Thinking About Arts and Culture in the Time of COVID-19

April 20, 2020
Laura Cabochan

In August of last year, a group of faculty members from the Department of Fine Arts, myself included, went to Marawi City to conduct a week-long arts workshop at Mindanao State University. During one of our meals, we got to talking about how working in the university allows us to practice our art. Because we enjoy the privilege of a regular salary and a relatively flexible schedule, we are able to pursue our artistic interests both inside and outside the university with a level of ease that other artists, especially freelancers, do not have.

This has become even more apparent to me now that we are in the middle of a pandemic that has us physically isolated from one another. Ateneo de Manila University has made an effort to send us our salaries while some of my peers in the theater industry are forced to use their savings to see themselves through this quarantine, mainly because their performances have been either postponed or canceled, or the theater companies that they are part of have been unable to pay them.

When the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) was implemented on March 15, 2020, a group of artists and I—we would later call ourselves #CreativeAidPH—recognized the precarious situation that freelancers in the arts and culture sector were in. We thus started a public Google spreadsheet to gather data from the community about their income loss and current situation. If we wanted to advocate for the welfare of those in our field, we needed information so that we could appeal for an adequate and commensurate response from government institutions, foundations, and the like. Shortly afterward, we partnered with Nayong Pilipino Foundation, a government-owned and -controlled corporation, to collaborate on data gathering and analysis. The spreadsheet was modified into a Google survey and was shared through Facebook on March 17, 2020. After data checks a week later, a total of 499 survey responses were recorded.

Given that Metro Manila was the first to implement ECQ measures, the majority of respondents or about two-thirds of the sample (72%) were from the National Capital Region. The mean age was 33 years old, with the youngest being 13 and the oldest 66. 58% identified themselves as self-employed. The mean income loss since January was Php 98,209 with a minimum of Php 2,000 and a maximum of Php 3,000,000. The mean projected income loss until June was Php 171,050 with a minimum of Php 5,000 and a maximum of Php 4,500,000. Php 2,000 may seem like a small sum to lose, yet the narrative part of the survey—we asked the respondents to describe their situation and what they expected from the government—reveals that that amount may mean survival for some of them, especially for those who are daily wage earners, such as electricians and carpenters, and breadwinners. If you want to learn more about the survey results, please visit this link to read the report.

While #CreativeAidPH found solidarity within the community itself, the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA)—the government body mandated to preserve, develop, and promote Philippine arts and culture—has yet to respond properly to the crisis. It has been weeks since the lockdown was implemented yet there has barely been any effort from their end to consult the arts and culture sector or even their own 19 duly-elected arts and culture committees on how to move forward. The only assistance program that they have announced thus far is TUPAD, a project spearheaded by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) for the informal sector. Those who qualify for the program receive financial assistance in exchange for work, which primarily involves cleaning and sanitizing houses, streets, and barangays for 10 days. It was announced on April 2, 2020 with the deadline for applications on April 3, 2020, giving those who were interested only 18 hours to submit the requirements.


The National Committee on Cinema criticized TUPAD as being “demeaning” and “limited in scope and coverage for our artists and cultural workers in the industry” (I understand where they are coming from although I do not share their opinion that the program is “demeaning” because there is dignity in all kinds of work). They called out the NCCA’s “misappreciation” and said that it mirrors “the Philippine government’s disregard [for] our sector.” The committee’s comment reflects what one survey respondent lamented:

There seems to be no support for cultural workers, especially for culture bearers, nor any [sic] efforts to protect existing crafts and practices in times of disasters and calamities. Oftentimes, these traditional practices are the first ones to be sacrificed and set aside or discarded, often viewed as backward, superstitious, contra-progressive and a hindrance to the government's rescue and rehabilitation efforts.

What is notable is that these views—that the sector is a hindrance, for instance—are shared by some people within the field itself. One survey respondent wrote, “Whatever contributions were allotted for the artists (and I am so sorry to say this) will be more helpful for those who are truly in need.” While one can draw up the numbers from the survey to prove that there are people in the sector who are “truly in need,” it does make one think about how people perceive arts and culture when the nation’s basic needs and safety are not met. We have seen throughout history that people will make do and make art no matter the situation, yet apart from ensuring that the human rights of individuals in the sector are satisfied, how much priority should the preservation and development of arts and culture be given during this time, knowing full well how limited our resources are?

The National Arts Council of Singapore recently launched programs to sustain the arts during COVID-19, including digitization efforts and training. They argue that “the arts play an important role in uplifting our spirits and this is all the more critical in challenging times like this.” I agree, yet I also recognize that Singapore is economically well off. As of this writing, #CreativeAidPH is petitioning that the NCCA reallocate their budget to address the immediate needs of people in the sector. Yet should we, could we, in good conscience, demand more? I want to say “we must” not only because the economic impact of this pandemic on arts and culture will last long after physical distancing is lifted but also because the sector is, borrowing from the philosopher Paulo Freire, in the position to “name and transform the world.” Artists and cultural workers can help articulate and re-imagine our new normal.



Although, if I were starving, would I care that this year’s CCP Virgin Labfest will now be completely online, even if it does tell stories that need to be told?

Addressing basic needs and supporting arts and culture are not mutually exclusive, of course, yet this crisis poses a critical challenge for both artists and society alike. How do we value arts and culture in this country? Applied theater practitioner Michael Rohd exhorts the local government to work with artists:

Work with artists when, in this time of economic hardship and system crashes,
you wrestle with issues of justice and transparency,
and you struggle with how to disrupt histories and practices of inequity,
because artists don’t just offer their own visions of what can be—
many have the skills to engage the public with purpose,
many have the skills to ask hard questions with love,
and many have the skills to hold space for difficult conversations with courage.

The same call can be made to the arts and culture sector: despite the confines of physical distancing, how can we artists and cultural workers involve ourselves meaningfully with the public, even reaching out to communities we may never have interacted with before? What are the different ways in which we can serve during this time of need? This is not uncharted ground for many of us who have used and continue to use the arts to mobilize, build capacity, and help heal communities all over the country. How can we develop in this direction further?

Having said that, the NCCA, ideally, should be leading this discussion and helping shed light on these questions. Their leadership, however, continues to ignore the urgency and shirk on their responsibilities. While relentlessly appealing to them, the community, as the case probably has always been, will have to advocate for ourselves and find answers on our own for now.

The views and opinions expressed in this note are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the School of Humanities and/or the Ateneo de Manila University.