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Savoring arts and culture during lockdown

Met concertmaster David Chan, right, and Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin perform during the April 25, 2020, At-Home Gala. (Screengrab)
Met concertmaster David Chan, right, and Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin perform during the April 25, 2020, At-Home Gala. (Screengrab)
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08 May 2020 05:05:21 GMT9
08 May 2020 05:05:21 GMT9

As summer approaches, we might begin to reminisce about those rapturous days when we would savor cultural experiences with family or friends, preferably amid inspiring surroundings. I have a lot of fond memories in my summer memoirs, reminding me of some of my favorite annual cultural festivities: The Victoria and Albert Museum’s courtyard edged with bewitching pink and purple hydrangeas; the Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival filled with ravishing displays of flowers; the pianist playing dreamily at The Lanesborough hotel as we savor afternoon tea; and getting lost in the 1797 bookshop Hatchard’s while looking for inspiring reads. Museums would host exciting new exhibitions and artists, theaters would stage shows mixing mesmerizing prose and music, and art galleries would invite you to take in all their beautiful works from across history. Summer for me is painted with all these treasured cultural experiences.

Sadly, the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is ongoing, meaning social distancing measures have forced our much-loved museums, art galleries, libraries and theaters to close their doors and cancel their activities. However, the lockdown has given the cultural sector the impetus to explore new ways of engaging with its audiences via a digital revolution. In the past few weeks, we have witnessed famous cultural institutions and companies share their content digitally. This has offered a welcome respite, as the arts and culture can positively impact mental health and well-being, especially at this exceptionally stressful time.

London’s What Works Centre for Wellbeing published a study in 2018 on the impact of the visual arts on mental health. It concluded that those who engaged in the arts had reduced depression and anxiety levels, improved self-esteem, felt a sense of achievement, enjoyed socially connecting with others, and gained a sense of identity. The same year, the Arts Council of Wales published a report on the benefits of the arts in health care settings. Evidence showed that the arts can serve as a form of healing, whereby patients who were encouraged to engage in arts activities experienced reduced stress levels, increased social engagement, developed more effective coping mechanisms, decreased their perception of pain, reduced their length of stay in hospital, and complied with treatments. 

During the COVID-19 lockdown, art aficionados can become cultural digirati, roaming the digital clouds and savoring the wide range of artistic and cultural experiences on offer via the tap of a mobile phone or laptop. These include virtual museum tours, online operas, free digital books and audiobooks, livestreamed concerts, and so much more. On top of that, artists and cultural creators are exploring innovative ways to connect with their audiences through live group classes, podcasts and blogs.

We can thank Google Arts & Culture, which has partnered with more than 2,000 leading museums and archives to digitally showcase the world’s most treasured works. On any given day, you can embark on a virtual tour of famous museums, such as the British Museum in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, or the US National Gallery of Art in Washington. The site gives viewers the chance to explore any of the museums’ collections, such as paintings, historical artifacts and documents.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera has been streaming nightly performances for the past eight weeks. Opera lovers have been able to enjoy the best of the Met’s offerings, such as Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme,” Thomas Ades’s “The Tempest,” Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida,” Charles Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette,” and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” The Met has also prepared a short guide for newcomers with a catchy synopsis on each opera. For enthusiasts, there are many articles, interviews and podcasts that delve deeper into these masterpieces.

For literary fans, Amazon’s audiobook service, Audible, has a collection of hundreds of free audiobooks that are both educational and entertaining. Titles are organized by audience, so younger children can enjoy “Winnie-the-Pooh” or “Timeless Tales of Beatrix Potter.” Elementary students can choose from more than 100 titles, such as “Anne of Green Gables,” “The Secret Garden,” “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” Meanwhile, literary classics including “Jane Eyre,” “Frankenstein,” “The Jungle Book,” and “Pride and Prejudice” are also available. And “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” is available in six languages.

The arts and culture can positively impact mental health and well-being, especially at this exceptionally stressful time.

Sara Al-Mulla

Many artists are also using social media to share their creative journeys. For example, American photographer Jamie Beck started the #IsolationCreation Instagram campaign, whereby she creates one original artwork every day and explains how she did it. She also encourages her followers to create original pieces of art and share them with the community. Ten percent of the proceeds generated from this series are donated to the Foundation for Contemporary Arts’ emergency relief fund for artists who have lost income due to canceled events during lockdown. Meanwhile, French pastry chef Dominique Ansel runs a live baking class every Saturday, in which he explains his creative process. He also shares his followers’ creations on Instagram. Canadian artist Shayda Campbell shares watercolor tutorials on her YouTube channel, which boasts more than 500,000 subscribers.

The arts and culture sector remains vibrant during this lockdown thanks to digital technology and the enthusiasts who keep making the world a more beautiful place.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.
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