Culture Under Quarantine I
Culture Under Quarantine: End of an Era vs New Beginnings by Kitty Dinshaw
Six months ago, even imagining what culture would look like in an age of quarantine would have been unthinkable. Yet here we are, living our best locked-down lives, and receptive to more cultural interventions than ever before. Just thirty years ago, it would have been a very dark time indeed if theatres, concert venues, art galleries, and bookshops had all closed. It would have felt like an ending, rather than a beginning.
Now, thanks to technology, it’s a different story, and it does feel like a beginning. Tech feeds our need to engage our brains, to be socially active. Culture, in all its many forms, has utilised technology to fill a void, to satiate our appetite for the new, to interest us and distract us from our isolation. Netflix traffic has hit all-time highs and there is suddenly a buzz around something as bizarre as virtual museum visits. The internet is full of ways we can scratch our own creative itch and suddenly become artists ourselves. Offline, book sales are soaring. In the week before the UK went into lockdown, fiction sales were up by a third. Hilary Mantel’s lengthy Tudor trilogy was Waterstones’ bestseller, as suddenly readers realised they would have time to tackle a 900 page novel (or three). Our homes are filled with National Theatre productions on YouTube, gallery shows on Instagram, books we’ve always intended to read, “At Home” playlists on music streaming services.
It may seem like culture, in all its many forms, is having a high point. But, as always, there is a tension. Think of the precariousness of the lives of artists, playwrights, or musicians. If they make money from their creative practice then that has almost certainly completely dried up. Suddenly long-awaited gallery shows have been cancelled. Theatres have shut. No-one is in a music studio, or if they are, they are breaking the law. That second job as gallery technician, lighting engineer or barista won’t be yielding much, especially if it is freelance or zero hours. As a sign of how serious the situation is, the Arts Council has had to step in with £160m of emergency funding for both institutions and practitioners.
It’s an impossible and heartbreaking situation for many people. We, as consumers of culture, can also step up in this moment. We can’t replace the income lost when a theatre run is suddenly cancelled, but we can try, where possible, to support artist-led initiatives. It will be easier in some areas of the arts than others, but we can only do our best.
The Artist Support Pledge, for visual artists, is a great example of this. Instigated by artist Matthew Burrows, it relies on the honesty and generosity of the artist community, which is manifold. Artists post their work on Instagram using the hashtag #artistsupportpledge. Each artwork is £200 or less, and when an artist makes £1000 worth of sales, they commit to buy an artwork from another artist for £200. Artists at whatever stage in their career can be involved and it is a brilliant way for artists to at least recoup some of the financial outlay they will have lost when shows, open studios or collector visits got cancelled.
The big question now is this: what will culture look like at the end of 2020? How long will it take creative practitioners and smaller creative enterprises to recover from a loss of income or even a large debt? Which institutions and creative businesses will embrace the change that has been forced on them, and which will race back to their fortified, austere citadels?
We can already see some clues in how institutions are positioning themselves. Some have always existed beyond the white wall of the gallery. Tate Director Maria Balshaw believes that Tate has a role to play in helping parents create a better learning environment for their children during the Covid-19 crisis, unsurprising when Tate is already one of the most family-focused art institutions in the country. Hans Ulrich-Obrist, Director of the Serpentine Gallery, has called for a national art project, for museums “to think about how they can go beyond their walls and reach everyone”. This would be a new paradigm for some museums, leaning heavily on their middle-aged, middle-class audience, and I’m sure they could rise to the challenge.
Education and experimentation are key right now: for institutions, creative businesses and practitioners. We, as consumers of culture, are in a unique position to benefit from this.
Many museums and galleries are throwing open their collections, getting to grips with VR, and educating their audience in a new way. There is suddenly a wealth of online courses available, from DIY initiatives designed in bedrooms and marketed on Instagram, to those offered by MoMA, for example. Businesses and brands have the time to consider what they want to put out there into the world. Most businesses with a genuine intention want to help their followers and clients, and to bring some joy and interest to their lives.
An austere façade dissolves pretty swiftly on social media. The Getty Institute’s Twitter campaign encourages its followers to recreate famous works of art from the collection using items they have in their home. This form of cultural experimentation, of playfulness even, doesn’t just bring the institution closer to the viewer, but also to the artists whose work they show. Experimentation is simply a part of being an artist and it is interesting to live through a moment where otherwise formal museums and art galleries are taking on that same need for experimentation.
At the moment, we can enjoy having the time and the leisure to really immerse ourselves in something new: to discover a new artist or watch a play we otherwise wouldn’t have the time or money to see. How our cultural landscape will look at the end of 2020 is anyone’s guess; it will be heavily dependent on a number of factors. Chiefly, whether creative practitioners are able to support themselves and their work through this time and out the other side, and whether institutions truly embrace the altered existence that they are currently living through. What we can be pretty sure about, however, is that there will be paradigm shifts, and, as in so many things, we won’t be returning to our pre-Covid days anytime soon.
- Kitty Dinshaw is Co-Founder and Co-Curator of Subject Matter Art, an online art gallery and platform for emerging artists. Kitty is also a founding member of the Citizens of Hope network supporting artisans, investors and social entrepreneurs.
- ‘Culture Under Quarantine’ is a series that will appear in Citizens of Hope Magazine out 3rd May 2020