By Hsin-Ching Wu, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Public Policy and Public Affairs
From late February to early March, as the world watched the outbreak of COVID-19 spreading like a wildfire from country to country, things seemed to be rather unruffled here in Massachusetts. At UMass Boston, the spring semester had been in full swing. I had then just defended my dissertation focusing on a case study of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which is the state’s designated public agency providing funding and services to nonprofit cultural institutions, schools, communities and individual artists.
Before long, by mid-March, everything changed. The COVID-19 pandemic turned into more than just a public health crisis, and social distancing became the new normal.
Personally, even though the PhD training has given me plenty of experiences of working in solitude, the adjustment has not been easy. As I read about the developing situations here in the U.S. as well as back home in Taiwan, I found myself, maybe like many others, going through various emotions. In the midst of uncertainties, I discovered an unexpected outlet through creativity when I started participating in weekly virtual drawing sessions with friends. Once a hobby of my childhood and adolescent years, I have not drawn for a very long time. Surprisingly, the simple action of producing images with lines and shadows has brought me calmness.
Elsewhere, stories have emerged that during the periods of social/physical distancing, forms of cultural, creative, and artistic expressions inspire and comfort many individuals across the globe. For instance, in Italy, residents have been seen singing and playing instruments on their balconies. Here in the U.S., the students of Boston Conservatory at Berklee and Berklee College of Music presented stay-at-home “Love Sweet Love” in a video to send a positive message. A variety of nonprofit cultural institutions have been offering some forms of virtual exhibits, performance, and tours. Some artists and musicians are providing free online courses. Amid social/physical distancing, culture (an umbrella term that encompasses the arts, humanities, and heritage) gives people much needed solace.
However, in spite of these transcendental benefits, as compared to other industries, little attention is given to the nonprofit cultural sector, which is facing devastating difficulties. From an economic standpoint, in the U.S. alone, by mid-March, nonprofit arts organizations had already lost at least $3.2 billons of revenues.
As pointed out by the UNESCO, this is a shared plight across the board. Nevertheless, I would argue that it is time for public policy to move past the efficiency argument as measured solely by monetary value. As this pandemic demonstrates, societies require more than a good economy to function. There are other essential elements, including but not limited to equitable social benefits, universal access to healthcare, a clean and safe environment, communal support and connection, and the arts, heritage, and humanities, all of which are not quantifiable by market price alone.
While societies continue to weather the crisis, I remain hopeful that this shared experience will lead to an increased recognition and appreciation of the value of culture, and the significance of continuing public support for the sector.