COVID-19 crisis drives call for creative industries policy reform
Lockdowns have forced artists and other creative professionals to adapt or spiritually die while still alive. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, people have time to reflect on what is essential to their lives, families and careers. The role of creative industries is all the more important in this context and professionals are speaking up and being heard.
Since 2010, Thailand has been proud of its creative economy strategy, but little has been done on a systematic basis and little changes have been made at the level of policy foundations. As in many other sectors, COVID-19 has transformed the creative sector in ways that would have been thought impossible just three months ago, in terms of working from home, digitalization and adopting new work modalities so quickly. New forms and channels for creative expression are being found, but adaptation has to involve new strategies of advocacy and building partnerships, including with government agencies.
Under the framework of 2005 Convention on Promoting and Protecting the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, UNESCO Bangkok has organized a series of webinars since May with leading members of Thailand’s cultural and creative industry sectors and civil society to assess challenges, the impact of COVID-19 and needed changes at the policy level. Sessions have included independent film, literature and publishing, performing arts, visual and fine arts, architecture and design, music, and heritage sites and museums, as part of the global movement #ResiliArt
“For the performing arts sector, we lack a collective voice for artists in the country to make it loud enough for the government to hear us,” said Raksa Kongdeng, the New York-based executive director of the Thai Theatre Foundation. “During COVID-19, we collected 180 surveys from performing artists so we are able to request the government help us with specific needs such as stimulating investment within the theatre sector, providing infrastructural support, and offering incentives to encourage in-person attendance.”
Related government agencies such as the Creative Economy Strategy and Ministry of Culture have also reached out to artists and others who are being severely impacted by COVID-19. For artists, it is not only livelihoods at stake, but also their ability to express themselves and maintain their artistic freedom amid the lockdown and long-term future in light of government policies.
The pandemic has raised awareness about problems that have been swept beneath the rug for too long. Artists and cultural practitioners do not have a recognized status in government policies, which is why there were not targeted welfare packages at the onset of the pandemic, and they were instead included in the general unemployment status. Artists have unique career trajectories, however, often as freelancers and many with second jobs, which can make it difficult to qualify for government assistance.
Many businesses focused on creative productions are SMEs, with an emphasis on “small” rather than “medium”, with a maximum of six months’ reserve liquidity and limited access to loans, which is the case for small enterprises in most sectors. Across the economy, SMEs have reported difficulty qualifying for COVID-19 assistance schemes and are more likely to shut down as a result of the economic disruption.
When COVID-19 hit, the government responded quickly with the “leave no one behind” 5,000-baht aid scheme, but cultural and creative practitioners were not included in the first round because there was not a unified database of artists, creative professionals and cultural practitioners. In that context, aid to the sector was never inclusive.
The physical distancing measures implemented for public health have also fostered a silo mentality, with professionals working isolated and alone. There needs to be a transformation of behaviour to foster collaboration. This should have already taken place within the framework of the Creative Economy Strategy, but in reality it has not. The disruption cause by COVID-19 has ironically encouraged cooperation that had previously been lacking.
“We have been coordinating among ourselves and with the government to drive change at the policy level, rather than just one-off support,” said Attinuch Tantivit, owner of Atta gallery and founding member of Creative District Bangkok. “We hope to understand the contemporary arts sector ecosystem and would like to see the collaboration between government, civil society and the private sector.”
In the coming months, the government will be deciding on a 1-trillion-baht bailout package to provide for people affected by the pandemic and to support the economy. Policy needs to have a long-term perspective and be more flexible, rather than static, and include public consultation and public participation. The pandemic has highlighted the shortcomings of previous approaches.
“If you ask anyone in architecture and design industry about policy, one thing you will hear repeatedly is that our existing policy is static and has no long-term vision,” said Yossapon Boonsom, a landscape architect and co-founder of Shma Landscape Company. “That undermines the ability to adapt to rapid changes.”
The top priority is to increase cooperation within the government and civil society organizations in creative domains to better understand the challenges facing the culture and creative sectors. These challenges are long term, often aggravated by the pandemic, but structural in nature.
“Each year, universities produce many creative graduates,” said Surachai Puthikulangkura, owner of Illusion CGI. “There is no strategy to nurture those creative minds and provide jobs. One role of the government is to facilitate those young and talented groups to expose them to international markets and help them to negotiate with global markets.”
Now is the time and opportunity to make changes for the better for the culture and creative industries as a bedrock strength of the country. In June, the government announced that it was willing to hear from the public and work with society in the context of the current challenges. History has proven that sometimes a crisis is an opportunity to address deep-rooted problems. There is no need to wait for another crisis before making needed changes now.
By Kamonrat Chayamarit, a programme officer with the Culture Unit at UNESCO Bangkok.
*This article was first published in The Bangkok Post.