Art, artists and the pandemic. Insights from Lisbon-based creative workers

Between December 2021 and January 2022, Clube Intercultural Europeu carried out a series of focus groups with local artists and community members. Inquiries were made to better understand how the Covid-19 pandemic affected the lives and work of the artists and how art can help people to cope with highly stressful situations (such as lock-downs and precarity), fostering resilience during turbulent times. This was part of preliminary research meant to ensure that the Come2Art training curriculum for artists fits the actual needs and worries of the populations involved in the project. In this article we will discuss some of the issues that emerged during the meetings, such as the effects of the pandemic on the creative sector, the digitalization of arts and artists’ involvement in society.

A great part of the debate in the artist focus group focused on the effects of pandemic on the people working in the creative industry. Like in other sectors, they noticed a polarization between renowned artists and young ones who are still making their way in the field. The former’s visibility grew even during the pandemic, thanks to the media. Among the latter, virtually all the artists who worked offline (mainly musicians and actors) had to cancel all their activities overnight. Many had to rely on other jobs or integrate other sources of income to survive.

Financial problems aside, when physical contact was prohibited, artists had to find ways to reinvent themselves and carry on their creative work. “Going digital” has been a common choice among the professionals. Within a few months, the public could live online experiences that before the pandemic could only be experienced in person: exhibitions, concerts, theater performances became accessible within the square space of our digital devices.

Digitalization allowed artists to continue creating and the public to keep enjoying creative content. As emerged from our focus group with our community in Lisbon, art in its broadest sense (visual art, cinema, literature, music…) helped people cope with the stress caused by the lock-downs, providing an outlet from an unnatural and harmfulsituation. This confirms the artists’ assertion that art is a crucial for mental health.

However, the digitalization of the creative sector has not been embraced without criticism. On the one hand, many artists remarked that most of the creative online content is free and the public is not used to pay for digital content as it would for an “offline” event. As a consequence, many artists found it harder to make a profit from digital content-creation, not to mention that going digital requires a set of specific skills and competences that cannot be taken for granted – and not all artists have the possibility to train in this field.

On the other hand, artists lament that, by going digital, most of the material and bodily experience connected to art consumption is inevitably lost. They claimed that we do not have to lose sight that art is fundamentally a multi-sensorial experience. “Theater is in the boards”, one of the participants remarked, “there can be no theater online” — meaning that digitalization is not the creation of the same work in a different environment, but a totally different endeavor. “The lack of art is not what affected me the most”, another participant provocatively said, “but the lack of affection. Art is what connects us with others, and this role of art is disappearing.”

Given these premises, how can we return to art its fundamental role of connecting people and its material and multisensorial nature, while  comabtting artists’ precarity?

Participants responded that professionals in the creative sector should begin (or resume) to practice art in their local surroundings. Not only can the involvement with local communities restore the crucial function of art, which is creating empathy and transforming society. It can also give new work possibilities for artists, who would be able to place their competencies at the disposal of the people most in need – welcoming new, exciting creative challenges. “The most important thing is not the result, but the process”, one of our interviewees said. It is in the very creative process that people (re)discover themselves and find new ways for expressing themselves, finding their own voice and making it heard publicly. In this way, art becomes a means for empowerment and social emancipation.

Covid-19 posed several challenges to a lot of professionals in the creative sector. These obstacles made them reinvent their work, finding new ways in which the public could have access to artistic content and take advantage of the several benefits that art can provide to all of us. However, the pandemic also increased artists’ precarity and undermined the dignity of the creative workers. Now that we are gradually finding a way out of the pandemic, it is time to cherish the lessons learned during the last two years, while at the same time to recover the closeness between artists and local communities.