by Anindita Patra
“In these unstable and uncertain times, we need to look to the things that unite us – the things that show us the world in all of its variations – and for that, we need artists” – Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General.
We turn to art when we are joyful: we turn to art when we grieve. And in times of uncertainty and despair, we turn to art again for sustaining our hopes. This is especially true of now when the pandemic continues to disrupt and alter our lives. More now than ever, art must remind us of the human capacity to endure, re-imagine and create. While billions of people around the world turn to culture as a source of comfort and connection, the impact of COVID-19 has not spared the cultural sector threatening the livelihoods of the local communities and cultural professionals. This has impacted not only revenues but also sense of community and cultural lives of people. Artists across the world are struggling to make ends meet. In India, the crafts sector that is largely self-employed involving a large number of people has been facing a severe crisis. Similarly living traditions such as festive events that form an important part of people’s lives have had to be paused. Today, we are experiencing a cultural emergency.
Keeping these challenges in mind UNESCO New Delhi in collaboration with banglanatak dot com organized two webinars on‘Building Resilient Communities Practicing Intangible Cultural Heritage’ and ‘New Paradigms in Rural Cultural Industries’ on June 10 and June 18, respectively. The objectives of the webinar was to raise awareness about the impact of COVID-19 on cultural and creative sector based on heritage skills in art and crafts including cultural tourism, to identify needs and challenges to be addressed through development of policies, programs and financial mechanisms aimed at empowering artists and to share voices of ICH communities and experiences from different countries. The webinars were part of the larger global movement called ResiliArt started by UNESCO on the 15th of April 2020 which aimed at mobilizing solidarity among artists and cultural professionals.
The webinar had panelists representing government, creative and cultural sectors, art council, tourism, and technology providers. Eric Falt, Director and UNESCO Representative to Bhutan, India, Maldives and Sri Lanka and Junhi Han, Programme Specialist and Chief of Culture Sector, UNESCO New Delhi shared about ResiliArt initiative.
‘Building Resilient Communities Practicing Intangible Cultural Heritage’
New Paradigms in Rural Cultural Industries
The panelists discussed various problems that the artist communities are facing due to the pandemic. The social and economic impact on culture and creative industries will be severe and these sectors, like many others, will need support across their respective ecosystems and supply chains. The crafts sector in India, one of the largest employment sectors after agriculture in rural India, is in a severe crisis affecting livelihoods of millions of craftspeople in rural areas and thousands of craft enterprises. Similarly, the arts sector is also under huge pressure being informally organized with artists and professionals working on temporary contracts, lack of funding and lack of adequate protection of artists’ works especially in the digital sphere. Creative industries like craft collectives, village tourism, cultural festivals which support the tradition bearers and practitioners are threatened with challenges of decline in demand owing to factors like decline in tourist flows, less disposable income of consumers and restrictions in cultural and social gatherings.
But as they say, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The panelists agreed that we need to find ways to keep cultural professionals doing their work safely and to be able to monetize their work we need to build solid cultural policies to give artists, creators and cultural enterprises the means to move forward. One of the big challenges facing the creative sector in the developing countries as we emerge from this pandemic will be the restructuring of the cultural sector. Regenerative economy is the need of the hour and instead of calling this sector craft we call it creative manufacturing as it is about production, competitiveness. Craft should not be limited to a curio item but treated as a production model or rather participatory ownership model.
The discussion emphasized the importance of solidarity for artists and creators. If we try looking at the ‘oh so little’ bright things of the otherwise dark crisis we will see that it has the potential to bring together the cultural industry, to start a dialogue, to collaborate and exchange, to create a rock solid networking platform. Hand holding amongst the stakeholders of the creative industry will be really helpful in such times.
A particular concern raised by the panelists was the rapid trend toward the digitization of cultural content which is indeed a good means for the artists to reach out to the audience. But a lot of the rural artists are not equipped to quickly jump into the online world, because of the remoteness, insufficient access to digital technologies and language issues. The importance of vigilance and stronger regulation amidst the current push for digitization cultural content was particularly stressed. The fact that so much is moving online and artists are sharing their work for free brings challenges as well.
When emerging from this crisis, ways to maintain diverse, sustainable and dynamic cultural ecosystems must be identified and reinforced. Panelists underscored that the ramifications of the crisis will be felt long after it ends, and called for the protection of artists and for fair remuneration of their work both now and in the long term.
The discourse that we read and see in the media understandably focuses on the negative impact but there are positive opportunities as well– opportunities for contributing and collaborating and ones which may lead to new innovations. Sustainable business models during and after the initial crisis are vital for the sector’s survival. The current challenge is to design public supports that assuage the negative impacts in the short term and help identify new opportunities in the medium term for different public, private and non-profit actors engaged in cultural and creative production and not to forget initiatives that ultimately benefit the communities. The discussion reflected the need to re-imagine the cultural sector as it adapts to the new normal brought about by the crisis.
We realize that during these times projects will need fresh modes of thinking, creating and presenting the arts as well as new imaginations of engagement with audiences and communities.