Clare Harris (SCAN): 'Those in power on our shores must commit fully to art now and for the future'

Clare Harris (SCAN): 'Those in power on our shores must commit fully to art now and for the future'

credit: Rob McDougall

Scottish Contemporary Art Network (SCAN) director responds to the effects of COVID-19 on the art community and the government announcement of grants for self-employed workers

With each call and email that I've received over the last two weeks, my stomach has flipped and my heart has sunk as I hear of another potential closure, another job under threat, another income source gone – completely. All of our members, whether they are artists, freelance workers, those who run our amazing venues and organisations as well as those who work for them, have been affected on a personal and a professional level.

Since I started at SCAN a year ago, most of my work has been in advocating for a high-performing and world-renowned creative community which is under huge financial strain. A survey that SCAN undertook on behalf of Creative Scotland for the Visual Arts Review (2016) revealed that the average total income of all respondents was £17,526, dropping to £14,933 for those who were self-employed, the majority of whom are artists. Since that time, repeated cuts and standstill funding on both national and local levels had left many of our contemporary visual art spaces on their knees, worried about how they'd face the future.

Then the coronavirus hit.

The impact has been immediate. People can't work. Studios are closed; organisations are grappling with how to stay afloat whilst furloughing staff. Festivals have been cancelled or postponed – meaning artists, technicians, curators, invigilators and many more have suddenly got a gaping gap in their schedules and their bank balance. Venues and galleries that depend on box office or sales are struggling to see past the next few months. In a sector that was already, as one member put it, 'hand to mouth', there was no resilience.

We welcome the government announcement on Thursday of grants for self-employed workers, which has followed similar commitments to support businesses. But there are still so many cracks to fall into. How will those affected pay for food while they wait for self-employed grants to be paid in June? What about those who don't fit government criteria?

Today, Creative Scotland are set to announce details of a new bridging bursary fund, as well as a repurposed Open Project fund, that will help respond to the challenges that the coronavirus has created. Smaller funds are also opening to help get food on tables while people wait for government assistance to come.

These are basic human needs that our governments, public and grassroots sectors are working at lightning speed to try and accommodate. But there is a longer-term issue, too; that of how we keep our unique visual art community alive. It's not just about sticking up for our own. Culture – and within it, art – is part of being human. As we showed during last year's Art in Action campaign, art is a binding agent, a creator of free space, a spark for new ideas and new ways of working that all of us can benefit from. Its power was recognised in the Scottish Government's own Culture Strategy for Scotland, which landed just three days before Scotland's first coronavirus case was confirmed. Even here, in my own self-isolation, my kids default to art as a way to express themselves in this new and scary world. It's not quite Venice Biennale standard, but my fridge door has never been more full. These are future artists – future thinkers, and future world leaders. They need a vibrant cultural community to grow into; and that's the next challenge.

Let's not let the UK or the Scottish Government off the hook. The German government recently announced a massive €50 billion to keeping culture going, in recognition of its unique pressures and the vital role that artists play in all our lives. Those in power on our shores must follow suit and commit fully to art now and for the future – whatever that may hold.

For updates via the Scottish Contemporary Art Network, visit sca-net.org.

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