OPINION: Covid-19 and the economies of solace

How do we sell art without art fairs? How does an actor get paid for an online performance? How does one sell poetry per click? asks Joost Bosland.


Our souls need solace. Where we look for it depends on our upbringing, our tastes and our beliefs.

It could be the cadences of Abdullah Ibrahim, the recent collection of short stories by Zadie Smith, the podcasts of Richard Rohr, a bottle of Eben Sadie Treinspoor, the paintings of Penny Siopis, or the weekly ritual of Shabbos.

We think of these things as transcendent and timeless.

But the arts (and religion, too, but that is another column) are upheld by very real, tangible economies.

Right now, these economies are faltering. 

Artists are disproportionally dependent on the rich.

This is not bad, or good, just true.

You can borrow the world’s literature for free at our amazing local libraries, but writers rely on book sales for income.

Galleries do not charge admission, but artists need to sell their work in order to buy groceries.

Streaming music is cheap, but tickets for the Cape Town Jazz Festival are not, and musicians increasingly live off concert fees. 

On March 16, the Book Lounge, an independent book store in Cape Town, sent a letter to its customers, detailing its new delivery service.

As a partner in a small business dedicated to the arts, I found one sentence a big wake-up call: "Covid-19, loadshedding, the recession, ongoing inequality and so many other issues are going to make it increasingly difficult for small companies to stay afloat. I appeal to those of you who decide to self-isolate to find ways to still support businesses that you would like to see survive the next few months."

At our gallery, we have seen some promising signs that people are aware of the economies of solace.

Two collectors from Chicago had planned a trip to Johannesburg to attend the opening of Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s exhibition at our space in Parktown North, and get to know the local art scene.

When they wisely decided to cancel their travels, they doubled down on their commitment to South African artists and used the money they saved to buy art.

A collector from Berlin emailed us just yesterday, and told us he decided to spend his time in quarantine buying a piece a day.

Performing arts organisations around the world are asking patrons to donate the value of tickets for canceled shows, instead of asking for refunds.

Broadway Cares, an American NGO founded to alleviate the effect of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on the theatre industry, has at the time of writing raised over 13 million rand for an emergency fund to help theatre workers meet Covid-19 related expenses.

In our own much smaller way, our gallery has tried to support the Book Lounge by buying presents for our artists and collectors to read while sequestered at home. 

It is not just up to audiences.

People who turn imagination into cash - agents, publishers, galleries, festival organisers and other cultural brokers - need to think of new ways of generating income.

There are many wonderful initiatives appearing online, such as literature festival Afrolit Sans Frontières and China's X Museum’s virtual project space, where you can explore the institution as if it were a computer game.

However, few of these have built-in revenue models.

How do we sell art without art fairs? How does an actor get paid for an online performance? How does one sell poetry per click? 

The exhibition the Chicago collectors planned to visit opens tonight (Thursday), on Instagram.

We are toasting to Thenji on Zoom, Bubblegum Club is producing a digital walkthrough, and the artist has recorded a lockdown podcast.

These are just baby steps in re-imagining how we do things.

We need patrons and brokers to come together and find ways to make sure culture workers can survive in this new world. 

There is no time like the present. Stop reading the news. Put on some music, grab a novel or watch a movie, and think of the ways in which you can support South Africa's poets, painters, playwrights, musicians and other artists.

We cannot take solace for granted. 

 - Joost Bosland is a director at Stevenson