'Creativity vs. COVID' uses artistic activism to communicate needs for vaccine

Thankfully, vaccines are now available that have the potential to help end the COVID-19 pandemic.

But as the U.S. and the rest of the world are discovering, actually obtaining them is a different story, with more questions than answers: How soon will vaccines be available to anyone who wants them? Will they be completely free of charge? How will poorer nations obtain their place in line to get the shots?

"Free the Vaccine" artworkView print quality image
This graphic, called "I Got the People's Vaccine," was created by an artist in Montreal to encourage McGill University to sign an "Open Covid Pledge." This pledge calls on academic institutions, industries and other organizations to make their intellectual property available free of charge for use in ending the COVID-19 pandemic and minimizing its impact. By Olivia Bonardi for "Free the Vaccine for COVID-19"

Anticipating those questions near the start of the pandemic was an international collective of university students, artists and health care advocates who created a campaign called "Free the Vaccine for COVID-19." Their mission is to ensure that publicly funded tests, treatments and effective vaccines are available to anyone, anywhere -- not just those with the ability to pay.

The voice of that mission is reflected in a new art exhibit, "Creativity vs. COVID: Ending the Pandemic for Good." IUPUI associate professor Laura Holzman curated the exhibit in collaboration with other members of the Free the Vaccine collective. The project fits well with Holzman's role as public scholar of curatorial practices and visual art, which connects the Herron School of Art and Design with the Museum Studies program in the School of Liberal Arts.

Experts affiliated with Free the Vaccine determined that universities can play a crucial role in making medicine accessible by changing how they license their research findings to drug companies. Other avenues to access include sharing knowledge openly through mechanisms like the World Health Organization's COVID-19 Technology Access Pool.

"The overarching concept is that it's a pandemic, and it needs a solution that works globally; we can't just create a remedy in wealthy nations and leave people in poorer countries to get sick," Holzman said. "At the end of the day, it's an ethical issue. We as a society have an ethical responsibility to see that life-saving medications can get to people that need them."

With a virtual exhibit (see some of the artwork online), anyone can view the messaging -- and even add to it themselves. A physical version of the exhibit will be hosted by some venues, in conjunction with public health guidelines.

Herron Galleries will join other universities, galleries and museums in hosting the virtual exhibit in the spring, with an invitation to its students to contribute.

"'Creativity vs. COVID' reveals the central role that art can take in expanding our understanding of incredibly important issues, such as the pandemic we find ourselves in today," said Joseph Mella, director and curator of the Herron Galleries.

All submissions are reviewed by Holzman and her collaborators, seeking a match with the spirit and methodology of the campaign rather than judging conventional artistic merit.

"This exhibit will introduce people to strategies they might not have thought of before, with the potential to connect audiences with new tools to shape the world into a place they want to be," Holzman said.

"I'm excited to see what this project turns into -- there's a need for work that documents what happens during this time."