“Commitment to moving forward together” is the title of Resolution Six adopted at the pivotal national #STANDTogether Arts Summit, which was held from 20 to 22 September in Stellenbosch, South Africa (SA). As the final of the six powerful and comprehensive resolutions that were the outcome of the summit attended by representatives of 33 arts organisations, across genres and disciplines, it outlines the implementation of concrete steps for building communication, trust, and collaboration within the SA arts and culture sector, and with society more broadly, including media engagement.
In the spirit of moving forward together, the recent Charter of Rights for SA Artists was a keystone in the debate throughout the summit, providing a roadmap for interrogating and defining shared values to underpin the entire sector. Some of the themes which emerged were community building, with mutual upliftment, respect, and compassionate understanding, as well as the promotion of artists’ rights, utilizing the Charter of Rights for SA Artists.
In his opening keynote address, Mike van Graan spoke to the assembled artists, stating: “We have a duty to help our fellow citizens make sense of this world, to interpret and reflect, to help our audiences to experience catharsis, to speak truth to power and somehow, somewhere, to find beauty, to affirm life. Even though we, too, are not well.”
While artists play their vital role in societal healing, how can they not be well, one may ask? Although the Covid-19 pandemic is a core component of the current biopsychosocial and economic ill-being of individual artists and the whole arts ecosystem, the ill-being is exacerbated by lack of government support, suitable legislative frameworks, and strategic well-managed funding for the arts.
The Healing and Wellness theme at the summit was led by Bridget Rennie-Salonen of the new South African Performing Arts Health Association (SAPAHA), formed to serve the health and well-being of SA artists through representation, collaboration, multidisciplinary research, advocacy, resources, and education. Although health and well-being is a distinct topic, impacting artists as individuals, it is simultaneously the ubiquitous collective element for us all in the creative industries sector. In the midst of the calls for artists’ equality, transformation and social justice are the intertwined calls for artists’ well-being. Yet until now in South Africa, these well-being calls have been largely inaudible, unheard, and if heard, unheeded. Why did no one pay attention? Perhaps the industry’s culture has been to hide the pain, to push on in silence, to bear the status quo, or to ‘just leave if you can’t take it’. How many have left the sector because of this? We’re good at masking.
But the voices must be heard, and the masks removed.
The stories of creatives facing insurmountable challenges must be told. These are the ‘reality show’ of the creative depletion, the insidious perils, the unsustainable careers: the loss. We need to know about them. We should talk about them and interrogate why they play out like this. Who is responsible? How can we take shared responsibility? What can we do to facilitate a paradigm shift in the arts sector to promote non-threatening dialogue, engagement, mutual support, resource building, expansive creative thriving, cultural abundance, and health promotion through and in the creative arts? Who is involved; top-down, bottom-up, outside-in, and inside-out? What are our values?
First, let us hear a few of the stories, to make us slow down, look, and listen.
These fictional vignettes were adapted from real stories. They provide a glimpse into scenarios that could have been prevented if health and wellbeing, in the broadest sense, were considered, in the arts sector. Sustainability depends on healthy individuals, healthy organisations, and healthy societies. Without health and wellbeing, the system crumbles. Health promotion, the term from the public health sphere meaning ‘keeping people healthy’, provides a lens through which to examine multiple facets of the arts sector. Importantly, health promotion both through the arts and within the arts must be taken into account.
So, what can we do to build a healthy arts ecosystem? What is a biopsychosocial ecological perspective?
A biopsychosocial approach integrates biological, psychological, and social factors in their influence on health and disease (Bolton & Gillett 2019). An ecological perspective on a particular population, sector, or organization considers both an individual’s characteristics and the environmental aspects pertaining to behaviours and their reciprocal causation (McLaren & Hawe 2005). Ecological models in the study of health promotion therefore address “not only individual behaviors and their cognitive determinants but also the multiple settings and social contexts that shape behaviors, including larger social and cultural dimensions” (Richard, Gauvin & Raine 2011: 308). Context includes physical, social, cultural, and historical aspects, as well as local and global influences (McLaren & Hawe 2005).
These contextual and multilayered characteristics can be represented graphically, often shown as multiple concentric rings, each as a level of influence with mutual interaction. The levels include the intrapersonal component, interpersonal aspects, organizational elements, community, and policy (McLaren & Hawe 2005).
From the outer macro- to the inner micro-level, the arts sectoral web is linked with enmeshed health fibres.
For example, the economic health of the sector as a whole links directly and indirectly through to the occupational health and wellbeing of the artist as an individual, which links to their optimal artistry, creativity and creative output.
The markers of a healthy ecosystem include being self sustaining, resilient, balanced, and stable, able to maintain organization and function over time, and with greater diversity tending towards greater productivity, and a more sustainable and stable ecosystem. Unfortunately, these features are markedly lacking within the current arts environment, if they were ever there; what we have instead is a haphazard environment, with poor articulation between its constituent parts, which results in the suffering of individual artists and groups of artists, who inevitably fall between the cracks.
Ecosystems are inherently complex, with a myriad of interconnections and linkages.
In designing better conditions for the arts and culture sector, we need to bear in mind the many moving parts, and particularly focus on how they can connect more meaningfully. (Richard et al. 2011) note the dynamic complexity of an ecosystem with its “interdependence, cycling of resources and succession”, and how a framework can thus be developed for research and intervention in a particular community through a collaborative and participatory approach.
The vignettes above indicate the complexity and diversity of conditions and needs within the sector. These play out in a landscape where extreme inequity drives vast health disparities in an unbalanced healthcare system (Benatar 2013). However, what is also evident throughout these vignettes is that a certain overarching ethical framework is lacking. Some of the factors oppressing artists are in fact of their own making or a product of the inherited environment in which they work. Poor practices within the industry include unhealthy types of competitiveness, ongoing financial exploitation and the replication of negative cycles of unsustainable and limiting sectoral practices. Some of these include micro-oppressions experienced within working environments, some are linked to unrealistic expectations such as “the show must go on”, or to persisting negative tropes that exist within the general populace but are often internalized by artists, such as “the starving artist” or “the self-indulgent artist”.
The battle for a better ecosystem for arts and culture is a global one.
In 2020, American BIPOC theatre workers came together to create a manifesto and a call to action, known as “we see you White American Theatre”, which spelt out the values, principles and demands that marginalized theatre workers were rallying around. The movement has grown to tens of thousands who are now signed up to its credo and it has done much to demand accountability in mainstream organisations and venues across the USA. In Australia, the Arts Law Centre provides a free and discounted service to all artists, providing education, legal advice, advocacy on issues affecting indigenous artists and communities, and case studies which allow artists to make better decisions about their careers and the options available to them. In Malta in 2020, artists organised themselves into the Malta Entertainment Industry and Arts Association, to bring together all creators, performers, promoters, producers, suppliers, educators and technicians, in order to lobby for better conditions for artists in the country. Some of their innovative demands are to extend an existing 150% tax deduction for donation by companies to cultural NGOs to projects by private operators in the entertainment industry, and to implement a reduced income tax rate for artists. They are also calling for “arts on prescription” which would support specific health conditions such as mental health to enhance wellbeing and lessen isolation, especially in the aftermath of COVID.
Here in South Africa, the coalition represented by the #STANDTogether Arts Summit and The Charter of Rights for South African Artists, provides a framework from which to begin this fundamental work.
Download a PDF of the Charter here:
The introduction to the charter sets the foundation for the values that are integral for a healthy arts ecosystem. It defines the artist population and outlines contextual values in the form of universal rights with regard to aspects such as human rights, status, diversity of cultural expression, and freedom of expression. Following on from the introductory section, the rights of artists are asserted in full.
The Charter for the Rights of South African Artists provides us a framework from which we can start to combat the factors that contribute towards the ill-health of our current ecosystem. The publicization of, advocacy for, and education on the Charter should be aimed both within and outside of the creative industries and includes critical engagement with everyone, from the individual artists all the way up to government and policy organisations.
As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
And so it is for artists. We need concerted citizen action to uphold these rights in the studio, theatre, gallery, cultural centre, classroom, and public spaces, but equally we need supportive legislation to ensure that those who violate or disrespect these rights are held to account. The arts are a barometer of the well-being of the nation, and without a healthy arts and culture sector, there can be no healthy individual or society.
To express support for the Charter, click here.
Benatar, S. 2013. The challenges of health disparities in South Africa. South African medical journal. 103(3):154–155. DOI: 10.7196/SAMJ.6622.
Bolton, D. & Gillett, G. 2019. The Biopsychosocial Model of Health and Disease: New Philosophical and Scientific Developments. Springer International Publishing. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-11899-0.
McLaren, L. & Hawe. P. 2005. Ecological perspectives in health research. Journal of epidemiology and community health. 59(1):6–14. DOI: 10.1136/jech.2003.018044.
Richard, L., Gauvin, L. & Raine, K. 2011. Ecological models revisited: their uses and evolution in health promotion over two decades. Annual review of public health. 32: 307-326. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-031210-101141.