Books & Art

Local Artist Group Says: “I Am Non-Essential”

Artists are bucking the results of a survey that they are "non-essential" in this time of a pandemic.
IMAGE The Non-Essential Community

Last June 14th, Singapore’s Straits Times published a survey conducted by Singapore-based consumer research firm Milieu Insight that said out of 1,000 online Singaporean respondents, 71% of the respondents said that artists are considered the least essential as a profession or means of livelihood in these times of pandemic. 

The top 5 most essential job list is kind of obvious: doctors, nurses, cleaners, garbage collectors, hawkers and deliverymen (ranked from top to bottom).

This caused a furor in Singapore and has spread on social media to other parts of the globe. People are asking why artists are being singled out as the most “non-essential” profession.

But a quick look at the infographic shows an “artist’” sporting a beret and a handlebar moustache and a scarf. Who goes around town these days looking like that? It’s so stereotypical and, ironically, it was probably a graphic artist who came up with that icon in that infographic in the first place.


The point was most eloquently explained by Jeremy Nguyen, a cartoonist for The New Yorker who tweeted “they had to commission an artist to make this” in an effort to show his exasperation over the survey right after the Straits Times published it. 

What artists are doing

In the two weeks since the story came out, many other artists and their sympathizers took turns tweeting and posting their frustration at the story and their support for this very noble profession.

One prominent local artist I spoke to said, “After reading about the article, I found it funny, ironic even, that while artists and creatives were considered non-essentials, the local visual arts community organically synergized, organized auctions, and fundraising activities to purchase medical essentials, relief goods, and extend assistance to our peers who find themselves less fortunate. Musicians, dancers, theater companies and actors performed online for free in an effort to raise funds, and entertain people staying at home to help contain the spread of the virus. Architects took on to design mock up quarantine facilities, and hospitals. Fashion designers used their talents and ateliers to produce PPEs, while filmmakers and directors streamed their movies and critical documentaries for free. This happened all over the world and is not unique to the Philippines.”

Gang Badoy-Capati of Rock Ed Philippines

Photo by The Non-Essential Community.
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A group of artists, in partnership with RockEd Philippines, thought of making a statement about being categorized non-essential, and while at it, the members launched a project called The Non Essential Community, a sort of social enterprise to raise funds to help other artists, as well as other sectors in these trying times.

To start the project, the group has been selling shirts that says “NON-ESSENTIAL” as if to humor themselves of their status. Each shirt comes with a mask, and for every purchase of the set, 30 percent of the earnings is donated to partner organizations, and NGOs. Buyers can also automatically donate a neoprene mask which is sufficient for non-medical, crucial gateway workers, such as MRT staff, security guards, tollway staff, PNP checkpoint personnel, PUV/ PUJ drivers, vendors, stranded passengers, and others. 

Visual artist Veronica Peralejo

Photo by The Non-Essential Community.

The ECQ (enhanced community quarantine) lockdown has shown us many things. In a doomsday and apocalyptic sort of way, it seems that how society values one’s work and profession has suddenly changed during this pandemic.


This story is not to disagree with the survey’s results that essential professions are mostly “frontliner” in nature, where people risk their lives just by reporting to work doing manually intensive jobs or facing an unknown enemy in the intensive care unit as a nurse or a doctor. My hats off to these noble professionals, with my very own son being one, working in a hospital somewhere in Chicago, one of America’s epicenters of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Visual artist Christina Quisumbing-Ramilo

Photo by The Non-Essential Community.

But from visual to performing arts, creative to literary arts, artists come in all shapes and sizes (I would think all of them do not have handlebar moustaches though). Not all of them are doing okay. A large number of them are actually out of work, just like normal folks. While romanticizing the idea of a “starving artist” depicts a heroic albeit eccentric and uncompromising talent whose work will exponentially grow in value once they lay six feet underground, most artists these days are rather practical, and really cool to hang around with. 


Thanks to a growing and maturing local art market, creative artists are enjoying some sort of renaissance; that is, until Covid-19 happened. If they are not into working on their next masterpiece, some of them do have day jobs that are more or less tuned to expand their creative talents. One would remember Vincent Van Gogh, who only sold one painting in his lifetime, give or take a few days or months after slashing off one of his ears. Those days are long gone.

Art Conservator Lyn Yusi-Olazo and visual artist Jonathan Olazo

Photo by The Non-Essential Community.

Who do you think kept us company all these months in lockdown? Wasn’t it the books, movies, TV shows and online video and reading materials that kept your sanity? None of these would have been possible without these artists.


Sometimes, the Covid-19 pandemic may make you lose your sense of smell but it will not give you lack of taste. The survey had unexpectedly spawned a movement where people can buy a printed t-shirt proudly declaring that the #TheNonEssentialCommunity is indeed essential.


Architect Popi Laudico 

Photo by The Non-Essential Community.

This satirical label could just be the wake up call everyone needs, and no, no one is actually NON-ESSENTIAL.

For more information on how to support local artists, visit this link.

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Alvin Uy
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