Why we cancelled the 2020 FotoFocus Biennial and dispersed its $800,000 budget as arts grants

FotoFocus artistic director Kevin Moore speak with Mamma Andersson at the 2018 biennial Photo: Jacob Drabik

A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a building façade with windows full of self-isolated children, and one of them saying: “Remember, when we get back outside, its still the top of the fifth. Jodies on second, Noahs at bat, and the count is one-and-two.” The attitude is naive but it is a prevalent one—or has been until recently, perhaps. The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has imposed a great pause on life, including cultural and professional life, and it seems to have occurred so suddenly. As recently as the first week of March, Armory week in New York City, people and revenues were flowing at art events, albeit with a little hesitation (the elbow-bump had replaced the handshake and kiss). By March 22, New York was in a statewide lockdown and Ohio followed suit the next evening.

Certainly, the hope among arts organisations, as with all kinds of businesses and activities globally, is a return to normal as quickly as possible—to sit patiently for now and, when the time comes, simply flip the lights back on. Yet as the weeks go by, a new reality sinks in: unremitting stay-at-home orders, including restricted travel, with no hard end in sight; long term social distancing and bans on congregating; the probability of recurring outbreaks and the fear those engender; widespread material hardship and economic loss; and the disruption or failure of distribution systems of all kinds, notably the US Postal Service—all of which have a huge impact on arts organisations such as FotoFocus and their ability to fulfill a mission to display and foster social experiences around art.

The arts face such urgent challenges and more. Despite recent and somewhat clichéd proclamations of the arts being central to our lives, they are often also seen as the ultimate non-essential work—as a higher branch of the entertainment industry, to put it most disparagingly. This is not the place to argue for the value of the arts, but to mention that countless people are employed in the creative industries (almost 300,000 in Ohio) and arts revenues comprise a significant portion of a given regions annual income—over $40bn to Ohios economy annually. This does not even take into consideration the harder to define ways in which the arts enrich communities as a whole. The real possibility that many arts institutions, their employees, and the artists they support will founder during this global crisis is a personal reality for many and a cultural tragedy for everyone.

FotoFocus is a collaborative venture, involving more than 100 venues and over 450 artists regionally, not to mention the artists, curators, participants, and visitors who travel to Cincinnati for the biennial and other events. Our mission is to lift up and showcase the arts community of our region. If our first impulse at the Covid-19 outbreak was to proceed with the October 2020 biennial, hoping for a return to normal by then, and to transmit a leadership message of solidarity, determination and optimism to our community, another more urgent purpose soon became apparent: to protect our collaborators and to foster a collective long term future by letting go of plans for the immediate future. So often, the automatic impulse to face a crisis by carrying on, by staying the course and feigning normalcy, can do more harm than good. To attempt some version of FotoFocus at this time, in this climate of ongoing crisis, would, by that measure, be a failure; it would impose a burden on our partners and compromise their safety in a time when they are already under tremendous strain.

Clear-eyed leadership and imaginative thinking are essential to the survival of not just arts organisations but democratic society as a whole.

This year happens to be the ten-year anniversary of FotoFocus, and larger than usual plans were underway, to celebrate both past and future growth. Quickly realising that if the biennial could happen, it could only happen in some compromised form: with fewer than expected shows, a limited audience, or as online content (which may be an expedient soluRead More – Source