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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Everyday Creativity: Why the Arts need to Rethink What Matters

Global public health expert Michael Marmot warned recently that the pandemic will make health inequalities worse. If this is the case, then how can we ensure that the arts become part of the solution? The 2017 Creative Health report outlined the extensive range of ways in which the arts supports health outcomes, yet the report conceded that only a “small modicum” of the potential contribution of the arts is currently being realised. So why are we failing to grasp the full potential of the arts in contributing to good health?

The WHO Health Evidence Network’s first Scoping Review on Arts, Health and Wellbeing synthesized evidence from over 3,000 studies. It identified “a major role for the arts in the prevention of ill health, promotion of health, and management and treatment of illness across the lifespan”.  

But, despite progress, the fundamental processes underpinning the relationship between the arts and health are not yet well understood. Moreover, narrow, and often circular, definitions of the ‘arts’, limit awareness of their potential in this sphere, and often reinforce democratic deficits in access to publicly funded culture.

Yet the pandemic appears to have transcended this, as we see everyday creativity being played out in real time. Thousands of people have developed and showcased their creative skills in a huge variety of symbolic and productive forms, helping themselves through the stresses of lockdown. It’s this concept – of everyday creativity – that we need to focus on defining, in readily understandable terms.

These are extremely challenging times for the arts sector, but there are great opportunities too. If we can grasp the nettle of what David Jubb calls “fundamental structural change” and put the nurturing of creativity in people’s homes, communities and work environments at the heart of cultural policy, the rewards could be considerable.

It’s not clear what appetite there is for such a radical change, but do we know that times of great stress can lead to shifts in the paradigm. As we begin to shape an unknown ‘new normal’, we need a big debate, drawing in perspectives from across research disciplines, policymakers and wider society.

The initial goal should be to reach a shared, science-based understanding of the central importance of everyday creativity in our lives. Beyond that, we need to map out a Whole-of-Government approach, designed to place everyday creativity at the heart of a resilient, sustainable, caring society that supports, protects and nurtures the health and wellbeing of all its citizens. 

Nick Ewbank is the Chair of the ISR External Advisory Group. He runs the cultural regeneration consultancy Nick Ewbank Associates.


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Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash