Passing the Arts Test for These COVID-19 Times

Photo credits to Colin D.


This blog post was contributed by Frank F. Islam, who is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, civic leader and a member of Meridian’s Cultural Diplomacy Leadership Council. Meridian is committed to implementing the arts and culture as an instrument to promote diplomacy and global leadership and exchange.

“The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is close to the center of a nation’s purpose – and is a test to the quality of a nation’s civilization.” – John F. Kennedy

COVID-19 put the arts industry to the test in ways not experienced in living memory. The pandemic shut down virtually every museum, library and performance venue across the United States and around the world. Despite this, the artists and others in the industry have remained steadfast in their commitment to sharing their craft with the world. Here in the U.S, museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City are conducting virtual tours. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where I was on the board, is providing daily Digital Stage offerings, including National Symphony Orchestra “NSO@Home”, Couch Concerts, Family Concert and other online programming. Artists of all types, from Yo-Yo Ma’s live streaming of Bach’s classic cello suites to Garth Brooks free on-line country music concert, have taken their shows digital too.

Internationally, Lady Gaga created a Global Citizens telethon with numerous performers and guests. In Italy, Andrea Bocelli sang his Music for Hope concert on Easter Sunday, and a violinist comes out on his balcony each evening to play for his neighbors listening from their balconies. The Smithsonian Magazine reports that street artists have painted murals and graffiti art on public spaces sending messages of hope in countries such as Spain, England and India.

The artists and their associates have given of themselves to fight against COVID-19 in inspiring and creative ways. They have been met in return by an outpouring of generosity.

In the U.S., the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act provided $75 million to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to provide grants to non-profit art organizations. The NEA and many others posted blogs listing organizations for artists to contact for resources and grants during the pandemic. States, local governments, philanthropic foundations and individual citizens stepped up to the plate and provided financial assistance as well.

Many of the U.S. philanthropic foundations such as Global Giving and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy have directed emergency funds at those in vulnerable communities located around the globe. This would obviously include “struggling artists”. And, sadly there are many of them, even in the best of times.

The charitable outpouring has been significant. Unfortunately, given the magnitude of the virus and the devastating effects around the world on health care, educational and economic systems of all nations, most economists and experts now agree that the recovery will be very slow – and especially slow for those who are self-employed or gig-workers in low paying jobs.

Many artists fall into this category. How can we sustain the support artists during these transitional times and provide them with a more solid foundation going forward after the Covid-19 pandemic has ended?

Lovers of the arts should engage in what I call purposeful philanthropy. Purposeful philanthropy is making investments directed at eliminating underlying social and economic problems and improving circumstances and conditions over time.

There are many avenues that can be taken to accomplish this. Here are a few ideas:

UNESCO, the cultural agency of the United Nations, has launched the ResilArt movement. This movement “among other things will consist of a series of global virtual debates with renowned artists and draw support from the cultural world throughout the crisis.” It will also develop guidelines that can be drawn upon to improve the protection of artists in the future.

Shovana Narayan writing for the South Asia Monitor in India observes that UNESCO in 1980 issued a resolution on the status of artists, which was a statement on the need to address the social security, labor and the tax conditions of the artists. She advocates taking actions to accomplish this in response to the pandemic. Philanthropists could embrace and support governments and groups advancing this inclusionary movement.

Another thing that philanthropists could do is join together in an international interconnected philanthropic network (IIPN) to finance the development and implementation of plans to fuel the recovery after the coronavirus. One element of those plans could be a focus on artists and art organizations. While an IIPN might seem a little far-fetched, the seeds for it already exist. For example, The Co-Impact global collaborative which includes donors such as Bill and Melinda Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation is focused on “system change to improve the lives of millions by advancing education, improving people’s health and providing economic opportunity.” Artists need this type of help.

Artists also need jobs. Recognizing this, one of the proposals that I have put forward to legislators here in the United States is the creation of a Civilian Coronavirus Corps (CCC).The CCC would be similar in nature to the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration Federal Arts Project, which produced more than 18,000 works of sculpture and posters during the Great Depression. This CCC in 2020 and for the next several years, until it would not be necessary, could provide jobs that create art of all forms: architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music, film, performances and concerts in communities across this nation – and even mail art.

The need is great and the time to act is now. It is imperative for all of us who love the arts to discover our inner artist. For some, the artwork may consist of calling on your local officials to invest in the arts or perhaps its merely signing a check. For others, it may mean devoting the time and talent to finish an uncompleted painting or drawing upon a blank canvas to create innovative and collaborative ways to keep artists on the playing field.

Wherever that inner artist takes us, we will have passed the test of making a meaningful difference for those artists who are difference makers in terms of the culture of a country, the world and a civilized society.