COVID-19: But what about art? The culturati appeals for government relief

Very few are talking about the economic toll the lockdown is taking on artists

lockdown-salil-1 Representational image | Salil Bera

There has been a great deal of talk about art events moving online due to the COVID-19 outbreak—about how artists and performers have found newer ways to respond to the crisis as museums and galleries stay shut, festivals and workshops get cancelled, and about how the show must go on. But is this forced adaption really a sign of robustness, the enduring resilience of the arts? Should we really be okay with the death of the "experience economy", watching theatre and dance performances on YouTube? Very few are really talking about the economic toll the lockdown is taking on artisans, classical performers, art fund grantees and freelance professionals in the cultural sector. And how it is likely to change the workings of the arts industrial complex post-lockdown.

In an article in The Pioneer dated April 9, Bharatanatyam dancer, educator, choreographer, arts administrator, and researcher Pratibha Prahlad made an urgent appeal for financial help for cultural and creative industries from the government, as strict public health measures have ruined the livelihoods of many in the sector. How does one even chase that elusive creative genius in these unnerving times when one is constantly besieged with financial anxieties and neglect. "In addition to health concerns, this is a challenging time for many in our community as we deal with cancelled incomes, investments made for booking venues, paid advances to technical and other staff that cannot be recovered, cancellation of teaching and other such activities," wrote Prahlad. "It is hard to understand why there has been a stony silence from the culture ministry. It’s almost as if we do not exist for them and/or, if we do, they do not care about the welfare of the sector they are mandated to be working for," she further added, before laying down a series of corrective measures like setting up of a culture relief fund which recognises that artistes and cultural workers are often self-employed or contract workers, a basic minimum payment to tide over the next few months, deferred filing of taxes until January 2021, apart from relaxing compliance for grants already approved for non-profits for organising conferences, festivals, individual events until normalcy is restored.

"The impact of this pandemic on the culture and arts sector is going to be far-reaching. Not just far-reaching, it will be devastating," says Prahlad on the phone. "While in the private/services sector, people can just go back to opening their offices, shops and businesses and start working again, arts and culture is not like that. It is a very long-drawn process. Whenever the lockdown is lifted, it is not like artists are going to start offering performances. It is going to take at least nine months for things to fall into place," says Prahlad pointing out how May-June-July aren't even the time for events or performances in the cultural calendar and how most activities take place from 15 August till April 30.

In the crucial month of April which celebrates Easter, Baisakhi, Bohag Bihu, Vishu and others, there are events organised at various levels, including at the rural and community levels where artists depend on day-to-day income. She points out how the uncertainty of the times will now curtail outstation performances for artists. Even within cities, how many would show up in auditoriums for live performances for the next few months? "There is a huge uncertainty in planning for the future. That is the most frightening thing. Because with the limited kind of resources you have, are you going to re-invest? What is the guarantee that there will be a return on investment? Who is going to organise the shows?" asks Prahlad.

The arts sector is more sensitive and vulnerable than others and a contingency plan to make artists feel more validated at this point is the need of the hour. "Personally, I feel it would be nice, as and when we do reopen with audiences coming in, if one was able to make an appeal to them to not just make a donation, but introduce a culture of paying for culture. Delhi is so used to non-ticketed, non-paid offerings in the culture sector. Slowly, if we can instill a culture which recognises that arts is also a livelihood, a profession, this would go a long way to help the artists' community," says Vidyun Singh, director of programmes at Habitat World in New Delhi, directing our gaze to countries like the US where the major arts and cultural institutions are supported by philanthropists and big donors who are actually funding efforts to be able to tide over this period.

Recently, Kolkata’s Experimenter gallery launched Generator, a cooperative art production fund, to sustain creation of artworks in this period irrespective of age, nationality or location. Rajeev Sethi's Asian Heritage Foundation launched a humanitarian initiative, 'Head, Heart and Healing', for rural artisan clusters in Telangana, Jharkhand, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha with community feeding and home-based livelihood projects. But these efforts, for now, are few and far between and there is an urgent need to draft an action plan to salvage the arts sector.