NEW YORK CITY: COVID-19 has plunged theaters into darkness, thrown down the shutters on art galleries, and canceled innumerable concerts, exhibitions and book signings. According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the cancelation of public performances alone has cost authors roughly 30 percent of their royalties worldwide, while the global film industry has reported a revenue loss of $7 billion.
By disrupting cultural life, the coronavirus pandemic has brought to light the chronic volatility of the creative industries. Many artists were already struggling to make ends meet, often working part-time under precarious contracts. For some, lockdown measures introduced to contain the outbreak were the final straw.
And yet, at the same time, COVID-19 has revealed the industries’ immense potential. Beside their therapeutic effects, arts and culture are also drivers of social cohesion, inclusion, innovation and growth, not only for small businesses but for the broader economy. This potential, to a great extent, remains untapped.
Marisa Henderson, UNCTAD’s Geneva-based head of the Creative Economy Program, says she sees this potential everywhere she turns, from the Arabic calligraphy she has seen in Dubai, to the jewellery designers she has met in Doha, and the women she has seen telling children’s stories in Gulf libraries.
“Women have been the engine of the creative economy, doing it without even noticing: Sewing, for example, or designing a piece of clothing, or embroidering and telling stories,” Henderson told Arab News.
It is with this in mind that the UN placed women and girls at the heart of its resolution to make 2021 an International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development, recognizing the need to promote inclusive economic growth, foster innovation and provide opportunities and empowerment for all.
Indonesia was the main sponsor of the proposal, which was presented by a global grouping of more than 80 countries.
Marking a watershed for the creative industries, resolution 74/198 singled out the creative economy as an important tool on the path to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals — a comprehensive set of universal targets to eradicate poverty in all its forms, protect the planet and improve lives. The 17 goals were adopted by all UN member states in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda.
With so many urgent global challenges to contend with, the arts have often found themselves pushed down the pecking order. This is changing, however, in part thanks to technological advances, which have upended old categories and definitions, giving rise to new, hitherto undefined artforms, making the creative industries more accessible to audiences and consumers, and more profitable for investors.
“We have goods that we’ve never heard of before,” said Henderson. “3D music: How do you classify that in the creative services? How do you count and sell it?
“Technology is affecting the way artists sell jewelry, toys, arts and crafts, paintings, and musical instruments. Visual arts are creative goods, too. But now they’re being sold online, so there’s a service component involved.”
Redefining creative industries and improving the way data is collected is a top priority for UNCTAD, as the agency gears up for a busy year. “We need to know so we understand what we’re talking about,” said Henderson.
“This is important for policymakers and governments who are trying, for example, to regulate downloads. How much money does the platform get versus what the creative gets? This is usually done through Google and Spotify, but the government has a role of facilitating it.
“Generally, we don’t have that kind of information in developing countries.”
UNCTAD’s Creative Economy Program helps developing countries maximize their gains from these industries to generate employment and reduce poverty.
The agency’s help is demand-driven. While countries mobilize their own funds, they come to UNCTAD with their own particular set of problems, seeking the UN agency’s data-driven insight to help carve out a space for their creative industries.
Henderson offers the example of Omani music, which she recently discovered. “It was very traditional, but it also had very modern elements to it that are different from what you conceive of as Arabic music. I thought, ‘this music is a creative industry.’ In Oman, they have so much potential, it’s incredible.”
UNCTAD helps countries identify their so-called “leakages,” where their specific needs lie, but also their trade potential: How can they attract investments? What are the legal instruments that need to be in place for implementation? Then a national conversation follows, involving artists and all other stakeholders.
UNCTAD helps draft a plan of action, the execution of which relies on cooperation between different ministries and agencies. “We make sure that the infrastructure is not imposed. It has to be one that is created for their benefit,” Henderson said.
While the main problem in developing countries remains the lack of infrastructure, countries who do have a strategy, such as Malaysia, have a difficult time implementing it.
“And I understand why it’s hard. This is not an industry that can be managed by a single ministry. For the creative industries, you have to bring together the ministries of culture, trade, technology, intellectual property, and foreign affairs,” Henderson said.
“UNCTAD perceives creative economy as a circle. It is not just art. You need to make use of these industries to capture investment, have a production cycle, create employment, and hopefully be able to export. It’s a creative circle.”
At the first World Conference on Creative Economy in Bali in 2018, an informal group of governments, private stakeholders and NGOs came together under the moniker “Friends of creative economy,” injecting momentum into a nascent movement that believes in sharing experiences as part of the engine of creative economy.
The UAE took the floor in Bali and offered to host the next round, which will take place in December.
“Arab states in general are really pushing this,” said Henderson. “The Emiratis realize there are a lot of things, like gaming and apps, that are not necessarily related to culture as we think about it but are in fact industries. And the driver, the petrol, the main commodity behind these industries is creativity.
“The Emiratis realize that the creative economy is beyond making money, even beyond culture. It is about social change. They know that by encouraging creativity, they will bring about change for so many in society, including young people and women.”
She added: “They know they can buy very precious art and put it in a museum. But they want something different: They are looking to inspire people. They want to integrate creativity into their culture and bring it to a new level.
“But they are also very wise economically. They see the importance of creative economy in terms of economic growth.”
The program of activities to implement the International Year of Creative Economy kicks off on Jan. 25. The event includes the launch of a new book, co-prefaced by Henderson.
“What could be more fitting entering a new era than a dedicated focus on creativity and the role it can play in helping us achieve the Agenda for Sustainable Development 2030?” she said.
“More than ever we need creative thinking, innovation and problem-solving to imagine ourselves out of the furrow we have been in. The creative industries, which are the lifeblood of the creative economy, are well placed to help.”