It’s been a matter of weeks – six in France, five in the UK, more in Italy and Spain. Such a short time, and yet long enough to turn all our lives inside out. Whatever we thought we’d be doing at the end of April, it wasn’t this. Many are grieving for family members, colleagues and friends. Almost everyone is grieving for a lost future: exams prepared, important birthdays, new businesses, shows and exhibitions, longed-for holidays. The mood of my professional conversations has been steadily dropping for some time now, as the last of the courageous energy ebbs that flared in the immediate crisis.
In the cultural world, public bodies and charitable foundations have moved with unprecedented speed to help the artists and organisations who depend on them. but it’s clear that their resources will not be sufficient. The first round of applications to Arts Council England’s emergency fund for individual artists has closed and is being assessed. Decisions have been made and emails are reaching the applicants (though it’s a rolling process, and if you’ve not heard yet, that doesn’t mean anything.). It’s been good to see messages of relief and joy on social media, and the natural congratulations that follow. People who have been lying awake in the small hours have been granted some respite – a matter of weeks, perhaps, with care. It might get them to the other shore, at least. The celebrations are natural and justified, but I’m also conscious of the dog that hasn’t barked. The unsuccessful applicants will not tell the world on Facebook or Twitter. Rejection is always bitter, but now…
A couple of days ago, I took part in a webinar with community artists in Portugal. Sometimes, there were ideas we could share, ways forward, if not solutions. But not always. Last night a friend asked if I knew where a musician reaching out to isolated people might get support to sustain her work. I didn’t. But even in such situations, we have something to offer. There might not be a solution, but there is always presence, witnessing, love. Acknowledging that people are suffering, without minimising or decorating that reality, can be a gift of last resort. Presence, even on the other side of a pane of glass, can make all the difference.
If you applied to the Arts Council fund and were turned down, try not to take it as a judgement of your value as an artist or a person. It is no such thing. It’s an assessment by people working under immense pressure, based on necessary but narrow criteria, and with only limited information. It’s the best system that could be put in place right now, but that’s all it is: a system. Knowing that will not lessen your financial worries, but nor will mistaking an administrative decision for a judgement of worth. Each of us must find their own way forward now, and the best help we have is each other. Those of us who are managing (and I’m one, at least for now) must do all we can for those who are not. We’ll need help too when the time comes. And if all we can do is be present so that someone else can live through their distress, so be it. There’s a time for analysis and advice, but it might not be now. This might just be the time to sit quietly and hold someone’s hand, even through a pane of glass.