Making Art When Nothing Seems to Matter

Written by Diane Williams

On March 19, 2020 California governor, Gavin Newsom issued the “Safer at Home” emergency order that calls for all residents in the state of California to isolate at home and limit any activities outside beyond what is considered an essential task. As the Covid-19 virus continuous to spread across the nation, the economy takes an abysmal plunge, politicians continue their squabbling, fueling fear and anxiety that devastate many Americans whose lives are disrupted and put on hold.

In times of great stress and uncertainty, people are going back to the basics as a mechanism for survival. For many, it’s performing different practices of creativity: painting, drawing, crafts, music, cooking, farming, film, writing, dancing and poetry. They are finding the significance of what creativity can provide while isolating in their own homes. Art offers hope and resolute in a society that is undergoing hardships. For many, they are discovering that art is a form of human intelligence. It has the power to affect others and unlocks barriers of critical thought.

PERSIST, photo by Diane Williams. Taken on the 110 FWY in Los Angeles, Ca. 2017

The measures that were stipulated due to the coronavirus have had devastating economic implications on artists and art organizations. The majority of artists are self-employed and work in the gig economy and these are the jobs that are most impacted by the pandemic. This emphatic tragedy leaves the artists ineligible to receive unemployment and unable to afford healthcare during a viral contagion.

The dominant economic model before the Covid-19 pandemic was not working for the majority of the population. The income inequality in the United States is polarized between the richest one percent of the populace that holds the most wealth and the bottom ninety nine percent. Neoliberalism, the model that created this income gap between the haves and the have-nots rewards those who are already wealthy, while the low income communities cannot access the same opportunities nor advance their socioeconomic status. It wasn’t a surprise that the Republican Party was swift in creating a $2 trillion federal aid package that rewards the corporate elites, while providing meager resources for the majority of Americans to sustain the economic devastations of the pandemic. Former Republican governor of South Carolina and former United States ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley said that the emergency relief for the arts doesn’t help people. In her tweet on March 26, 2020, Haley criticized the portion of the stimulus package that included funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Public Broadcasting, and the Kennedy Center. This conservative attack on the arts isn’t new but many artists and cultural workers during these times of hardships rely on this miniscule emergency fund, which is astronomically disproportionate to what the private business sectors are receiving. In fact, creative and cultural industries add to the global economic growth and development. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics, conducted research studies from 2015 to 2016 on cultural employment figures. This methodological survey substantiated the financial and cultural contributions of the arts and creative sectors in our global economy by providing quantitative employment data in these industries. Occupations in cultural sectors contribute to job creation and generate financial and material welfare for folks who work in the creative economy.

Nikki Haley, screen capture from 3/26/2020 Twitter post

Many people are wondering what kind of “normalcy” they will have to go back to post-social isolation. Will my favorite restaurant or mom and popshop sustain the blow to our economy? What will happen to the art institutions including art schools with pedagogy that are based on the dominant economic model? How do we protect the arts and the creative economy?

The art sector is at dire risk of losing funding and key philanthropy. Many galleries, museums that depend on ticket sales, art schools and art publications that rely on advertisements are not going to endure. Although institutions could collect millions of endowments, they are still slashing their staff during this crisis.

With over $1billion in endowments, New York MoMA laid off all eighty-five of its freelance education workers. The Hammer Museum laid off 150 part-time workers, Los Angeles MoCA furloughed nearly all of the museum’s staff, San Francisco MoMA furloughed more than 300 staff members, MASS MoCA laid off 120 of its 165 employees, the Met has announced widespread layoffs. MoMA PS1 and the Broad will downsize more than 170 Total Employees. Museum of Fine Arts Boston has furloughed more than 300 staff members. After 19 years of operation, the Indianapolis Contemporary (I/C), formerly known as the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, has announced plans to close permanently. The 150 year-old San Francisco Art Institute announced that they would not reopen.

Cultural workers are amongst the people who are greatly affected by this economic setback with very limited options available to them when things get back to “normal.” How can artists and cultural workers help restructure the system so it’s more sustainable? How can we learn from this crisis in order to streamline the manner that art is produced and how artistic production is disseminated in a way that is viable for institutions as well as the people who work in these creative sectors?

We must maintain the creative economy and support the people that fuel them in order for them to continue making work. We need art now more than ever and urge our city leaders to partner with other levels in government, philanthropies and private sectors to invest in funding to keep arts and culture alive.

Artists have big, revolutionary and visionary ideas. They are cultural workers who have a way into moving people to action, creating significant political and social contributions. Artists Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Dan Flavin, Martha Rosler, the Chicano collective Asco among others, responded to the Vietnam War in the 1970’s and continued through the 1980’s. Their works of political and social activism questioned the disasters of the past that are prodigious reminders that we as a culture need art to overcome current strife. After the 911 terrorist attacks in New York City, there was a decline in international visitors. It took a few years before tourism in NYC reached pre-911 figures, a confirmation that the economy will bounce back and so will the art.

Leon Golub’s “Vietnam II,” 1973, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Credit…The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Tate, London; Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

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