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Nonprofit Groups Shift Tactics to Help the Arts Survive the Coronavirus

Ettijahat (Directions), a Beirut-based nonprofit supporting Syrian artists inside and outside their country, had organized a major event in the French city of Bordeaux for the beginning of April to showcase the work of 35 Syrian artists in exile. But the three-day MINA: Artistic Ports and Passages forum, with its rich program of visual and installation art, concerts, theater and film showings, had to be postponed until October due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Action for Hope, a Beirut-based nonprofit bringing cultural programs to refugees and other marginalized communities, runs two music schools in Lebanon, in Beqaa and Shatila, providing 16-month programs for gifted young people, as well as a film school in Beqaa and storytelling and theater workshops.

All have been shuttered in the past couple of weeks.

Across the Middle East, a remarkable nonprofit network of support for artists and culture has had to stop many of its activities as countries ban public gatherings and introduce social distancing in an effort to slow the spread of the deadly new coronavirus.

Organizations providing this support, many based in Beirut, are scrambling to adapt to the new situation and find ways to continue their support in new forms.

Maintaining Momentum

“We are in dialogue with colleagues from different organizations to understand what is happening in different countries,” says Helena Nassif, managing director of Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy), a large nonprofit that last year awarded 353 grants to individual artists and art and culture organizations across the region.

“We need to pool resources to support artists and organizations in hardship,” Nassif said. Although most cultural events have been canceled, “we are working more now, not less. This is overstretching us.”

One obvious response is to move activities online, where possible. Ettijahat is beefing up a new program of high-level, Arabic-language master classes it is about to launch under the label Sobol (water spring), to replace now shuttered workshops. The first series of six half-hour web videos will be on the dramatic arts.

One concern of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), another large Beirut-based nonprofit that distributed 225 grants in the region last year, is how to find ways to maintain the momentum of its North Africa Cultural Program, a large project started last year with support from the Swiss Cooperation Office to support cultural entities and strengthen regional cooperation in five Maghreb countries.

“We need to pool resources to support artists and organizations in hardship,”

Helena Nassif  
managing director of Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy)

“We’re trying to establish milestones—deadlines for grantees to decide how to proceed,” says Rima Mismar, AFAC’s executive director.

Economic Hardship for Artists

But leaders of arts-supporting organizations say the most pressing need now is finding ways to help the region’s beleaguered artists, most of whom are independent and do not benefit from salaries, health insurance, or social safety nets. With concerts, art exhibitions, plays, TV production, and other activities canceled, many artists, actors and musicians have seen their incomes drop to near zero.

A performance last year of The Other Side of the Garden, by the Koon Theater Group, founded in Lebanon by the Syrian director Ossama Halal. The troupe has received support from Ettijahat and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (Photo by Hubert Amiel).
A performance last year of The Other Side of the Garden, by the Koon Theater Group, founded in Lebanon by the Syrian director Ossama Halal. The troupe has received support from Ettijahat and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (Photo by Hubert Amiel).

At the same time, with overall economic activity frozen, many artists have lost side jobs, as have other family members who may have helped provide support. The danger, experts say, is that artists, who just managed to get by before the pandemic, may be pushed to give up their art all together and seek other work in order to survive.

“Now the priority is not supporting artistic production, but supporting artists themselves,” says Abdullah AlKafri, Ettijahat’s executive director. He says some artists, unable to pay their rent, are in danger of losing their homes. Others may not be able to access needed health care. “With other organizations, we are discussing how not to lose hundreds of artists in the coming months.”

Culture Resource’s Nassif says that a partner organization that carried out a survey in Palestine found 117 artists in need of emergency help to survive there. “Across the region there will not be less than 1,000 artists who need emergency support,” she says.

Action for Hope’s board of directors is currently working on readapting the group’s annual program to confront the crisis. This includes a proposal for “emergency cash support to our students and graduates in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq so they can continue their studies and not have to do manual work,” says the group’s director, Basma El Husseiny.

Another proposal is providing training and modest financial support for people from the displaced and impoverished communities they serve, especially artists and family members, to start small businesses in handicrafts, pottery and other arts-related areas.

“There are many carpenters and woodworkers in Beqaa who are now out of business,” says El Husseiny. “We are thinking of creating training programs in making musical instruments. There is quite a good market for instruments in the region, and they can be sold online.”

Another idea is training young artists and their family members in digital skills, such as website creation and various types of design, as potential sources of income.

“Now the priority is not supporting artistic production, but supporting artists themselves.”

Abdullah AlKafri  
Ettijahat’s executive director

Culture Resource is trying to shorten the selection process for competitive grants “since artists are in urgent need,” says Nassif. The group is also moving to convert its Stand for Art emergency fund, created in 2016 to support artists threatened by conflict or repression, to support artists whose ability to work has evaporated due to the pandemic.

Some groups have taken a different approach and have decided to give applicants for spring grant deadlines more time to reformulate their proposals. “This is a time where we need to show solidarity and be very flexible,” says Mismar, of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture.

The group has instituted a three-month grace period for applicants who want to readapt their proposals. “We’re definitely encouraging everyone to think of a Plan B.”

AFAC has also decided to exceptionally increase the amount of its grant money that can go to artists’ fees and organizations’ operating costs from 20 percent to 50 percent, in an effort to keep them afloat in these hard times.

Two of AFAC’s ten major programs, Arts and Culture Entrepreneurship and Arab Documentary Photography, include week-long workshops.

“If by July it is apparent that we can’t convene any workshops in 2020, we’ll look into adapting them to a virtual format,” says Mismar. But she adds it may not be fruitful to simply hold a workshop lasting five full days online. Instead, workshops would likely be “spread over several months with a program each week, like a lecture series or master class.”

Meanwhile, despite the fear and isolation, culture leaders speak of positive reactions the crisis has brought out. “The reaction of the sector has been heartwarming,” says Culture Resource’s Nassif. “Hundreds of artists across region made their work available for free to share with everyone online and make people feel connected and not isolated.”

Moreover, the public’s forced home-bound unemployment has given people more time to explore art and culture. At Culture Resource’s invitation, a number of artists it supports have participated in Q&A sessions about their work on Facebook.

At the same time, those supporting the sector are redoubling their efforts to explain that art is not a luxury.

“Usually in time of crisis, everyone feels we can cut down on support for culture,” says AFAC’s Mismar. “But I’d like to send a shout out that this is a time to support arts and culture.” She says many of the reflections that will help communities better understand and confront the crisis are likely to come first, and most meaningfully, from artists.


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