by Greg Victor and Mitch Swain
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated the ability of artists to exhibit or sell their work, to perform in public, to hold a day job or to pay the rent.
Americans for the Arts recently released a survey of more than 11,000 creative workers across the country and found that 95 percent have lost income because of the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds said they are fully unemployed.
To slow the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Tom Wolf has issued a stay-at-home order that was relaxed in the northern part of Pennsylvania on Friday but remains in full force in the Pittsburgh region. An exception is carved out for those who work in “life-sustaining” businesses.
Art is a life-sustaining business.
It is exactly at a desperate moment like this that we most need art, and artists. We need enrichment, inspiration, comic relief and penetrating social commentary. We need to better understand who we are, what we value and what we owe one another.
Artists sustain us. We must sustain them.
Saturate the city and social media with art
The International Free Expression Project (IFEP) and Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council (GPAC) are trying to help artists survive the coronavirus crisis financially, while also lifting everyone’s spirits and letting people around the world know that Pittsburgh’s creative vitality cannot be subdued, even by a global pandemic.
We’re calling on other nonprofits, arts organizations, community groups, homeowners, shopkeepers, Downtown businesses — pretty much everybody — to display artworks in their windows and other places that are readily viewable as people walk or drive by.
For the moment, outdoor activities such as walking, running and hiking — at safe social distances — are permitted under the governor’s order and encouraged by public health officials. But we’re unable to go to galleries, museums, plays, movies or musical performances. As long as we can wander outside, though, let’s make outside as lively and rejuvenating as possible. This could be Pittsburgh’s answer to the Italians singing on their balconies.
Therefore, please display a painting in your windows, or a photograph, a sculpture, a poster, a poem or a performance video. Display something created by a professional, or by you, a friend or some kids you know. Give your porch over to an artist, say “go,” and see what happens. Hang something colorful on a tree. Display something that’s meaningful to you. Or whimsical. Use your imagination.
Take photos of your displays and post them on your social media platforms. Direct people to the website or social media accounts of the artists whose work you’re featuring. Ask people to share your posts (#covidart, #windowart).
If you are a local artist who would like to display your original work, please send images to the Free Expression Project or the Arts Council. We can post some of them online. Or ask someone you know with a nice big window.
Donate to artists in need
The Arts Council operates an Emergency Fund for Artists that provides up to $500 to help artists pay their bills during times of economic stress. It has launched a special fundraising campaign in response to the COVID crisis. The council so far has raised around $200,000 and funded 300 artists of the 400 who have applied for help. It’s looking to raise another $50,000. Please contribute at pittsburghartscouncil.org.
The International Free Expression Project has donated $10,000 to GPAC’s emergency fund and launched its own fundraising campaign. Proceeds will go to GPAC’s emergency fund and IFEP exhibition costs. Please contribute here.
IFEP, dedicated to building public support around the world for free expression, is helping artists during the COVID crisis because one of its core initiatives is to support artists morally and materially by commissioning and exhibiting their work. (The other initiatives are to erect an iconic work of public art, to create a “Marketplace of Ideas” in the former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pressroom and to invent interactive educational tools.)
Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban has pointed out that how businesses respond to the coronavirus pandemic will “define their brands for decades.”
The same is true of cities. Were they prepared? Did their elected officials work across party lines? Did they help their most vulnerable citizens? Did they even find ways to thrive?
Pittsburgh — let’s thrive, virus or no virus.
Our city is renowned for the depth and breadth of its cultural life. That means it has a soul. But it’s not only a spiritual matter; it’s a matter of cold-eyed economics.
According to GPAC’s latest survey, arts and culture in southwestern Pennsylvania in 2017 generated 32,000 full-time job equivalents, $641 million in income and $115 million in local and state taxes. Cultural experiences were rated as “very influential” in the choice of Pittsburgh as a destination by 45% of tourists surveyed. And study after study has shown that cities and their businesses find it easier to attract and retain talented millennials and members of the “creative class” if they have vibrant cultural scenes.
Perhaps Pittsburgh, once known as the City of Steel, could become known as the City of Artists by the end of the COVID crisis.
COVID-19 is circling the globe — spreading death, misery and fear. It is wiping out jobs and livelihoods. It is driving us indoors and into isolation. So let’s get outside as much as we can. And let’s spread art all over the place to make outside as uplifting as we can.
COVID-19 is claiming so many lives in so many ways. Let’s not allow it to claim one of the things that makes life worth living.
Art is a life-sustaining business.
Greg Victor is founder and executive director of the International Free Expression Project (firstname.lastname@example.org). Mitch Swain is CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council (pittsburghartscouncil.org/email).