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Aftermath of a Pandemic: Arts, Artists and Survival

Aftermath of a Pandemic: Arts, Artists and Survival

The pandemic has shown us how broken our systems are, and how much injustice still plays havoc with people’s lives. It is as if by wearing our masks our blindfolds have fallen off and we can see this all too clearly. After the pandemic we must prioritise our efforts to ensure we challenge the dominant narratives that always speak so loudly. I do hope a lot has changed, not just in the world with this pandemic, but also in how we see the world, how we understand our relationship with it.

But before I begin, I want to share an announcement that we all had listened to in the first week of April, 2020, right after the lockdown was announced by the government.

Good evening. This is an announcement from the Ministry of Arts and Culture.

We understand that with the lockdown which has been announced across the country, and the ban on assembly, on performance, on showcasing of art, on physical gathering, it is going to be a very difficult time for artists in this country. I’m here to tell you about some of the special schemes that the Ministry has announced. You will find all these schemes on our website. I will summarise them for you here.

The first set of schemes is for funding support.

Each of these funding schemes will need to be applied to with the requisite documents, forms for which you will find on our website. All forms are given in multiple languages so you can fill them up and apply.

The first funding scheme is the Emergency Response Fund for culture, where Rs 5000 per month for a year for families earning less than rupees 12,000 per month will be given. Adequate evidence of monthly income needs to be provided for this fund with the application.

Sustainable Cultural Practice Fund is a fund where Rs 25,000 will be given as grants for artists to do projects across disciplines. This will be announced twice a year where artists can work on various ideas. Preferences will be given to those artists who work on trying to understand how they are going to deal with the difficult time of the COVID 19 pandemic, and how they are going to change their ways, learn new things and do work.

The Lean In Fund for small to medium organisations will be given to those organisations which are supporting the arts, presenting culture, and showcasing art. Rs 5 lakh per year will be given for two years for the sustainability of these organisations. They need to be non-profit entities and have to apply with details of their annual report and financial statements of the past two years.

The Technical Assistance Fund is only for those organisations who complete the training that is being provided by the Ministry to go digital. They can apply to this fund to buy minimum equipment so that they can take their practice to the online medium.

While you can apply anytime during this year, the announcement of those who receive the grants will be made on our website. Please check the website from time to time. There are also contact details given on the website for who you can call to find out details about the grant schemes.

The Ministry has also come up with online platforms. These will enable artists to share their work more publicly and directly reach their audiences. The first thing that will be done on the online platforms is training for our teachers of schools on using online tools for Arts Education. But training programmes will also be organised for artists to build skills around using and monetising the online medium. The Ministry understands that many artists are unaware of the different ideas that can be used for digital technology, and may also be unaware of the procedures, the free software available online, and how they can make their art available online. They will benefit from these workshops.

The Ministry will provide space for showcasing work as well. The first place created will be to share work free of cost for audiences for networking and building collaboration. The second space will be for ticketed work which audiences can pay to see. In the case of both, showcased artists will need to sign in to their own ‘rooms’ created on the online space and put up their work, fill in their details, and begin sharing. Currently the Ministry is in conversation with various service providers and vendors for ticketed work, and they will help the Ministry to make this most accessible to large numbers of audiences.

Many resources will also be shared online. These will mainly be toolkits to go digital that include Do It Yourself videos, software’s manuals, guides, etc. These will be customised for different art forms. So for dancers, musicians, theatre people and filmmakers, there will be different sets of toolkits to learn from.

Other than this, free medical treatment and free supply of medicines for affected artists at government hospitals have already been announced in each state. Free Health Clinics will also be provided. At all government cultural institutions across the country, accessible test sites for Covid 19 are being set up with physicians to help. Therapists will also be available for mental health concerns, online and offline.

The Ministry understands that artists will be having a very tough time doing this lockdown. Currently we do not know when this lockdown will be lifted, or how long the pandemic will continue. But the Ministry assures artists that the Ministry will support them in every way possible.

Thank you.

You must have heard this in the first week of April 2020, right after Covid 19 hit, right? No? You did not? What are you saying? No one remembers? Of course you don’t. This did not happen. It should have – but did not. This is perhaps what we expected from the Ministry but there was nothing that was offered to the arts sector during this very difficult phase that we went through. I kept going back to the websites of the various government bodies that deal with the arts and cultures, the various akademis – nothing – there was nothing to help the artists during the pandemic. So I created this imaginary announcement as my wish list for the arts. Therefore I say ‘Ministry of Arts and Culture’ – which does not exist.

All these ideas are collations from my various conversations with artists during the pandemic. We did a series of listening sessions with artists, during the lockdown from IFA. They expressed their concerns and gave suggestions – many of which found a place in this piece I put together. The listening sessions were very useful for us. We did four such sessions – two for artists across the country and two specifically for our arts education teacher and artist grantees in Karnataka government schools which were held in Kannada. We prepared a report and shared it with UNESCO, because we felt that this is what artists need right now. The funding schemes that I mention here were imagined when as part of the campaign ADAA (Shubha Mudgal, Aneesh Pradhan, Rahul Vohra, Mona Irani, Sameera Iyengar and I) that raised Rs 42 lakhs for families of artists, we put these together and sent emails to all the state governments and central government.  We received three acknowledgements.

So there were financial concerns of the artists of course, but there were also concerns to do with work itself, since many did not see digitisation as an answer to everything. It affects the aesthetics of certain art forms, it affects the sustainability and the making of certain art forms. So, just saying, “Oh, no problem, just go digital!” is not an answer. The online medium itself has issues. It can only be accessed by some people and that is not just a question of financial means. It is also a question of how comfortable you are. Many of the senior artists actually said that they needed training. There were also issues with whatever existing digital platforms were there. They were not equipped to deal with all kinds of art forms.

It was also felt – and it is already happening – the arts are being deprioritised everywhere. Schools are shut and arts education is suffering since not much can happen online. Donors need to focus on relief and other aid, and the arts which even during normal time are much lower on the list of vital things that must be supported, have now gone totally off the list. So from small families to large corporate houses funding or providing resources and time for the arts would become a big question mark. The uncertainty is also killing us because we do not actually know when any of this is going to go back to normal, or at least feel like a new normal that everyone has been talking about.

I have been asked to suggest what we should be doing – as institutions, as support bodies for the arts – what should be our priorities in the post pandemic world. I am sure it is possible to frame a larger policy and strategy for various parts of the country and various kinds of people in the arts by connecting with them, analysing their needs and aspirations and figuring out what each institution could do given their own core competencies, expertise and resources. I would say as the India Foundation for the Arts, our first priority remains to support artists financially through these difficult times and later so that they can continue to do their work. We will inherit a very hybrid world of the online and offline. Artists will continue to need funds to figure out how to make the most of their art in these new and changed circumstances. The work will also need space for being presented and showcased in more innovative and creative ways. All that would also need support.

I believe we will also need to make the money go further – smaller grants and support to many more artists would be a more equitable strategy. IFA completed 25 years of supporting the arts this year and to mark that and the 25 years of the internet in India we did a small grants programme called 25 x 25. Here grants of Rs 25,000 were given to 25 artists for their projects on the internet. But we must also think of the artists who fall outside the digital footprints.

There are many skill building workshops that are required for learning how to monetise online work of artists. Many people have been providing content for free online, their artistic work has been out there, but how do artists make a living from it? How do we ensure there is an income from this – either through ticketing or sponsorships? I also think arts education in the online space has to be prioritised. It requires a lot of effort in terms of research, and then formulating workshops that can make people feel comfortable to use the techniques.

There are of course the age-old problems that continue to plague the sector. I know some of my friends have been pushing different state governments and the centre government for pension and retirement benefits for artists who really come from vulnerable backgrounds. This pandemic has taught us how fragile and broken our public health system is. Most artists in India are freelancers, daily wage earners, who normally don’t have savings. They work from one project to another. They require medical insurance and a safety net when it comes to health. That is something that we have to seriously think about putting our minds together.

And finally, we have been talking about this for a long time now, building databases of artists and figuring out who needs what kind of help is crucial. This will enable us to strengthen the arts infrastructures and the ecology within which the arts and artists can thrive.

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