In 1767 in Vienna, while touring Europe exhibiting his musical skills together with his siblings, the 11-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was struck by smallpox. Like other victims, the risk he ran of dying was significant. Three years earlier, his father Leopold had decided against inoculating his children against the disease.
As narrated by the biographer Ruth Halliwell, Leopold did not trust contemporary pratice whereby potential sufferers were administered small amounts of the virus in rudimentary ways.
Instead, once his son was struck, he applied pulvis epilepticus niger, a common remedy at the time applied to a variety of illnesses consisting, among others, of amber, coral and aloe together with crushed ivory and mother-of-pearl. Most of all, he trusted in God’s better judgement, believing that if He were to favour his son’s genius, he would survive. The harrowing experience also led him to recommend the foundation of a public fund for artists facing similar circumstances.
Creatives who have physically survived widespread contagion, such as COVID-19, have lost much else. Among these are friends and colleagues within their networks, opportunities for work, movement and travel, financial resources and the general serenity and peace of mind accruing from systems of practice and cultural ecologies they had paintstakingly built over the years through no small amount of personal and professional sacrifice.
The situation has been made more difficult for individuals and collectives since many national institutions have also been hit hard due to falling audience numbers and funding. UNESCO reported that up to 75 per cent of World Heritage sites have closed while the Network for European Museum Organisations highlighted how more than 90 per cent of cultural and historical spaces in Europe have had to take drastic measures like shutting down or furloughing staff.
In Europe, many have taken action to help artists and other practitioners in the cultural field get through this tough time. In Germany the federal government delivered a €50 billion bailout package for freelancers and small businesses including artists. Single grants of up to €9,000 available to self-employed artists and businesses with up to five employees, and larger €15,000 grants available to businesses with up to 10 employees, have already started being transferred to thousands of applicants.
In Malta, the film-making sector lobbied hard to secure a degree of state support, while Arts Council Malta stepped in by re-channelling funding for the arts with a Special Fund 2020 capped at €7,500 per grant.
Should recent and, unfortunately, still prevalent practices that prioritise short-term economic and financial gain continue... our collective trying experience will have taught us little in terms of progress
Other intiatives have looked at the opportunities that may lie within these challenges. In a Euromed context, the Anna Lindh Foundation for cultural collaboration launched a call for proposals aiming at nurturing renewed cooperation as from 2020.
Still within our region and just next door, the Tunisian Arts Alliance Advocacy Group issued a series of recommendations to decision makers in the fields of economics and politics to rethink policy and funding mechanisms with culture in mind.
It sets out six priority areas to be paid special attention. First, it calls on state authorities to support and enable a digital transition for the management of public and private arts stakeholders, principally by providing training.
Second, it recommends simplification. As in the case of Malta, while due diligence is required, treating not-for-profit organisations the same as large enterprises at a time like this is counterproductive to the recovery of the sector.
Third, it advocates the constant upgrading of IT infrastructure and the skills that need to go with its administration.
Fourth, it proposes the development of new and innovative programming to tackle stagnation and overkill.
Fifth, it advances the use of electronic platforms that cut across genre and industry to seek new audiences and income streams.
Sixth, it recommends flexibility and long-sightedness to embrace rapidly shifting scenarios.
Many online plaftorms are holding inspiring discussions that reflect similar points of view. Such conversations suggest a global diversity of experience as well as a convergence of efforts towards seeking the best ways forward. Locally-led endeavours have been rapidly active, such as those initiated by ARC Research Consultancy for the Arts Council Malta Labs, Culture Venture and the Meetings of Minds series by Experience Design.
The creative sector has long been underestimated in terms of its contribution to the wellbeing of our country. Should recent and, unfortunately, still prevalent practices that prioritise short-term economic and financial gain continue, particularly those of a rentier kind that add little knowledge and innovative value to the products and services generated as in tourism and heritage, our collective trying experience will have taught us little in terms of progress.
As argued by Italian poet Pier Paolo Pasolini in witnessing the gradual unravelling of his country’s post-war social and cultural fabric, not all development is progress and not all progress is development. Now would be a good time for people with vision to express that clearly, and people with ears to listen.
Karsten Xuereb, Lecturer in cultural relations at the University of Malta
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