I don’t have any research to back this up but I do have a toddler…..

This month I attended an event at the University of Toronto called: Securing the future: Reimagining public spaces, opportunities, and supports for creative arts in a post-pandemic world

This two hour presentation and discussion explored some of systemic barriers that freelance artists face and how the pandemic amplified this inherent precarity, as well as a vision for the future. The event featured Melissa Wong, Director of Programmes, Arts Emergency; and Gareth Dylan Smith, Assistant Professor of Music, Music Education, Boston University; with Discussant Ely Lyonblum, Strategic Research Development Officer, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto.

There were a number of themes that emerged from this session that stood out for me related to collaboration, resource sharing and the fear of getting it wrong. 

During the Covid 19 lockdowns artists collaborated more because they were all working towards a common goal: surviving. Informal support systems and grassroot movement sprang up resulting in strong artist networks. This resulted in more support and resources sharing between artists and organisations. 

Covid 19 also allowed for a brief moment where artists and organisations had an opportunity to get things wrong. A rare opportunity in the arts sector to experience and focus on process and experimentation versus product.  

However…. Where are we now?  Are we any further along in addressing these challenges?

Then it occurred to me. I have a toddler and these themes come up on a daily basis. 

Working together to solve conflicts or collaborating, sharing and being ok with getting something wrong and then trying again. These are (as far as I know) very basic lessons all young children need to learn.  

When Julius doesn’t want to do something but we need him too, we talk about it, work together and compromise. It may still lead to a total meltdown but we keep trying to ingrain this idea of being a team and working together. 

Sharing is an obvious one.  Lucky for us Julius is very good at sharing. If he has some crackers and he sees someone in the room doesn’t, he’ll make sure they get one (sometimes maybe a bit too forcefully).

Getting things wrong and being able to try again. It is expected that children need to practise, nothing is perfect the first time, they fall and get up and fall and get up. Julius can get so upset when he doesn’t get it “right” all the time. We are constantly telling him to be kind to himself and that it’s ok and he can just keep trying. And he does. If he slips on the very last step, he says “try again” and he has to start over from the very beginning. 

Why is it that this is so basic and fundamental in the development of children and yet… is it so radical for us to adapt in the creative sector?  

These concerns that artists are talking about aren’t new to Covid.  These are things I’ve experienced in my time as an artist and arts manager and have heard others say over and over again. Why can’t we figure this one out?

In Melissa Wong’s presentation she talked about the scarcity mindset. We are an industry of  trying to survive on scraps.  This leads to isolation, drives artists and organisations to hoard whatever resources we have and creates anxiety around being perfect because we can’t afford to lose a single dollar attempting anything new or innovative.

Let’s think about this in the context of a toddler room at any daycare. We have 10 children. Only 5 bowls of the beloved goldfish crackers. The workers give 3 bowls to one child and 2 bowls to another child. They tell the rest of the children to go sit by themselves and figure out how to get some crackers.  On top of that they only have one chance to get it right or they won’t get any crackers at all… maybe ever. 

We wouldn’t treat children that way but we often treat the arts that way.  We appear to be working within a set of systems based on survival of the fittest, where the ‘sword of damocles’ is hovering over everyone’s head.  On top of that we reinforce artists dependency on the few but vital dollars available through public funding agencies. 

For me this begs the questions – How can we ask our young people to embrace collaboration, sharing or learning/exploring as values when we cannot seem to model it for them in our society. What can we do with what we learned throughout the pandemic to empower the arts and move it to a more sustainable future? How do we stop just talking about it and actually do it? 

I don’t have those answers. However, I do believe our greatest resource as a sector is our audiences and more to the point investing in the future generations, our future advocates and audiences. We might benefit from thinking less about what will serve us best tomorrow and start thinking about what will serve the arts community best in 10, 20, 30, 50 years. If we as arts workers really care about the impact of the arts and investing in communities, I believe we need to start thinking about how we get there together and how we can inspire the broader non-arts community to come with us.