally the southern Arts Council. In the North, I've heard such interventions written off immediately as 'welfare', insinuating that approach as wholly inappropriate to the prevailing government funding model. But what could be more appropriate than recognising the welfare of our arts community and its ability, if maintained, to continue to serve the public good? 

We need a new, radical focus for the narrative around the work that we do; ditching the old assumptions of competition, productivity and endless growth as currently (and perhaps always) bankrupt and instead focus on the production of development, health and wellbeing and mutual interdependence. This approach would allow us to embrace environmental and ecological benefit, see care as a positive feature of our economy, and recognise voluntarism as a powerful and valuable resource. For example, many feminist economists argue economics should be focused less on mechanisms like income and neo-liberal policies that constantly look to extract wealth and resource, and instead look to more emphasis on wellbeing and a multidimensional concept embracing income, health, education, empowerment and social status. Indeed, the arts do try (and should be encouraged further) to actively explore the direction of cultural, social and material dynamics of well-being much more deeply, amplifying the benefit of active participation in the arts (whether as a creative or participant) and more the more passive benefits of audiences. Government still doesn't get it. That has to change. Perhaps this is the moment?

And of course, much has been made of the eco-system of the arts here. Seen positively the creative ecology model does move away from industrial, discipline- centred understandings of the work of artists and arts organisations and instead places focus on the system of relationships and interdependent need present within and across the widest community. Such ecological thinking is currently being applied in many sectors as part of the search for more effective ways of analysing and responding to a context of rapid change and disruption, such as our current global pandemic.

And as such, an ecological response (or emergency measures) cannot be Darwinian, instead should focus on nurture and sensitive management, relating to the interconnectedness of our fragile eco-system in the arts. Ecology particularly seeks to learn about and understand the symbiosis within natural systems, as a mutual exchange of benefits that draws nutrients and energy from the environment while at the same time helping to sustain it in the process. Therefore creative ecology should be understood as an emerging concept in cultural policy that places the arts and creativity within a more including, holistic worldview and reveals interdependencies with economic, social, cultural and environmental systems, where society as a whole then benefits. Whatever quantum of emergency support the Assembly grants us, we should recognise this creative ecology as an active collective concept, not just a descriptor of people and organisations all working in a similar "field". If we are to build back better, we must understand and celebrate the different approaches, not just say our need is greater because we have lost more money!

I know many thoughtful people in the arts may well share these positive convictions, but we still work within a constrained template that has hardly altered in decades. This is not the fault of funders, far from it, but of our government's failure to understand us and support research and development in the arts to inform and embrace change. In a risk-averse policy culture, as we toil within here, the creativity of the arts can therefore undoubtedly be stifled. The bean counting culture misses the depth and breadth of what we do and how we do it.  

In the midst of this pandemic, it is clear that we all must adjust and improvise to survive. It is also abundantly clear that the losses incurred by shutting down our operational capacity to work has created a huge economic and cultural deficit that cannot be allowed to continue. That's why the emergency funding of £33m is so crucial - not just to plug the losses, but to give all of us a necessary platform to renew our range of practice and enable our community during this hour of need.

Of course, many, many arts organisations have leapt to digital solutions which offer some modicum of contact and can be used to present a range of work but it's just not the same. The restrictions of social distancing may seem at odds sometimes for theatres compared to bars and restaurants or private clubs. If the government has shut down so many sections of the arts, the government must protect them as result. As other industries have seen furloughs etc, but many artistic processes and performances shut down first and are still closed down and desperately need support. 

And we may not return to any normality for some time as we hope for a vaccine to be developed and if successful, to be widely available. When will that happen? The reports say not until at least halfway through 2021 by which time many organisations would be faced with redundancies, layoffs and potential closure if they do not receive the life-blood of sufficient emergency support to stay alive. Bear in mind that 7,000 livelihoods are at stake, with thousands of households depending on those jobs.

So, in our conversations, we have identified a range of immediate and longer terms needs. We also have a range of proposals and propositions that enable a more collaborative sector to emerge from this crisis whenever that may be.

In the immediate term, we need financial support for our operational capacity, just to keep our organisations working and our core missions to support the communities we serve, alive. For a great many organisations, this means maintaining staff levels, enabling freelance artist/facilitators to survive this crisis, and develop the capacity of organisations, personnel and communities to access different ways of working and creating collectively for now and the future.

We also need financial assurance that we can build back from this crisis in the years ahead and to this end, there is a widespread necessity for additional funds and support in 21/22 and indeed beyond.

If we are to build back better, providing access, supporting participation, enhancing innovation, origination, authorship and creativity and ultimately ensuring the ownership by participants and the public of their creative and cultural choices and their impacts, then greater support for community arts and socially-engaged practice is essential, along with funds to ensure that all sectors of the arts survive this chaos of closed doors and financial ruin. A proactive strategy to see the £33million investment realised and to then support its on-going and necessary development and implementation is crucial to both the sector’s survival but also the necessary participation that is so unquestionably craved by communities across our region.

By the way, the artist Munch was 32 when he created 'The Scream". In his head he clearly thought he was a goner, incapable of dealing with the fear and death all around him. In fact he would live until 1944, when he turned 81. 

Long live art!


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