The Arts Supported Us During The COVID-19 Crisis- Now, We Need To Make Sure We Return The Favor
The creative sector can (and does) serve as a driver of economic growth, creating new sectors, and employing millions of people.
There can be no doubt that the creative world was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. With most creative activities taking place indoors and not viewed as “essential,” large parts of the sector were and remain closed indefinitely. Industries that once were viewed as strong economic growth sectors were decimated overnight.
This also comes at a time when our lives have been disrupted like never before. Many are desperate to go to see a play, or visit a museum or gallery, desperately craving to interact with our cultural institutions and use the arts to guide us through these troubling times. So, how do we go from here?
2021 has been declared the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development by the 74th United Nations General Assembly, and it serves as a reminder of how the creative economy has been paralyzed by the pandemic, and how fragile cultural ecosystems are. No actor within the creative value chain has been spared, and the health crisis revelated their weaknesses, while also worsening pre-existing vulnerabilities within the culture sector.
This paralysis has been seen across the world. In South Africa, one of the country’s most iconic theatres, the Fugard Theatre, closed permanently due to COVID-19 restrictions. The theater, situated in one of the country’s neighborhoods most viciously uprooted by forced removals, was a true beacon of humanity for all South Africans regardless of race, color, or gender. However, the realities of trying to run a profitable theatre, while confronted with the realities of the pandemic, proved irreconcilable with their noble mission. This is, of course, just one example, but countless similar scenarios have played themselves out over countries, communities, and continents, including the famed Villa Rosa, Madrid’s best-known flamenco venue shutting down after 140 years of existence.
Pre-pandemic, however, there were incredible examples of creative institutions and people producing amazing content and driving economic growth. Some of the innovation was even coming from countries perhaps unexpected. In West Africa, the Palais de Lomé in the capital city of Togo, Lomé, is an example of one such institution that was driving the creative economy. This contemporary art center and park features both contemporary and ancient African designs, helping to enhance the profile of these designs within the continent and further abroad. With exhibitions ranging from celebrating futuristic designer Kossi Aguessy’s work, to others delving deep into the history of Togo, the museum is truly putting West African art on the map.
Another example of a surprising city driving creativity in the world of music is Essaouira in Morocco. Essaouira has been part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network as a Creative City of Music since 2019. The city, pre-COVID-19, hosted more than a dozen music festivals every year, including the famous Gnaoua World Music Festival and the Atlantic Andalusia Festival. Events such as these attract tourism to the region, while simultaneously providing a creative outlet for local musicians. Now, however, these investments and innovations have been brought to a standstill, hampered by a year of inactivity. However, as vaccines gradually begin to be rolled out, the art world needs to prepare for a post-pandemic world, filled with new opportunities and challenges.
As such, we need to ponder on how we can go about supporting these institutions going forward. On a personal level, the easiest way to support the creative economy is by supporting the institutions and creatives that form part of the sector. Visiting galleries, attending theater and music performances, and buying from local designers all impact the sector positively. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of these can be done virtually, opening up performances and exhibitions far beyond one’s shores- this remains one of the more exciting consequences of the pandemic.
For example, dozens of established museums such as the Louvre in Paris and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam have created immersive virtual exhibitions, allowing you to wander their hallways from the comfort of your home. These are all useful temporary solutions, but, on a public policy level, there are numerous steps that can be taken to ease the burden on the creative industries and unlock their full potential. The first, and most important, is to change our perception of the creative industries to fully understand their worth. We should not view them as being adjacent to that of the economy; a leisurely pastime to distract from the rigors of working life.
The creative sector can (and does) serve as a driver of economic growth, creating new sectors, and employing millions of people. It is also a sector based on innovation, meaning that it can unlock and create new economies, further driving economic growth. The creative industry is also a useful tool in driving tourism in a post-COVID-19 world. When thinking about the biggest tourist cities in the world, such as Paris and Amsterdam, the role of art in their success cannot be ignored- millions stream to these cities simply to see the Mona Lisa or The Potato Eaters.
With these benefits in mind, UNESCO has recently released a report entitled Culture in Crisis, a policy guide for a resilient creative sector that sets out some practical policy solutions to the situation. These proposals include, among others, skills development, relief from taxes and social charges, strengthening infrastructure and facilities, direct support for artists and cultural professionals, and strengthening the competitiveness of the cultural and creative industries. All of this will assist in saving the creative industries from the decimation brought on by the pandemic.
However, it’s important to remember that the arts were already in a precarious situation prior to the pandemic. The time has thus finally come to build a long-term sustainable creative sector that can truly drive innovation in our communities. When the pandemic struck, and the uncertainty thereof ensued, many of us returned home. But we did not just return home; we went in search of roots, our stories, our identity. And while embarking on that journey, it was the arts that guided us to understand ourselves a little better, to comfort us, to sustain us. It is time we show the creative industry that same dedication.