By Dr Abigail Gilmore
March 2020 to March 2021 has for all of us been the most unusual year, a time when we have been immersed in a universal but highly individualised fug of dread, anxiety and increasingly bad hair. A year that has been pervaded by loss of freedom, safety, a concrete sense of time and in many cases loss of livelihood and loved ones. It has been a year that nearly (but not quite) made me remove the tag line of “Naïve Optimist” from my Twitter bio.
Perhaps perversely, my role as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester, teaching Cultural Policy and Arts Management during a pandemic, to a large body of postgraduate students based across the globe, has been a reason to retain that optimism. The intelligence and resilience of this cohort of students, the flexibility and generosity of my colleagues and ongoing determination of our arts and cultural partners have been keystones in the arcs of three UK lockdowns, with fluctuating local restrictions, heightened North-South divides and ramped up digital pivoting. Students who opted to come to Manchester have been stranded here, and some are still waiting to come.
Ordinarily we do a lot of place-based learning, drawing on partner networks for their input and outreach, and relying on the experience of being together in Manchester’s bricks and mortar, public squares and parks to convey this gritty city’s cultural histories. Physically dispersed across continents and timezones, instead we’ve become intimate with each other’s dining room, kitchen and bedroom offices, with the highs and lows of broadband reception and the comparative merits and glitches of Zoom, Teams and Blackboard Collaborate. We have learnt to adapt the ways we communicate and become fluent in Spark, Miro, Padlet and a host of other single-name software tools.
Fortunately, the curricula of our taught programmes have not been adversely impacted by this year of living vicariously. Designed to yield critical interdisciplinary researchers and progressive cultural professionals, the programmes are enhanced by the many contemporary examples that demonstrate the significance of the students’ future careers and the contributions they will make to society, as the people that make arts and culture happen.
The paradox of COVID-19 is that by closing the doors of the institutions, the pandemic has reasserted the importance of everyday creativity and cultural democracy, the scope and need for change to policy models and funding distribution, the power of digital storytelling, and a re-appraisal of “the local” and community. The stilling and emptying out of cultural public space has amplified the injustices laid bare by movements spurred by Black Lives Matter and recent protests over new Policing Bills in the UK. Injustice and inequality have provided the soundtrack to the toxic culture wars over decolonisation, civil liberty and repatriation stoked by images of policy surrounding statues and flag-faced zealots in the Capitol.
The value of creative arts education has been under systematic attack in the UK from the EBacc to the econometrics of the Augur Review; the increased marketisation of what should be a public good lays the ground for shattered “customer” expectations, even without the isolation and increased anxiety from remote learning and lack of co-presence. Closer to home, in Manchester, student rent strikes and protests have shown their anger at university mishandling of the pandemic, putting income bottom lines ahead of student care and safety whilst the government turns its face away.
The refrains of social injustice and structural inequalities are also sadly echoed within the cultural and creative industries and are likely to be exacerbated by the pandemic. There is an ethical quandary in encouraging students to embrace their studies when the impact of the coronavirus on arts and cultural job market is overwhelmingly negative, particularly for young people and women, and those in the performing arts. Our duty of care is therefore to present a curriculum that provides the skills and critical tools to challenge, to move beyond the rhetoric to build back better, open up debates and make change happen. I am optimistic this is being realised, an optimism borne out by the standard of participation and work of our students.
Keeping each other going, maintaining openness, trust and kindness and re-affirming the significance of learning, knowledge and criticality as well as humour and human connection has been so important. This year we have built community and provided safe spaces for students to test out ideas for dissertation research and practice-based projects which shine with curiosity, hope and empathy. The naivety may have to be jettisoned when “all this” is over, and we can go back to grinning across classrooms, field tripping around the city to reopened arts venues and spaces, instead of shouting at our screens, but for now the optimism can stay.
 See Centre for Cultural Value (2021) Impact of Covid-19 Research Resources, available from https://www.culturehive.co.uk/impact-of-covid-19
Dr Abigail Gilmore is Senior Lecturer, Arts Management and Cultural Policy, and MA Programme Director at the Institute for Cultural Practices, University of Manchester. She is currently Co-Investigator on the UKRI funded ‘Impacts of Covid-19 on the cultural sector’, a national study led by the Centre for Cultural Value, University of Leeds, with the AHRC Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (www.pec.ac.uk). You can find her on Twitter being quietly optimistic @abi_gilmore.