One of the few bright spots of my lockdown experience has been the new mural next to my local pharmacy. An artist on our London street, helped by the aspiring art student a few doors down and a neighbourhood fundraiser to pay for supplies, painted a hummingbird in the bright colours of the rainbow that has come to symbolise support for health workers.
This little act of art was just the boost we all needed, as the defiant anxiety of the early lockdown was giving way to depression and boredom. Readers will have had their own uplifting artistic moments. Some of you will have found solace in your own artistic pursuit. Almost everyone will have turned to an online performance of some sort to lift their spirits.
These examples show that not just food and medicine but art, too, is an essential good. Even in good times, the arts make our lives better, and these are not good times. Artists express our collective consciousness and that is something we need more than ever.
We should therefore heed the warnings from arts institutions about the hardship they currently face — for our own sake as much as for theirs. This is a “most extraordinary point of peril for the whole industry”, Lisa Burger, executive director of the UK’s National Theatre, told me. There are warnings of a wave of arts company failures and permanent closures of arts venues as a result.
Stage performers are the most obvious victims of the pandemic: bringing people close together in intimate spaces for hours at a time is central to what they do. But many other vehicles for artistic expression — from film production and recorded performances, to museums — suffer when physical distancing is imperative. And behind every stage performer there are many other artistic crafts and their practitioners: set designers, composers, costume makers.
The challenge to the arts is threefold. First is the lockdown itself: much cultural activity is impossible. Second is the impact of the economic collapse, which means less money spent on artists’ output. Third, and perhaps most difficult: the post-lockdown world looks set to retain public health restrictions that permanently undermine the economic model of much artistic work. Ms Burger points out that with 2-metre distancing rules, the National Theatre’s 900-seat Lyttelton stage can only fit an audience of 125. Every other theatre — and museum, cinema, and other artistic venue — will face the same problem.
At first, this looks similar to what other sectors, such as hospitality, face — a challenge that is admittedly huge but no worse for the arts than for others. However this diagnosis, and the implication that the arts should be treated like any other business, would be a mistake.
Artistic institutions are not businesses or even charities like any others. They are that too, of course, and have the same claim on support. But the arts do something more. Non-profit companies play an important role in future talent development and in the running of important but expensive-to-manage buildings. When visual and performing arts are broadly accessible, they can add to the wellbeing of local and national communities. They are engines of togetherness and collective sense-making.
When policymakers increasingly recognise the social hollowing-out of many communities and places by decades of structural economic change, we should not undervalue what Ms Burger calls the arts’ “role in placemaking”. Like schools or public parks, we need the arts regardless of whether they come at a financial cost. And discontinuity may be more costly than elsewhere. A lost cultural ecosystem would be harder to regrow than a restored hotel and restaurant scene.
The arts therefore have a strong case for special treatment. That could include a slower withdrawal of temporary crisis support and more generous compensation for losses than other sectors. It must also include greater investment in the future. Of course the arts sector itself must find new forms of expression in the post-Covid-19 world: work is already taking place to explore better use of digital tools and unconventional theatre set-ups, for example. Governments should offer financial support to such efforts and encourage a further broadening of access in the process.
Fundamentally, governments should commit to spend more on the arts on a permanent basis, and themselves be creative around the form financial support takes. Equity-like investments could be an important way forward: public funds would receive a return from commercial successes and otherwise shoulder the financial risk that comes with creative experimentation.
An ambitious approach to the arts after the pandemic would follow in the footsteps of those who charted pathways out of the Depression nearly a century ago. From the very start, Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Dealers included programmes for visual artists in their public work programmes. In the UK, the intellectual father of postwar economic policy, John Maynard Keynes, was the founding chair of the Arts Council.
They took as axiomatic not just that artists need crisis support like everyone else, but that support for the arts provides unique benefits for us all. As we find our way out of our own economic collapse, that principle is worth keeping.
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