A COVID-19 safety net for Arab artists

BEIRUT: Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has tossed the jigsaw puzzle of contemporary life in the air, the fragility of the Arab world’s art institutions has never been more evident.

Their frailty ought not be surprising. Crises of various kinds have smoldered in the terrain for decades, helping condition regimes’ priorities. While states elsewhere in the world have somehow retained arts councils with solvent, frequently disinterested, funding mechanisms, such infrastructure is scarce in the MENA region.

In lieu of public sector arts funding, most artists without independent means fall back on a handful of regional arts funding organizations. Among the largest of these are the Beirut-based Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), launched in 2007, and Al-Mawred al-Thaqafy (Culture Resource), founded in 2003. Both have been responsive to the present danger facing the art sector -- recently launching their joint Solidarity Fund for Arts and Culture Structures in Lebanon.

In addition to this institutional fund, and scheduled programs in place before the pandemic, Al-Mawred and AFAC have both launched, and are in the midst of finalizing, their own initiatives for abruptly unemployed MENA artists.

“The day we announced the solidarity fund,” Helena Nassif, Al-Mawred’s managing director, told The Daily Star, “we also launched an additional component to the ‘Stand For Art’ program.”

“Stand For Art” was developed in 2016 to support at-risk artists in the region’s more troubled countries.

“We provide emergency funds as well as support for artists to move to a safe nearby city and link them to the community there, like a residency,” she said. “At the start of the COVID-19 lockdowns we received a lot of applications from artists who were either stuck somewhere and couldn’t get home, or else lost contracts that were their means of income.

“There are no systems to service those working in the informal or gig economy who aren’t syndicate members,” Nassif noted. “Tunis provides for its artists, but the situation is very different in Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon.

“We did an assessment to identify the most precarious artists, cultural actors and technicians. We secured special funding for this component [through] the end of 2020.”

“Stand For Art” is one of Al-Mawred’s two year-round funds. The other is “Wijhat” (Destinations), an international mobility fund for artists and cultural activists that offers 25 to 30 grants per year, each up to $8,000, to support travel that facilitates artists’ presenting their work.

Nassif says that its flagship program, “Abbara,” is devoted to institutional support. Since its launch in 2011, Al-Mawred has worked with 66 institutions, of which 47 are still operative.

“Compared to the private sector,” Nassif remarked, “that’s a high success rate.”

A new initiative, to be unveiled this summer, will see Al-Mawred enter a consortium with three other regional and international organizations, greatly extending its regional reach.

While public sector funding for cultural production is slim in the MENA, Al-Mawred and AFAC aren’t quite alone in supporting the region’s art sector.

Significant supranational funds have emerged from the Gulf petro-economies. While the cultural policies of the boutique states have been capricious at times, both the Sharjah Art Foundation and the Doha Film Institute have built significant legacies that include funding and incubation platforms for artists and filmmakers in the MENA region.

SAF, which opened an ambitious array of exhibitions in March, just as the region was moving toward lockdown, has assembled a useful international directory of existing resources for artists and filmmakers. The foundation has not announced any emergency funding initiatives, but neither has it halted its scheduled production grants for artists and filmmakers. In disrupted times, such continuity is important.

On May 19, SAF awarded its biannual Production Program grants to 10 artists selected from an international open call. It disbursed a total of $200,000 of core funding and professional support for projects from Palestine, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Turkey, Pakistan and Libya.

A few days before these awards were announced, submission deadlines closed for two of SAF’s other initiatives -- “Vantage Point Sharjah 8,” open to local and international photographers, and Sharjah Film Platform (Nov.14-21, 2020), which includes a competitive film program, professional workshops and a short film production grant.

Also scheduled for March, Qumra, DFI’s incubation platform for emerging filmmakers, had to be quickly retooled as an online event.

The institute provides creative and financial assistance to short and feature-length film projects (in development, production and postproduction), by Qatari and international first- and second-time directors, as well as established MENA directors. The institute also has dedicated grants for television and web series (fiction and creative nonfiction) by MENA scriptwriters and directors. (The application window for DFI’s next cycle of grants is June 23 to July 7.)

Saudi Arabia had planned to launch its ambitious Red Sea Film Festival last March in Jeddah, and it too was forced to shutter. Soon afterward the festival did announce it would disburse monies to the kingdom’s filmmakers.

Among the more high-profile cultural initiatives to emerge from the peninsula is Art Jameel, an independent, family-based philanthropy that in late 2018 launched the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai.

Supplementing Jameel Arts’ exhibition schedule and public events calendar is an ambitious program of grants for MENA-based artists and writers.

The center has responded to COVID-19 with two application streams -- the Commissions program and the Research and Practice Platform. Originally the program had issued an open call to drawing and painting projects for 2020. That’s now been bumped up to 2021-2022, while the 2020 commission has been thrown open to “Digital” art, with applicants evidently free to interpret that term as they choose.

Jameel Arts’ Research and Practice Platform targets independent MENA-based artists whose work contracts have been disrupted by cancellations and postponements. “The platform’s micro-fees will further the development of ongoing and upcoming research and projects over the coming months.” (The application deadline is June 7)

Jameel Arts director Antonia Carver told The Daily Star the platform had so far received “around 400 applications, many from Lebanon and Egypt but also geographies that maybe get a little overlooked or are underserved -- such as Libya, Yemen, Morocco, Algeria.”

Financial relief for artists is otherwise rare.

Like Al-Mawred, AFAC has tailored a response from new and existing initiatives. (Open calls for AFAC's cinema and music funds close Aug. 1.)

The fund’s executive director Rima Mismar told The Daily Star that monies disbursed through its North African Cultural (NAC) and the Arts and Culture Entrepreneurship (ACE) programs had been topped-up or rescheduled to support their artists through the crisis. Between them, these two programs support some 44 organizations (28 in NAC, 16 in ACE), so it’s a meaningful gesture.

“Originally, artists or organizations applying for the grant could allocated 20 percent of their budget to artist’s fees or running costs,” Mismar said. “For 2020 exceptionally we raised this to 50 percent, to cover living expenses or organizational running costs.”

In early June AFAC plans to launch the Artist Support Grant, a new grant scheme for artists.

“It’s envisioned as a sabbatical grant of $3000 that they can spend over three to six months. It could support a new work that they’re doing under confinement, the continuation of an ongoing work, or research for an upcoming project.

“We needed a framework that can accommodate both those artists who become productive in times of crisis and those who need to sit back,” she reflected. “Both can benefit from this kind of small support.”

As has been widely reported, pandemic lockdown measures have provoked a global recession expected to be unprecedentedly dire. As donors reassess their priorities, it’s entirely possible that the resources of organizations like AFAC and Al-Mawred will be affected.

Neither Mismar nor Nassif appear to be panicking at this prospect, both noting that their organizations have three-to-five-year agreements with their partners.

“Definitely there is an internal concern,” Mismar reflected. “The funding landscape was already becoming difficult for arts and culture, even before the crisis and the shifting of priorities, and now COVID-19 ... Arts and culture are always the first victims of any kind of cuts, so at the level of mobilizing new partners, whether individuals or organizations, this year is definitely challenging.

“That said, I would not say this is so different from the challenges we’ve seen since years now. It’s always the same challenge of proving the urgency of supporting arts and culture, the importance of continuing this work, the impact it has on our societies. It is always at the center of arts fundraising, be it with foreign philanthropists, individual donors, or the private sector.

“I know that this year is going to be very difficult, and probably the year after, but I’m not pessimistic.”

“Starting next year, I think, things are gonna be different,” Nassif mused, “but how different and what will be our response ... We’re in the middle of it now. There’s not yet any kind of clarity on where we’re going or how things will be.

“One proposal is that all of us have to get used to more scarcity, but we’re already used to scarcity ... I don’t want to say, ‘I’m not worried but because we’re used to producing from nothing. We will find ways.’ Maybe I’m being too idealistic. Maybe it’ll be really painful.”

Nassif glanced at a blank paper before her.

“One good thing that may come out of this,” she said, “is a recognition that public health must be a priority at a global level and should be allotted appropriate funding.

“Perhaps it will also be recognized that art and culture too is a need.”





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