In the first days after everything stopped, I had a series of emails and calls about work I was expecting to do over the spring and summer. Workshops, talks and projects – they all evaporated like water on hot stone. I wasn’t surprised or unduly concerned. Everyone agreed that we’d replan ‘when things get back to normal’.
Things change fast at the moment, and it was soon clear that things were not going to get back to normal in the foreseeable future. The community artists I know are stuck at home, the more fortunate employed or furloughed, the majority scrabbling to save freelance careers. This is badly paid work, often undervalued by the arts world. When large institutions with million pound grants are going bankrupt, it is hard to be optimistic about the future of community art, even if it has always been light on its feet and adaptable. But however the economics unfold, artists who work with people face a more fundamental difficulty: in a time of social distancing can community art happen at all?
The first thing to say, is that it is now greatly needed. Community art plays a vital role the social life, wellbeing, learning, empowerment and happiness of millions. Today, there are hundreds of thousands who are cut off from activities that are deeply important to them. Artists are doing what they can for some of these vulnerable people, with online and offline activities. They have drawn on deep wells of creativity, imagination and care to connect with their communities. For example, in Funchal (Madeira) Hugo Andrade and Cristina Loja of Olho.Te have created an initiative called Corações de Janela (Window Hearts). Because their longstanding work with residents of the Nazare estate could not continue, they have encouraged people to use their windows to show art work and handmade treasures and simply to connect.
This is an important, heartfelt initiative, but it cannot replace the powerful range of community art that has made Olho.te such an important part of community development in the area. And if you watch this new film from Fun Palaces – who have also been reinventing their work to reach out to people who are isolated without online access – you can’t help but see how much Fun Palaces depends on people being together, to sing, make, dance, talk and just hug.
After months of lockdown and social isolation, we deeply need the freedom and joy that such activities offer and yet we know that we must hold back, wave vague greetings at people we want to kiss, and not stand too close. I don’t know how we can we make community art in such conditions, but I’m starting to think about it, and to encourage others to do so too.
On Wednesday, I’ll chair a webinar (another learning experience!) for Emergency Exit Arts that will be an opportunity to talk about the future. If you have ideas, or are just looking for them, why not join the discussion? But don’t worry if you can’t make it – we’re going to be talking about this for some time yet.