Artists as imagineers
How COVID-19 has impacted the arts
In Australia and across the globe, COVID-19 has brought theatres, galleries, music venues, performers, and television and movie productions to the brink. And with the pandemic showing no signs of going away, there are fears that some parts of the arts industry may never recover.
But, as the head of a global arts initiative that works mostly in the virtual space and in communities already pushed to the edge, UOW graduate Kat Roma Greer has felt a frisson of excitement amid the fear about what’s next for the struggling industry.
Roma Greer who has previously been named one of Australia’s 100 Women of Influence – runs Micro Galleries, which she describes as a “creative clinic for communities in need”. Operating from far flung places including Hong Kong, where she has lived for the past 10 years, as well as Sydney, Kenya, Finland and Nepal, the collective uses art to address issues facing communities in need. These include climate change, poverty, government corruption, freedom of speech and, most recently, the health challenges of COVID-19.
Normally, this work would culminate in a yearly micro arts festival and artists’ residency, where dozens of creatives from around the globe come together. “We combine street art, fine art, new media art, performance, talks, arts tours and reclaiming public spaces as outdoor galleries, in a place we think is in some sort of creative need,” Roma Greer says.
“We were meant to be in Manila doing our artists’ residency and festival in March. But we had to make the call on cancelling that really early, before the rest of the world had caught on.
“That was a perk – if you can call it that – of being on the border to China. We were in the thick of it, so I was able to be a bit ahead of the curve, so our program got completely reinvented this year.”
In 2020, Roma Greer has run a mostly virtual program, which included TEDx-style artists’ presentations on how people were getting through the pandemic and a series of virtual collaborations where two artists from different cultures work together to create new works.
Micro Galleries also ran an initiative called Words in Windows, where people all over the world were encouraged to write messages on their windows for others to see during lockdown.
“When a lot of the world was really trapped in their homes, these were messages of hope and resilience and the primary idea was to create a blueprint of how we want the world to be when we open our doors and come back out.”
Despite this full program, Roma Greer – who has spent recent years travelling the globe to speak at international events, like Wonderfruit, and joining the prestigious The Arctic Circle Residency where she highlighted her climate disruption art – admits the COVID reinvention has been painful at times.
“My year was completely decimated, all of the projects we were walking towards were cancelled. All of my speaking opportunities were cancelled, so my career was put on hold, all my paid work was gone.
“But on the flipside, it’s created huge potential. So this year has really been horrendous and exciting, at the same time.
“It’s like a razing of the ground in order for new things to emerge.”
She says the potential has been particularly evident working with artists who live in the developing world, or where social unrest has become the norm.
“Despite the fact that our artists in Nepal, for example, are looking down the face of famine and there’s been huge protests in relation to government corruption, they’ve already mobilised against that creatively,” she says.
“They’re not reliant on anybody else to create. They’re also incredibly motivated, because they know it’s only through their art that they’re able to communicate with their community about what is actually happening to them.
“Likewise, when young protestors here in Hong Kong were told they couldn’t hold up certain signs and certain messages, they went out and held up blank pieces of paper.”
All over the world, Roma Greer believes COVID-19 has exposed just how vital the arts is to a functioning society.
“In a time of uncertainty, arts creates a lot of ways to explore and express that experience and to understand that it’s a shared experience,” she says.
“You can use arts to record and witness and translate what’s happening for everybody now, but also a way for imagining an alternative future.
“Also, people are at home, they’re locked in their houses, and art is actually vital in every possible way from the TV programs everyone is consuming rabidly on Netflix to the comfortable chair that you’re in, to the book you’ve picked up, to the drawing people are doing with their kids to try and keep them occupied while they’re not at school.
“It would be really hard for people to spend a day without engaging in the creative industries.”
Which is why, looking from the outside to her homeland, she’s been saddened to see what’s happening to the Australian arts industry, which has been one of the first and hardest-hit industries during the pandemic.
“In Australia, the funding and support for artists right now is insufficient and what that’s going to do is disable the arts down the track,” Roma Greer says.
“It’s like a garden bed – you have to be constantly attending to it if you want flowers later on. We could have a generation, potentially, of artists who have decided they can’t sustain themselves in Australia as a creative.”
However, she hopes her operation will provide hope and a way to move forward during these tough times.
“Micro Galleries works outside the systems of arts infrastructure. We don’t have a lot of funding, we don’t have formal large spaces and galleries and theatres,” she says.
“So I think we’re really uniquely placed to show how that is an effective, accessible, dynamic way to be working.
“Theatres and galleries are really inaccessible to the majority of the world, and I believe arts should be accessible to everyone, and artists and arts organisations have a responsibility to ensure that communities get access.
“So I would like to hope that we are uniquely positioned to take advantage of a shifting idea of who art is for and how people can access it, and lead the way on that into the future.
“The exciting thing is that we’re going to see artists starting to mobilise in ways we haven’t expected yet. Artists are the imagineers. They can take impossible sounding ideas and turn them into reality.”
Kat Roma Greer
Bachelor of Arts (English Studies)/Bachelor of Creative Arts, 2003