Three feelings sum up the Arts Sector’s response to COVID–19. Firstly, a feeling of doom and nothing seeming to work. Secondly, a sense of paralysis, coupled with a curiosity about what might work. Thirdly, there’s an optimism about the future, and a fierce determination to survive and thrive in this trying time.
I don’t think these feelings are confined to the Arts Sector, of course, and these feelings alternate with each other even over a single day. Arts organisations are faring better than individual artists. Jobs have some protection, but freelance work sadly does not. Individual artists that have very low incomes, in any case, have lost almost all opportunity. It’s hard to imagine the Arts without human contact but painters, writers and sculptors, unlike performers and musicians, don’t need crowds to work. It is hard to have no live audience, but audiences for the Arts are increasing online. Increased online capacity for the Arts will be the great legacy of this pandemic.
For the City Arts Office Cruinniú na nÓg, the National Day of Creativity for children in June, and Culture Night in September, this new online capability will be tested as the institutions and artists involved will be recording and broadcasting their work, many for the first time, with support from RTÉ. The Abbey Theatre’s Dear Ireland initiative, which is the product of creative work by 50 Writers and 50 actors, has shown that online performances can have real power. Supporting this growth in online artistic capacity is a key priority. Helping artists to build their online capabilities and, as restrictions lift, providing facilities to record and broadcast are initiatives that Dublin City Council will support. There is a lot of debate about what online art is, but some artists have been active in the virtual space for some time, and some are recording their work and editing it to broadcast ‘as live’, while others are playing live on air. Each of these approaches has different standards and expectations from the audience, such as editing, sound quality and tolerance for interruptions.
‘new normal’ is an experiment
There are also several states of human cultural interaction (or lack of it) to plan for:
1. Lockdown (while it is now beginning to end, it might come back).
2. The interim phase, starting soon, as Dublin re-opens, allowing more and more freedom throughout this year.
3. Returning to the ‘new normal’. Will life as we knew it return as before or be altered with continuing social distancing?
The interim phase of reducing restrictions is the most immediate and most challenging concern for all involved in the Arts. Galleries will open in July, and as social distancing is achievable in these spaces, how will we develop the protocols that inspire confidence and keep the public safe? Artist workspaces and studios should re-open as construction workers return. Theatres and concert halls are scheduled to reopen from August 10th. In all of these cases, the Arts community must consider how best to protect the public, and how reduced capacity through social distancing is implemented, just like any other business or public space. Although guidelines exist, there will be many specific situations where judgement and risk will have to be balanced. Equally, reduced capacity means reduced revenue for venues, providing challenges to finances. How will funding work in this case?
There is a broad agreement that this ‘new normal’ is an experiment – or rather a series of experiments – and that failure has been viewed as an essential part of learning. The Arts will adapt their form and content and may require exceptional support as new forms emerge. If there was ever a time though that individual artists need support by the Government and the public, this is it.