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The arts and post-pandemic transformations: Societal changes, artists, and the arts
(Originally published in March 2022)
What is the role of artists and the arts in a post-pandemic future where the goal is to “build back better”? Four recent articles offer interesting perspectives and visions of what this might look like and how this might happen. Common themes include: a desire for radical transformation in the arts; significant improvements in equity and justice within the sector; a need to better connect and embed artists (and the arts more broadly) with other societal issues; and an increased focus on artistic processes rather than products.
State of Emergence: Why We Need Artists Right Now
Shannon Litzenberger, December 2021
The thesis of this essay is that “artists are not adequately centred or supported in the professional arts ecosystem, nor have they been ambitiously mobilized as change agents during this time of crisis, much to the detriment of the arts and culture sector and to society at large”. The essay characterizes the current situation of artists as “alienated” and discusses opportunities to use culture as a lever for change, to view artists as “world-makers”, and to work toward a new socio-economic system.
Regarding the current situation of artists, Litzenberger cites statistics on the precarity of artists and notes that some artists are leaving the field altogether. Artists, along with smaller arts organizations, work in an environment of “highly competitive all-or-nothing project funding, micro-granting and Kickstarter campaigns”. In this context, the author argues that “guaranteed basic income for artists is necessary because our system of cultural production has so significantly eroded the value of the arts and disabled the artist's ability to make a livable income in this system”.
According to Litzenberger, art can and should be a way of knowing, a way of imagining new worlds. If art is “a process of transformation concerned with collective human development”, as the author believes, then artists should be thought of as catalysts of change, not just as “creative unicorns here to entertain, distract and comfort us”. Art and art-making processes are particularly important during a pandemic that the author views as “simultaneously an emergency and a revolution-in-the-making”.
Regarding culture as a lever for change, the author indicates that the generations-long process of “building a culture liberated from the historical colonial ethos” in which Canada is embedded will involve a reimagining of cultural policies, participation, and equity. The arts will have to reflect “a culturally pluralistic citizenry in a post-colonial society”. She states: “We need to engage in a more fundamental process of creation organized around principles of cultural plurality, equity and justice, sustainability, creative engagement, collective care and wellbeing, and others.”
Litzenberger recognizes that she is proposing a “near impossible task” for artists, i.e., to balance “competitive pursuit of scarce resources with the work of collective advancement”. Important challenges include:
● The precarity of artists’ professional lives.
● The conundrum that the arts industry “is steeped in the rules, dynamics and cultural norms that we are seeking to disrupt”.
● A reliance on “every and any small benefit afforded to us by the [current] system”.
● A need to “focus on artistic activities that have the best chance of being funded and promoted”.
● Low returns on artists’ “emotional, spiritual and creative investment”.
In working to overcome these challenges, Litzenberger argues that “we will need to experiment with new ways of working that are better aligned with the world we want to live in”.
Regarding artists as world makers, Litzenberger notes that artistic process is “capable of world-making because it explores horizons of possibility in ways that engage our fully embodied sensory capacities, including our imagination…. A meaningful artistic experience can move us toward new understanding, engagement and action.” Artistic processes, being relational and conditional, are “particularly relevant as catalysts for transformational change in a highly complex, transitioning world”.
To achieve change, the author proposes that individual artists be centred, with “their honed ability to experiment with emergent artistic practice” becoming “an organizing strategy during this transitional time between worlds”.
Litzenberger offers her thoughts on building a new socio-economic system. She argues that, “through the transformative power of their creative practices, artists are especially and uniquely capable of catalyzing the kind of systems change we need right now by leading at the level of culture change”. Within the arts, systems change involves turning away from notions of “artistic excellence” toward an imagining of “new ways of understanding how art creates meaning in our lives”, thereby challenging “concepts of explicit value, public impact and evaluation when we engage with ways of knowing beyond what is measurable”. The author argues for an increased emphasis on experimentation and discovery, with less focus on production and distribution.
Litzenberger concludes that, from “artist-led discoveries – grounded in values of care, creative possibility, social justice, interdependence, and sustainability – a new world will emerge”.
Art and the World After This
Metcalf Foundation, June 2021
Author: David Maggs
This qualitative report is devoted to examining two key questions: “What does the world need from the art-society relationship right now? And what do we need to do as a sector to meet that need?”
A key finding of the report is that there are four disruptions facing the arts sector: “the disruption of activity, stemming from COVID-19; the disruption of society, emerging from rising social unrest; the disruption of industry, based on the digital revolution; and the disruption of world, rooted in the sustainability crisis”. Maggs outlines aspects of each of these disruptions “to glean from these events a series of connected implications for art and the world after”:
● “The disruption of activity has demonstrated how vulnerable our connection with audience is, relative to the digital networks that link a world rapidly evolving without us.
● The disruption of society has shown us the inadequacy of marginal concessions to diversity, pushing us to move beyond making peace with difference to activating its advantages.
● The disruption of industry has been diminishing the viability of traditional markets for decades, requiring that we find viability in more explicit links between art, creativity, and innovation.”
● In the disruption of world, art should be “pushing society to better integrate subjective inputs (meaning, belief, identity, value)”, particularly in an environmental context.
Maggs believes that, “cornered by these layered disruptions, our only option is to offer ourselves up to a more applied and accountable relationship with society.” The author argues for a “shift from a paradigm of ‘production and presentation’ to one driven by innovation”. Artists – still focused on making art and “working with the aesthetic” – would become “adept at identifying the arts-shaped holes in our worlds and the methods by which we meaningfully engage them”. The author views this as “an aestheticization of the world” rather than an “instrumentalization of art”. In this way, the arts could “find for themselves a new and sacred task” in generating meaning, helping all humans make sense of reality. Through this work, the arts would both “respond proactively to our own problems and … contribute meaningfully to challenges in the wider world”.
To help understand and work toward solutions (both in the arts and beyond), the author offers the complexity economy as “an innovation paradigm characterized by the integration of the disruptions we are facing and designed to respond to the challenges they produce”.
For the arts, Maggs argues that:
● Art’s unique value proposition involves opening new perceptions and unearthing “possibilities of being”, “not only through its power of expression, but through its power of attention as well…. Art offers an ability to witness in ways that transgress the received rationality of a given world.” Further, “if the essence of the arts is rooted in composite powers of attention and expression, then the aesthetic priority—the means by which it integrates these powers— sits at the heart of its social capacity.”
● “We need to adopt a strong, highly integrated systems-approach where knowledge and optimization can scale efficiently and where the growth of individual organizations is secondary to the resilience of the sector and the vibrancy of the art-society relationship more broadly.”
● “Learning for ourselves and learning from each other [should] become central priorities for the sector.”
The author concludes that, if we embrace major shifts in perspectives and approaches, “rather than discovering ourselves as an arts sector down on its luck hoping public funding will carry us into the unforeseeable future despite our unsustainable form, we might find ourselves boldly optimistic instead, standing on the edge of an art-society relationship teeming with unprecedented strength, breadth, and necessity in a post-pandemic world”.
BC Everyday Creativity & COVID-19
Research Report 2021
BC Alliance for Arts and Culture, October 2021
Author: Carolyne Claire
Highlighting ”the ways in which [British Columbia] residents turned to creative activities during the COVID-19 pandemic”, this study argues that greater value should be placed on the arts, beyond aesthetic excellence, including “civic impacts related to social justice, environmental sustainability, quality of life, and other factors”. The report is based on a survey of a representative sample of the BC population as well as interviews with representatives of 40 arts organizations from across the province.
How and why do BC residents value creative activities? The public survey found that, during the pandemic, “improving mental health” became a much more significant factor in people’s decision to partake in creative activities (selected by 24% of respondents, compared with 12% pre-pandemic). The survey results also demonstrate a heightened interest and engagement in creative activities during the pandemic (average of eight hours per person per week, compared with five hours pre-pandemic). The survey used a broad definition of “creative activities”, including “listening to music, trying a new recipe, reading a book, making crafts, taking dance classes, watching movies or TV, viewing a live show, learning a language, attending an art gallery and more”. The report notes that creative activities are particularly valued by respondents “who self-identified as living below the median income level, as well as people who self-identified as female, parents, and those living with a disability”.
Regarding challenges to participating more often in creative activities, respondents most commonly selected “having more activities that are free (27%) and activities that are more interesting and relevant to their lives (26%)”.
The interviews with arts organization representatives found that, while most struggled with program cancellations and postponements during the pandemic, a majority “continued offering programming both online and in-person”. For the organizations, “emergency government funding provided during COVID-19 was crucial to their ability to survive the pandemic”, but one of the organizations did close down permanently.
Funding and space are key factors in organizational instability. In particular, “arts organizations mandated to support vulnerable communities faced greater instability”. Internet connectivity was found to be a key challenge for rural and remote organizations, who “could not easily pivot to presenting their programs online”.
Arts organizations, even those without a specific social mandate, “took on risk and used their creativity, skill and energy to address a specific social need within their community and, more generally, support people’s wellbeing”. The perceived benefits of their work include “decreasing social isolation and anxiety, and increasing participants’ self-confidence, self-expression, critical thinking, memory and other factors”. The report notes that, “as communities grapple with rising social and environmental concerns, it is possible that arts organizations will continue meeting additional community needs”.
Finding “great social value in the work of arts professionals who can lead communities in creative processes”, the report argues that “a more democratic funding model might value artistic processes over artistic products” and that “dominant concepts of artistic excellence” should be reframed.
The study concludes that, given “multiple calls for increasing equity and justice within the arts and cultural space, the sector should invite more radical transformation as it is reimagined and rebuilt following the pandemic”.
1,243 Voices: Live Performance Artists' Hopes for a Post-COVID Future
Jerwood Arts (U.K.), November 2021
Author: Melissa Wong
During the pandemic, 1,243 emerging performing artists applying to a unique granting program from Jerwood Arts completed a qualitative survey and provided “a vision and ideas for the future of their artistic or creative practice”. The 33 successful applicants received mentoring support and £20,000 (about $35,000 CAD) toward adapting their approaches to making and sharing live work. This report analyzes all applicants’ responses, which “reveal how artists’ working lives could be improved, painting a powerful picture of an overarching desire for a more humane, empathetic, and collaborative [arts] sector.”
Program applicants expressed a desire for:
● Improved funding and support for individuals, with an attempt to reduce the “significant disparity in both opportunities and outcomes” for diverse artists, as well as to improve the underrepresentation “of people from marginalised backgrounds in positions of power and influence”.
● Better working conditions and quality of life, in an effort to reduce the fragility and unpredictability of artists’ working lives through “better and more stable pay for artists’ work” as well as ways of offsetting “the risk of freelance work with more consistent, reliable forms of income”.
● Greater recognition of the value of the arts to society, with broader understanding of how “the arts play an essential role in society, culture, and wellbeing”, thereby ensuring that fewer artists feel that their work is “undervalued and taken for granted”. In the words of one respondent, this could result in “a world where creativity is as important as maths and science”.
The report notes that “a significant number of artists who responded to the survey characterised the sector pre-Covid as individualistic, competitive, and even cutthroat”. During the pandemic, “what many artists seemed to appreciate most about the changed culture of the sector … wasn’t any specific actions or initiatives but the greater sense of kindness and humanity in the way that people from all parts of the sector have treated each other more generally”, something that they hoped would continue post-pandemic.
The report concludes that artists’ hopes for the future include a “belief that collective action is an indispensable tool for ensuring that there are equal opportunities for all, especially those who have historically been marginalised, underrepresented, or treated unfairly within the sector because of their background, circumstances, or identity”.
This publication was originally funded through a pilot project with the Azrieli Foundation, the Metcalf Foundation, and the Rozsa Foundation. It is reproduced here for ease-of-access only (and without any paywall).