Sometimes, change is extraordinarily sudden. The first case of coronavirus appeared in China on 19 November 2019. It reached Italy on 31 January 2020. Barely five weeks later, on 10 March 2020, the country was in lockdown. In the subsequent four days, France closed its schools and colleges, Spain has declared a state of emergency and the WHO says that Europe is now the centre of the pandemic. Something many might have felt they’d seen before (Wikipedia has 20 articles in the category 21st-century epidemics) has become something very few of us have seen in our lifetime.
We’re all affected, as our health, livelihoods and social relationships come under strain. In my small part of the world, where people make art and culture for a living, the effects are immediate. Cancelled performances mean disappointment to many but no pay for some. Organisations that depend on a steady income stream may quickly find themselves unable to pay their bills. Freelance artists, few of whom earn very much, have to suspend workshop activities with vulnerable people. Again, that will be disappointing for many, but taking part regular art activities is important to some people’s mental health and wellbeing. Because this pattern is replicated in all sectors, there are few alternative forms of support. Everyone, from schools to food banks, sports clubs to charities, is having to rethink how to work in this new environment.
In such circumstances, art might not seem important, although videos showing Italians singing to one another from their apartments over empty streets show that not to be true. But artists are people and, like drivers, shop workers and everyone else trying to get by in precarious times, they need an income.
So it’s great to see the statement by London Funders explaining how they will adapt to this new reality. Particularly important is the acceptance that targets set out in funding agreements have to be set aside. Performances, workshops and outreach work cannot be delivered at the moment, so relieving people of the pressure to do the impossible is an important first step.
But that will do little to help freelance artists – the people who drive the art world’s own gig economy – unless cultural organisations pass on the help. I hope thatwherever possible they will honour their contracts with freelance artists, even if the work cannot be done: they have broader shoulders and can better take the hit. The fees will have been budgeted for and, in the case of workshops, it’s likely that no income was anticipated. So the only loss, administratively speaking, will be a target missed – and that is where the suspension of contract obligations by funding bodies is so vital.
And the rest of us can help too. Instead of asking for refunds from cancelled performances or events, we could turn the money we’ve paid into a donation – at least where the organisation is a charity. We bought the tickets because we could afford them, and presumably we value the organisation whose work we wanted to see. They are already facing potentially catastrophic loss of income: we just don’t get to see something we were looking forward to.
It’s good to see the cultural organisations concerned beginning to apply their creativity to the situation too. The Berlin Philharmonic is closed for public concerts, so it has opened the doors of its Digital Concert Hall – it is free to all for a month.
A hardship fund for freelance artists might seem idealistic, but Opera San José and North Star Durham are doing it already. It’s not coincidence that these examples are American, because the art world there depends so much on philanthropy. But in the UK, we have powerful agencies such as Art Council England, and the resources of the National Lottery. It shouldn’t be impossible – with government backing – to use some of those resources in the short term to cover fees for contracted but undeliverable projects. It’s not going to be possible to use the funds to make work happen, so why not give artists time to make some art, do some research, plan new projects and dream? Investment in freelance artists will pay off when we can reopen arts centres, care homes and concert halls.
The way we see the world, our understanding of reality itself, is defined by when, where and who we were born. I grew up in post-war European welfare states, and their idea of social solidarity – itself defined by the previous generation’s experience of total war – has shaped my values and work. I’m a community artist because I believe social solidarity to be a fundamental good, our best and sometimes our only resource against life’s hardships. But that idea has been under attack for most of my adult life, as politicians and ideologues have promoted libertarian policies supposed to emancipate us from the shackles of state control. I like free markets, entrepreneurship and individual responsibility, but when they became the only things that mattered, they made millions of us vulnerable.
In moments of crisis – like the one that confronts us now – our imagined realities are tested. Politicians assure us that ‘we are all in this together’ while their actions show that to be mere sham. But when Donald Trump says he will be tested for Covid-19, we really are. Neither the virus nor its economic effects can be contained by borders. Perhaps this crisis will prove to be the opportunity to rethink our mutual responsibilities, so that, when we are on the other side, we will start working towards better, kinder societies.