I’m can’t offer solutions. I was asked to speak about outreach and sustainability. I won’t speak about funding and strategies, since there are plenty of other conversations going on about this, among people much better qualified than me.
And I can only talk about my experiences as curator, cultural manager, visual artist, writer – I can’t claim knowledge of the performing arts sector, apart from a very superficial knowledge that putting on a performance is an expensive undertaking. So, my intervention will throw out a few ideas, give a few thoughts that can spark off ideas and thoughts from some of you.
For those of you who don’t know me, I have a masters in Fine Arts from the University of Malta, and I’m founder of Unfinished Art Space – a nomadic project that works with contemporary and experimental artists here in Malta. I also work as a researcher on a Horizon 2020 socially-engaged arts research project at UM, and I have my own practice as artist and curator.
First off, without wishing to generalise, we do live in a society that tends to view art as something which provides, rather than something that exists. So straight away, we tend to leave artists to their own devices when it comes to earning an income – by which I don’t mean that no public funding is available, but more that worldwide, more pressure is being put on the arts to fund itself. I am suspicious of discourses that put the onus on creative professionals to somehow simultaneously act as entrepreneurs, marketing executives and start-ups. While the image of the artist creating alone in an attic bedsit somewhere is unhelpful, the creed that everything can and should be monetised is equally disingenuous, if not outright dangerous to the arts.
A few days ago, I was listening to a speech given by the folk singer-songwriter Janis Ian say “It’s hard to be a commodity. And yet the only way to earn a living as an artist is to be a commodity of one sort or another.” This rings true for many artists, but also tends to leave a bitter taste in the mouth – and I can think of few more depressing strategies for an artist to develop their practice, than to try to become a commodity.
For this discussion, I tried to find examples of how the arts flourished historically during times of crisis or economic depression. We may have ideas of rock and punk coming out of young unemployed dissenters, or radical performance art being borne of struggle and hardship, but the reality is less romantic. One example I heard was the moving poetry that came from the trenches of the first world war, but I think the disastrous and murderous events of that period is not what we need to become creative again. What I can say at some level is that if – at a fundamental level - art needs a counterpoint against which to rail, then hard times – in terms of economics, civil rights, freedoms – provide this – without it, one may argue that art becomes reduced to mere decoration.
But that argument can be reductive – art also involves a process of research, experimentation, and thinking (which is underestimated these days) which can’t necessarily be billed on a company charge sheet. Without these periods of intense training, thought and exploration, art would – again – be reduced to a mere background decoration and a repetition of what’s come before.
This morning I listened to an interview with the acclaimed Lebanese live-arts artist Tania El Khoury. Asked about sustainability in the arts, she said “Many of us who are perceived as having a successful career, that’s because we jump from one festival to another, from one project to another, barely having time to rest or pause. This is neither a sustainable or a healthy way of living and making.” And the point she was making is that artists need to have time to work between works. And somehow, they need to be paid for that.
We’ve read a lot recently about how the arts have reacted to the world going online. Good luck to those artists that work in digital media – they are working in a ground-breaking area, that sees humanity – as it has always done – bring technology and the arts together to the advancement of both. But for those who work in more live arts, what was trumpeted as the solution to the lockdown, served largely to increase the distance between the audience and the arts – there’s nothing sadder that watching a performance, and knowing that the atmosphere, the smells (good and bad), the feel of the theatre seat and the environment are beyond your reach.
There are upsides; the critic Waldemar Januszczak has praised the experience of viewing rooms for art fairs, instead of the hectic live version. And Greek theatre director Elli Papakonstantinou has used the shift online to experiment with zoom-enabled performance to create a live, immersive, experimental performance, to a limited audience. So, the online can be seen as a tool, but not the solution.
I was asked to give some examples of how I, and organisations I’m involved with, have endeavoured to find solutions to the current situation we find ourselves in. And I’m using the phrase ‘endeavoured to find’ deliberately – we looked for solutions, but can’t say we’ve found the answers.
One organisation I’m involved in – Magna Żmien – of which I’m a founding member, went back to its roots as it were. Rather than organising outreach events, as we had planned, we focused instead on catching up with digitising collections, improving the metadata that we have on our collections, and continuing the background work that is the backbone of what we do. We were also able to collaborate with artists, meeting and giving access to some material online. We are lucky to have an ISO grant from the Arts Council, which allows us to engage some people to do this work – otherwise it would be down to just us, very slowly, on a voluntary basis.
I’d like to quickly mention our audiences, and how we relate to them as artists. We have gone through such a period of intense change, in how people relate to one another, how they socialise, how they spend their money, that the arts have been inevitably, and irrevocably affected. If I can go back to the interview with El Khoury, she said “If this pandemic is teaching us anything, it’s about taking some time to slow down and reflect on our ethical responsibility towards our audience.” Looking at how artists work with audiences – is there an opportunity her, to work more intensively, more closely with smaller numbers of people? Would society be willing to make this change? Would audiences meet us in the middle? And would something like this remain in the hands of a small number of repeat audiences, or could we take the opportunity to involve all sectors of society in a new way of engaging with art.
We also do need to nurture the next generation of artists, those that are just graduating and just finding their way in the world. Otherwise we’ll find ourselves stagnating with no-one new coming up behind us, feeding energy into the sector, and leading to a sense of continuity and legacy in local art practices.
Linked with this: equality in arts practice. Because Malta is so small, we tend to think of it as a more mobile society, but this isn’t true of the arts. We need to allow opportunities within the sector – without being patronising, without being cynical – for everyone to feel they can work in the creative industries.
Lastly, a glimmer of hope, that I can offer comes in the form of solidarity, collaboration and a sense of camaraderie. Last year, I was lucky enough to be invited to quite a meaningful gathering of inspiring artists and creative practitioners, who met in a very open, sharing and trustful environment. Nothing formal came out of this, but during lockdown, a group of us met again – this time online. I was sceptical about meeting online – mostly I just wanted to chat with friends and colleagues, share a coffee and discuss ideas – not talk awkwardly over zoom with inadvertent mute buttons and connection interruptions. But what came out of the meeting was uplifting. Friends and colleagues open to sharing and collaborating, and approaching the same challenges without hidden agendas and outside of a formal environment. Some informal projects have begun, slowly to develop from this meeting – I hope more meetings and more collaborations will follow.
In this strange half-online, half-conscious quarantine time we live in, I came across a phrase that I think is pertinent to our situation: “The next revolution will not be funded”. Actually, it’s the title of a conference organised by curator and writer Jürgen Bock in 2012. Although it dates from 2012, the message is relevant to these times. We must brace ourselves for hard times ahead – not just economically, but also socially, environmentally, and politically. We need to think in terms of a creative revolution, and look to our ourselves and our practices to sustain us and others around us, emotionally and intellectually. Some of us think of our art practice as our baby; in that case, I’ll give you some advice I got from a friend’s mother when I had my first child; At the end of the day, it’s just you and the baby.
This intervention was presented as part of Arts Council Malta's Covid-19 Taskforce, September 2020.