Art in the Time of Corona: Needs and Challenges

In these unstable and uncertain times, we need to look to the things that unite us – the things that show us the world in all of its variations – and for that, we need artists” – Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General.

We turn to art when we are joyful: we turn to art when we grieve. And in times of uncertainty and despair, we turn to art again for sustaining our hopes. This is especially true now when the pandemic continues to disrupt and alter our lives. More now than ever, art must remind us of the human capacity to endure, re-imagine, and create. While billions of people around the world turn to culture as a source of comfort and connection, the impact of COVID-19 has not spared the cultural sector threatening the livelihoods of the local communities and cultural professionals. It has also impacted not only revenues but also the sense of community and cultural lives of people. Artists across the world are struggling to make ends meet. In India, the crafts sector that is mainly self-employed, involving a large number of people, has been facing a severe crisis. Similarly, living traditions such as festive events that form an essential part of people’s lives have had to be paused. Today, we are experiencing a cultural emergency.

We realize that during these times, projects will need new modes of thinking, creating, and presenting the arts as well as new imaginations of engagement with audiences and communities.

Keeping this in mind, on 15 April 2020, UNESCO launched a global movement ResiliArt to mobilize solidarity among artists and cultural professionals. Social media campaigns and online debates were and are being organized to shed light on the impact of the pandemic on the cultural value chain and creative economy and support the artists during and following the crisis. UNESCO New Delhi launched ResiliArt South Asia on 21 May 2020 with a webinar on “Arts and Culture during Covid-19 crisis.”

On 10 June 2020, UNESCO New Delhi, in collaboration with banglanatak dot com, held a webinar on “Building Resilient Communities Practicing Intangible Cultural Heritage.” The objective of the webinar was to raise awareness about the impact of COVID-19 on tradition bearers and practitioners of intangible cultural heritage and make their voices heard. Keeping the present scenario in mind, the webinar aimed at identifying needs and challenges to be addressed through the development of policies, programs, and financial mechanisms aimed at empowering artists. Sharing voices of communities practicing intangible cultural heritage and experiences from different countries was what the webinar focused on achieving.

The webinar had panelists from different walks of life or rather different walks of the cultural industry. The eminent panelists were:

  • Sreya Guha, IAS, Principal Secretary Art & Culture and Tourism, Government of Rajasthan
  • Johannes Theurer, Senior producer, Radio Berlin & Secretary, World Music Chart Europe
  • Sunil Chitrakar, CEO, Mahaguthi Craft with Conscience, Nepal
  • Shahid Hussain Shamim, Senior Vice President, Handicrafts Manufacturers and Exporter Association of Bangladesh – BANGLACRAFT.
  • Gopinath Parayil, Founder, The Blue Yonder
  • Eric Falt, Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka
  • Amitava Bhattacharya, Founder-Director, Banglanatak dot com was the moderator

The webinar was more of a discussion trying to explore pertinent questions like:

  • What are the far-reaching impacts of the pandemic on the traditional handicraft and folk performing artists? Are women facing any particular challenges?
  • What measures should be taken or are being taken to support ICH communities to ensure survival and resilience? Is there a need for enabling policies?
  • How do ICH skills offer opportunities for resilience and self-sufficiency?
  • What capacity building is needed for pivoting business models and new market development?

One of the most interesting aspects of the webinar was that the panelists shared stories of art and artists from their part of the world.  Shreya Guha shared about how the folk artists and artisans of Rajasthan are closely linked to the tourism sector. As Rajasthan is an international tourism destination, the tourism sector in Rajasthan got affected immensely due to the pandemic. Johannes Theurer told us how in Germany, local artists are ensured to get preference as they need something to survive. The government is supporting financially to the self-employed and local artists. The feeling that someone is paying attention to the local artist is giving a sense of positivity to them.

It was disheartening to hear from Sunil Chitrakar that the impact of Covid–19 in Nepal is worse than the earthquake that took place in 2015. The result exposed the vulnerability of the artists. Many local artisans have faced crises as the government initially failed to come up with a scheme. This pandemic revealed that the artisans had been exploited and underpaid. In Nepal local communities have come forward to provide food and other necessities to help the artisans, but that is discouraging them and hurting their dignity.

Shahid Hussain Shamim shared that in Bangladesh weavers are at risk. The pandemic kicked off in March, which is the peak season for their production. In handloom sector there are two types of artists: pre-weaving artists and weavers. Pre-weaving artists are suffering the most. Artisans and craftsmen are unable to earn, whereas they have to pay 4.5 percent monthly interest to the government for the loom. According to Gopinath Parayil a lot of people at the bottom of the pyramid are becoming impatient because poverty is the biggest challenge in India. The pandemic has severely affected the community-based tourism industry.

But as they say, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The panelists agreed that we need to find ways of keeping cultural professionals doing their work safely and to being able to monetize their work. We need to build solid cultural policies to give artists, creators, and cultural enterprises the means to move forward. One of the big challenges facing the creative sector in developing countries as we emerge from this pandemic will be the restructuring of the cultural sector.

The discussion emphasized the importance of solidarity for artists and creators. If we try looking at the ‘oh so little’ bright things of the otherwise dark crisis we will see that it has the potential to bring together the cultural industry, to start a dialogue, to collaborate and exchange, to create a rock-solid networking platform. Hand holding amongst the stakeholders of the creative industry will be really helpful in such times.

A particular concern raised by the panelists was the rapid trend toward digitizing and building platforms of cultural content, which are indeed a useful means for the artists to reach out to the audience. A lot of the rural artists are not equipped to quickly jump into the online world, because of the remoteness, insufficient access to digital technologies and language issues.

When emerging from this crisis, ways to maintain diverse, sustainable, and dynamic cultural ecosystems must be identified and reinforced. Panelists underscored that the ramifications of the crisis will be felt long after it ends, and called to protect artists and provide fair remuneration of their work both now and in the long term. The discussion reflected the need to re-imagine the cultural sector as it adapts to the new normal brought about by the crisis.