Coronavirus #Lockdown

Arts, the orphan stepchild of Covid-19 relief

By J Brooks Spector 14 April 2020
Caption
Given the gravity of the situation for the country’s creative community, now would seem to be an opportunity for a new effort to assist monetising creative endeavour via the digital world, says the writer. (Photo: Unsplash / Ahmad Odeh)

Covid-19 plus the massive effects of the national lockdown when the economy was already struggling, are hitting South Africa’s creative community and industries especially hard. What is being done to deal with this impending catastrophe?

One of the lesser recognised victims of the current pandemic-plus-economic-shutdown catastrophe has been the arts and cultural sector, writ large, in South Africa and globally. When a nation’s entire roster of giant performing venues, stadiums, galleries, clubs, avant-garde performance spaces, museums, and festivals all go dark, and stay dark, pretty much simultaneously – and thus no money comes in for the individuals and organisations who comprise that sector – a growing number in that sphere are finding themselves on the bones of their metaphorical backsides.

Particularly important to remember – and frequently overlooked – is that it is not just the actual performers, dancers, musicians, and painters and sculptors in front of audiences or whose works are seen by potential purchasers, who are the ones who are suffering. One experienced public relations professional in the arts and culture sphere reminded us that for every performer, there are at least 12 more people – highly skilled technicians and junior support people alike – now finding the water rising around them as well. This runs from an internationally recognised lighting designer for the stage, television and film with dozens of years’ experience to the most junior of ticket takers and ushers. They are all in trouble now, unless they managed to save furiously for these new lean years.

While these people have little or no money coming in because they have no work, their rents, mortgage bonds, car payments, school fees, food bills, lay-bys, miscellaneous debit orders, and monthly medical plans and retirement annuity payments (if they have them and had the foresight to set them up) continue. Every bill becomes an existential moment for individuals, and the net effect becomes a not-inconsequential knock on the economy as a whole.

Back in the pre-Covid-19 world, jobs in the arts and culture sphere were more than 4% of all jobs in South Africa. Drawing from 2015 survey data, if the handicraft sector is also included, total cultural/creative employment in South Africa accounted for close to 7% of the country’s employment, or more than a million jobs. But, crucially, some 43% of all those cultural jobs are informal ones, and still more people are freelance or contract workers (ie, “own account workers with no employees”). And cultural and creative occupations are more precarious employment than non-cultural jobs.

One useful comparison comes from a 2019 study by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts in the US showing the arts contribute around $763.6-billion to the US economy – more than 4% of that nation’s GDP – more than either agriculture, transportation, or warehousing. The 2015 data also showed nearly five million people work in that country’s arts economy.

Earlier research by this writer showed that in Austria, more than 15% of that country’s entire economy derives from the arts and culture sector, including a major share of its tourism revenue. Accordingly, in the current circumstances, a shutdown order becomes a hammer blow to a significant share of that sector. The conclusion is clear: the collapse of revenue and income in the arts sector becomes a real economic impact on a nation, beyond the obvious loss of all the works from those creatives.

Still, perhaps in some minds, the financial struggles of these creatives do not weigh equally with the difficulties of all those other people in deeply financially straitened circumstances in these difficult times. But these creatives are, in many cases, individuals who have already spent years honing their crafts and skills, often through years in educational institutions or apprenticeships, and, often, foregoing more immediate, alternative opportunities. Or they may be people who have spent years sacrificing everything to pursue their artistic passions to deliver work they hope others will come to watch or listen to, or to read their works. But given the current pandemic+economic squeeze, unless a creative happens to have a full-time salaried position in a financially solvent institution, or if they were born wealthy or have a phenomenally supportive, patient spouse, partner or extended family, they face a dreaded “existential crisis”.

To make matters worse, many of these people are actually in the cultural equivalent of the gig economy. As noted earlier, nearly half of those in the sector are the artistic equivalent of freelance gig workers in the new 4IR economy. As freelance performers, creators and technical specialists, so far, they do not qualify for the small stream of funding available as emergency support. And among creatives, Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC) money is generally limited to those who were scheduled and contracted for now-cancelled government-sponsored events, who were about to tender for now-cancelled requests for proposals, or who are among the so-called “living legends” cohort, older, more famous creatives who have presumably fallen on hard times due to the combined impact of the pandemic plus the financial crisis. Everybody else needed to apply with all their documentation intact just a few days after the original announcement had been issued. But the email mailbox for those applications was unable to be filed because of a malfunctioning email address, according to numerous disappointed (and angry) applicants.

But the issue is not simply cancelled opportunities and income stemming from the Covid-19 induced shutdowns now in effect around the globe. Even before formal shutdowns were announced, performance venues and exhibition spaces were cancelling gigs and exhibitions in anticipation of shutdowns. And then, of course, organisers began cancelling or indefinitely postponing events scheduled well in the future on grounds that the environment was simply too unpredictable. Few cultural entrepreneurs anywhere would take the risk (or could afford to) when they could not predict an event could take place. And, naturally, every one of these decisions has a knock-on impact on all the backroom and support people as well. Already, around the world, multi-disciplinary cultural festivals are cancelling their 2020 seasons or, at the minimum, trying to shift over to an all-virtual event, as with South Africa’s National Arts Festival in Makanda this year – even if that tricky monetisation bugbear remains for performers and organisers.

In this vein, the British publication New Musical Express, reported, “In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, festivals and concerts will likely not return until autumn next year, an American healthcare expert has predicted. In a recent roundtable discussion, hosted and transcribed by the New York Times, bioethicist and professor of healthcare management Zeke Emanuel says he has ‘no idea’ how promoters that are rescheduling arts and music events for later this year think that’s a plausible possibility. ‘Larger gatherings – conferences, concerts, sporting events – when people say they’re going to reschedule this conference or graduation event for October 2020, I have no idea how they think that’s a plausible possibility. I think those things will be the last to return,’ Emmanuel said in the video conference.”

Or, closer to home, as the prominent South African conductor and musical event impresario Richard Cock wrote to us, “We now have a better idea of how this COVID-19 situation is affecting us all… With all this time on my hands, I find myself reflecting on what it is that I have done with my life; the music in my life has helped me countless times through various challenges, and my aim was always for that to be the case for all my audience members. That being said, this will be the first time in 40 years (!) that I have not done a concert on Good Friday in Johannesburg. In fact, the very first concert I ever conducted was Handel’s Messiah in the City Hall in Cape Town on Good Friday 1972! And I have performed something every Good Friday since then, both here in South Africa and when I was in England.

“Something like this makes us realise what we lose: a feeling of togetherness which a concert gives; that unique opportunity when a particular group of people comes together in one place to experience something extraordinary; a heightened emotional experience, which music brings to us. You cannot replicate this by sitting by yourself listening to a recording. We will keep bringing live music to you in the future, because that is what we do.”

They survive on hope.

Creatives and impresarios obviously live for the future when they can, once again, do what they do best for people who want to gather together to hear and see them (and, hopefully, pay for the privilege). Nonetheless, even in this dire climate, cultural groups and individuals, around the world, are not wearing sackcloth and ashes, even as they recycle the remnants of leftovers from a meagre dinner of three days earlier. While many are seething over lost income and vanished opportunities, many are not sitting around, just waiting for the debt collector’s knock on the door.

Some are using this unexpected, enforced downtime for their creative work. Perhaps some playwrights, as with William Shakespeare fleeing London during an outbreak of plague for Stratford-on-Avon and then writing King Lear, are already writing plays, and composers are creating music to express their feelings. But, sadly, very little of such efforts will immediately pay the bills. Asked about this, members of SA’s voiceover artists community reported there have been few calls for their talents even though they can, quite literally, phone it in. But this absence of remunerative work stands to reason, given that little work is being done on film and video commercials, save for government and big business PSAs about the virus to be broadcast on television or radio.

But rather than simply wait for the day when the shutdown ends and work may begin anew, in speaking with his daughter, a composer, actress and musician, this writer learned how our daughter and other artists of her generation are pursuing digital and virtual platform performances, individually and in collaboration. This follows a global pattern, but, as with most other efforts, these are hard to turn into remunerative activities. Mostly, they are good for the soul, but not for the stomach.

On this point, South African-born but now Europe-based performance artist Steven Cohen wrote: 

“I am a self-employed visual and performance artist. Like millions of people throughout the world, I am in danger of losing my income, my means of support. Suddenly I have many requests from institutions to make a video of myself explaining how I will now make a career exclusively on the internet. So they can use that online. I have no idea how to transform art objects, live art and performance into non-performance, body into pixel.

“What I do know is that giving myself away for free all the time in every form is not a good means to earning money. Not one offer of reimbursement of any sort for these requested video contributions. I have done hundreds of things for free over the 35 years of my career, that’s fine, and I have heard endless times ‘we won’t pay you, but the exposure will be good for you’. Well, don’t worry about that. I am very good at exposing myself.” (Given his trademark performance style, the irony was intentional, of course.)

And as filmmaker-activist Khubu Zulu added, “As artists we all feel very abandoned by the government. I am both an actress and singer, full time, with three dependants. We are experiencing a collective trauma and financial crisis – and yet this national disaster is being treated like business as usual by our Arts and Culture Department, by putting out a call for proposals instead of seeing it as a human rights issue and addressing the urgent need for relief and assistance. 

“The criteria is ridiculous, not at all accessible or inclusive of the many artists who are not registered companies or contracted by the government, [who are] buskers or artists informally employed by venues who may have lost all of their income. I also do not see any solidarity between DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] and A&C [Arts and Culture] on this.”

She went on to say, “Our [royalties] collection societies are also disappointingly quiet. GEMA in Germany is assisting German artists to the tune of 43 million dollars, the German government has a 50 billion pound fund available. Different country, different system, but unlike in SA they prioritised all sectors of the country’s economy, including arts and culture, when the country was in repair.”

Of course, some “luckier” creatives who already had thriving arts teaching practices have been actively carrying out their tutorials via WhatsApp, Zoom or other social media tools, just like a growing number of instructors in primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Nevertheless, many in the arts are finding it is complicated to teach effectively and intensively a discipline such as voice production, while squinting at a cellphone screen as they watch their students’ images go in and out of focus, and too often provides panoramic views of their students’ homes, rather than the students’ respective mouths or larynxes.

Still, at least from a cultural consumer’s perspective, and assuming the consumer has the equipment, airtime and energy, a growing wealth of resources – including pop music superstar concerts (Bruce Springsteen just announced one from his home for Wednesday this week), modern dance concerts, avant-garde theatre, an archive of the world’s dramatic classics, concerts, and operas – are being made available for free to everyone who wishes to enjoy them. This is pushing creatives everywhere to make sure their works are available to the world through virtual channels. But, once again, this is usually without remuneration to the performer from audiences. Increasingly famous, perhaps; but still fearful of the financial wolf at the door.

To a considerable degree, this growth in virtual cultural availability parallels the way educational instruction is being offered online for free or as part of regular educational programs. Given their closure to the public because of the pandemic, major museums and galleries worldwide are also increasingly offering virtual tours of their exhibitions and collections – and some are offering ways to examine those collections in depth through these virtual tours, together with professional commentary and documentation as well. Moreover, some commercial galleries are making increasing use of such channels to offer new works for sale or with virtual auctions for established works entering the secondary market. Of course, potential clients and viewers must still have the ability to make use of the internet for long sessions, and for many South Africans connectivity costs remain beyond reach.

In fact, enforced home incarceration for everyone seems to be giving some creatives the impetus to design, right from the beginning, works created by multiple individuals performing separately, but in concert, from their individual sites, making use of the possibilities of technological cooperation to achieve high-quality productions and then deliver them to audiences via the internet.

But here again, funding to remunerate performers for rehearsals, then the actual performance, and then the finished production to be streamed all remain particularly hard to monetise. In fact, some of these performances seem a lament for the impending death of live performance – or at the least a defiant fist raised against the sky over that possible future. Award-winning poet, author, and performance artist Lebogang Mashile posted on social media, for example, her feelings that despite a whole array of award nominations this year, she was “feeling like an absolute failure because this is the life I chose – being an artist – & I have dragged my family down a road that has often meant me being absent & now us not having much stability in the middle of a global crisis that has led to the collapse of my entire sector… this is how the ancestors have come through.”

Given these conditions, younger, less established, economically vulnerable creatives may well elect to surrender their dreams and aspirations to try to find more secure, albeit more mundane, opportunities, if they can. And as this twinned crisis continues, more adventurous creatives will try to move – and improve their luck – from their more economically challenged nations, cities, and towns and on to larger global metropoles, even if it means they end up driving Ubers, or bartending and waiting on tables.

The sad but wry joke that the most important thing an arts graduate must learn during his or her education is to ask if a customer wants French fries or a salad with their sandwich will become ever more true, but only if those kinds of jobs remain. Creative migrations will accelerate in response to the pull of the global metropoles on cultural figures from around the world – a trend already in motion – but leaving a deleterious impact on the cultural lives of the sending nations.

One thing only just beginning to be discussed is the effect of these twin disasters on the content of cultural productions. Just think about the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on the artistic world in New York City and the US more generally in the 1990s (such as that vast installation art piece of the AIDS quilt or plays like Rent or Angels in America); the way the Great Depression so deeply affected popular culture in the US and the West generally; or the way the impact of the communist victory in Russia so thoroughly changed the art world in that nation in the 1920s. 

Or, consider how the Vietnam War and World War II, both, so deeply impacted US literature and popular music. Perhaps most poignantly of all, consider the seismic impact World War I had on the entire global creative world, even as the specifics of the war itself gradually faded from conscious view. There is clearly no way to predict, yet, what Covid-19 plus the global economic shutdown together will do to the impulses of creatives, but it is a good bet there will be long-term, continuing impacts. And big ones.

Part of the fear and anxiety in South Africa may come from the reality, as we noted earlier, that most creatives not on permanent salary packages from relatively better-supported state-funded arts and cultural organisations have little way to lever much in the way of state benefits. But even within relatively stable organisations, almost inevitably, they too will begin to have their governmental funding taps tighten, or find sources of sponsorships, donations and philanthropic bequests decline as other organisational budgets shrink from governmental and corporate belt-tightening. (Even state-supported venues will be in some trouble as they have, effectively, been without any venue income since the shutdowns began.) The great financial crisis of 2008-9, after all, actually drove a number of the world’s best orchestras and other cultural organisations into actual bankruptcy – or even their demise.

In today’s crisis, such institutions, when increasingly financially pressed, eventually may try to exercise various versions of “force majeure” clauses (those unanticipated “acts of god” escape clauses) in their contracts with outside creatives, in order to withdraw from commitments for their planned events and projects that would have paid individuals involved in them. Going forward, labour and human relations lawyers will be busy.

In circumstances like the current ones, some nations, like Germany, have embraced the importance of creative endeavour for their economies and have promised funding to keep their creative communities alive. Unfortunately, South Africa, with the exception of that small R150-million DSAC programme to subsidise those living legends, to aid individuals already under contract for cancelled, state-supported programmes, or to entertain requests for proposals for special projects, from the government there only seems to be a programme that may benefit a few individuals who qualify under another special effort for small and medium enterprise support, many, perhaps most, creatives in South Africa are likely to be out of luck. Their continued support will challenge their ingenuity, emergency support from parents or partners, or, effectively formal or informal bankruptcy and the slow draining liquidation of any assets.

Still, there is some good news

Sasol, the fuel and chemicals giant, and an NPO, Business Arts South Africa, BASA, have recently announced their own plans to support the arts.

Sasol says its highly regarded New Signatures Competition will again take place this year, despite the tough economic conditions.  Now in its 31st year of existence, the competition calls on this year’s entrants to enter works that are “imaginative, transgressive, transcendent, disruptive, boundless and ‘beyond’…. By promoting art that is ingrained with an aura of possibility and potentiality, the ‘beyond’ moniker is a call for artists to go ‘beyond’ mere mimesis of the global malaise.” Works must be submitted by 24-25 June.

This annual competition is open to all South African artists who are 18 years and older, who have not yet held a solo exhibition. Artists who have held a solo exhibition for academic purposes, for example, a Master’s degree exhibition, are allowed to enter. Artists are able to submit artworks in all artistic mediums including photography, performance art, video and installations.

The overall winner will receive R100,000 and an opportunity of a solo exhibition at the Pretoria Art Museum, the runner-up will receive R25,000 and five merit awards winners will garner R10,000 each. Entry forms and full information are at: www.sasolnewsignatures.co.za and www.contacton.com

Meanwhile, BASA has announced an extension of its supporting grants programme for South African creatives infected or affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

A funding campaign has been launched at gogetfunding.com/bizartza/, to enable BASA to also consider applications from individual artists for once-off, short-term financial aid for Covid-19-related medical care and/or prescription medicines. The aid can also be used to offset the loss of income due to the cancellation of confirmed engagements, as a result of the nationwide lockdown or other emergency measures.

Charmaine Soobramoney, BASA board chair, says, “Covid-19 has forced the world to unite and fight against this invisible enemy…. [and] We celebrate their resilience and appreciate the role that they play in provoking thought and uplifting the energies of the consumers of the arts.”

Further details and eligibility criteria are available here: www.basa.co.za. For enquiries about Artist Relief Grants, email [email protected].

***

While this writer was contemplating these doleful circumstances, he recalled the experience of the Works Progress Administration in the lives of thousands of creatives in America in the midst of the Great Depression. By the early 1930s, unemployment there had reached the until-then-unheard of level of 25% of the labour force. Unlike many European nations, historically, there was virtually no US tradition of national support for the arts. There were no national theatres, no national dance companies, and few governmental commissions for artists and sculptors, save for an occasional historical work for a new federal building or portraits of leading politicians and statesmen. Similarly, there was no tradition for state sponsorship of individual authors, composers and painters.

When Franklin Roosevelt became president in early 1933, his administration was confronted, along with the rest of the growing economic and social turmoil, by armies of unemployed persons, just like those exemplified in Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s famous but very bleak anthem of the unemployed, Buddy Can You Spare a Dime – 

“They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob
When there was earth to plow or guns to bear
I was always there right on the job

They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?”

One key element of the Roosevelt administration was the Works Progress Administration, the WPA, a national public works programme that hired millions of unemployed and put them to work building or rebuilding much of the country’s infrastructure. But tucked away in a small corner of the WPA budget was Federal Project Number 1, an effort that hired writers, actors, dancers, painters, and the support staff so creatives could do the things creatives do, and survive in the national distress. Describing the programme’s goal, Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins said succinctly, “Hell, they’ve got to eat, too”.

The programme established travelling troupes of actors and dancers, teams to paint vast frescos in public buildings, writers to create new, uniform sets of state and city guidebooks, collect and edit folk narratives, the memoirs of former slaves, and many other projects. At its peak, something like 40,000 creatives were employed in these efforts and some of the country’s most famous creatives were effectively kept from starvation by this program, early in their careers.

One major element of the Federal Project Number 1 was Federal Writers’ Project that collected over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery. Other efforts profiled the life stories of ordinary Americans living at the turn of the century, including those who met Billy the Kid, lived through the 1871 Chicago fire, were on pioneer journeys to the West, worked in factories, and were first-person narratives of the immigrant experience.

The Chicago branch of the project helped launch the careers of African American writers such as Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Katherine Dunham, and Frank Yerby. And a national list of participants included such writers as Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Loren Eiseley, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Harry Partch, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright and Frank Yerby. Yet other participants included John Steinbeck, painter Jackson Pollock, filmmaker Orson Welles, actors John Houseman, Burt Lancaster, Joseph Cotten, Will Geer, EG Marshall and Sidney Lumet, and composer Virgil Thomson. In addition to writers, the project provided jobs to unemployed librarians, clerks, researchers, editors, and historians.

In the eight years of its existence, this programme, at the cost of just a small percentage of the total WPA budget, kept a generation of the country’s creative talent alive.

Particularly with South Africa’s current travails from the pandemic and the economic contraction both, as well as some generally tough times for its cultural community more generally, the special R150-million budget in the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture seems a meagre outlay. Beyond the spartan budget, these programmes seem to have significantly excluded that near majority of creatives not already part of the usual run of DSAC activities.

Given the gravity of the situation for the country’s creative community, now would seem to be an opportunity for a new effort to assist monetising creative endeavour via the digital world; to offer initiatives to give creatives stipends to put them to work (rather than just dispense grants) in the country’s thousands of schools; or to produce easily transportable works to crisscross the nation; to create an easy-to-apply-for basic medical scheme for creatives and an inexpensive retirement option; and to encourage the development of works that can tour the region and beyond on behalf of South Africa’s place on the continent. Given the enormity of the crisis, now is precisely the time to make innovative use of the widest possible range of talents and skills, now largely sitting at home. Waiting. DM

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