COVID Creativity: new possibilities or a fresh challenge?

When Arts Council England launched its 10-year strategy in January, no-one could have guessed what was just around the corner.

‘Let’s Create’ is a strategy full of hope; about opening up opportunities, developing shared experiences and recognising the creative potential in each of us.

COVID-19 has challenged us all, on a professional and personal level. Cultural institutions have been in a state of flux: open, shut, welcoming, hibernating.  At times it’s been a battle just to exist and sustain, never mind create and engage.

Now, there is a vaccine on the horizon, and with that comes the hope of everyday life resuming. So what effect will the pandemic have had on the vision set out in Let’s Create?

At its core Let’s Create is a holistic strategy. It is based on the principle that the best way to build a creative and cultural country is to do it with, rather than for, its people.

As the pandemic unfolded and the UK went into lockdown, personal artistic endeavour did flourish for many. Whether it was brought on by the gift of free time, a search for meaning, or a need to come together. We saw zoom choirs, painted rainbows, and stories and songs from young and old. Culture and creativity gave hope, an escape, and a lens through which to try and understand a rapidly changing world.

Research and experience have long shown that creative activity can reduce loneliness, help physical and mental wellbeing, and build community.

So will the pandemic have stirred a lasting interest in the arts? Or will society shuffle back into the usual ebb and flow and consign ‘COVID creativity’ to a historical footnote?

Time will tell, but there are undoubted opportunities for arts organisations to engage with new audiences and new artists, maintaining the momentum of this popular rediscovery of personal creative practice.  Let’s Create could play a significant role here.

Of course creativity and the arts don’t exist in a vacuum, and as we emerge from the pandemic it will be against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, struggling towns and cities, and increased unemployment. As is too often the case, in a crisis it is the disadvantaged and vulnerable who suffer the most, and this will amplify the challenges we face in reaching all those with whom we seek to engage.

As Let’s Create outlines, the cultural sector will only ever be as strong as the talent on which it is built. Even before COVID many creative practitioners and cultural workers, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, D/deaf or disabled people, and those from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, struggled to sustain financially viable careers. We must hope this pool of talent we benefited so much from pre-pandemic, will still be in a position to collaborate with us when the dust has settled. We must do all we can to support them.

As we look to the future there is much to reflect on and learn. At Bluecoat we have long been committed to opening up possibilities for visitors, audiences, artists and practitioners of all kinds. Our vision for the next ten years is to shift our focus and invite the public into the artistic process. The post-pandemic climate will undoubtedly deliver challenges, but we’ll be looking to harness the wave of personal creativity and translate that into new audiences that are active and engaged.

MARY CLOAKE is CEO of the Bluecoat Liverpool and a member of the ISR External Advisory Board.

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