Arts Muse

Instagram businesses and the easing of lockdown

Abi Ramsay speaks to Ellen Armstrong about her online venture Rose Totes and the potential impacts lockdown easing will have on Instagram based arts businesses.

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Image Credit: Ellen Armstrong

During lockdown, we saw a rise in artistic ventures, with many people going out of their way to channel their creative flair into economic prospects. The new trend of Instagram businesses became a genuine way for young people to make their money, particularly as unemployment rates soared due to the closure of recreational facilities. According to the UK Government, youth unemployment (16-24) rose by 66,000 people, a staggering 13 percent increase from previous years.

But what are young people if not resourceful? Many took this as the opportunity to explore their own creative hobbies, and found an easy way to make money by selling to their peers online. When Instagram was not overflowing with banana bread, TikTok dances, and couch to 5K attempts, it became a place of creativity, with young people exploring and exploiting their passion for art to generate an income.

New mediums were explored: polymer jewellery, paintings, crochet clothing, and digitalised prints to name a few which graced my feed. Many of these new businesses were also non-profit, donating their income to charities such as Mind which seeks to help the mental health of our generation. For a split second, an appreciation for the arts became a mainstream venture. But what has happened to these businesses now that lockdown is ending and normality is returning? Is creative exploration once again going to return to the shadows as social media becomes a place for staged photos and likes rather than impressive artistic individuality?

I recently spoke to Ellen Armstrong, the Somerset based creator of Rose Totes – an online venture in which she dyes, stamps, and paints her own tote bags, sending the profits to different charities each month. I asked her what prompted her to start this new hobby, and what was the initial thought process behind her expression of art.

“I think, as someone who just loves art and crafts as a way to express myself anyway, I wanted a way to capitalise on what I was doing – I was doing a lot of it during lockdown – so I thought I would try to make money out of it. I thought I could use it to help give donations to the Black Lives Matter charity; I was feeling so frustrated that I couldn’t do anything to help.” She continued, “Rose Totes allowed me to help myself, by expressing myself creatively, whilst also contributing towards a much bigger social issue.”

During the first lockdown in particular, we saw art as a way to express and explore the current social and racial issues that were globally causing quite the phenomenon. Art became an escape, but also a political tool which drove people towards change. In Britain in particular, one of the biggest movements to social change was the photo of the Edward Colston statue being pulled down in Bristol. Art and creativity became a mainstream way to evoke change, or as Ellen mentioned, to raise money for current causes.

I then asked her what will happen to Rose Totes now normality is starting to return and if she was still creating artistic pieces for the brand. “I am not, purely because the end of the first lockdown and returning to uni, made it difficult for me to sustain the brand. I don’t have enough space for the resources, or enough time during full time study. I still do other creative things, and may return to it in the future, but as of right now – time out.”

This “time out” as Ellen called it can be seen as worrying for the arts and creative expression. The first lockdown especially showed creativity to be at the forefront of everyone’s time. We saw a rise in Etsy stores, Instagram pages, and individualistic sustainable fashion and art pieces, as people turned to their resources around them for creative license. Between the end of lockdown one, and 3 March 2021, Rose Totes has dropped 13 percent of its followers from their peak selling point. Although this may not be worrying for Ellen, as it allows her to focus on her studies, this overall decrease in interest from other Instagram users could be a wider comment on where art is placed now normality is slowly returning.

I asked Ellen a question along a similar vein – what did she think would happen to the arts now that they are no longer considered mainstream?

“I think that, in general, people have a greater appreciation for them now that the lockdown is over. Of course, this could be an echo chamber – I might be surrounding myself with people who already have very artistic influences, so it is more likely to stick with them. I understand that a return to full-time study and socialising picking up again has stopped me from making my own art for my business; maybe this will have a long term effect on my appreciation for art in general. We are busy and we are no longer consuming as much media where we are seeing art at the forefront of mainstream chains''.

One of the main concerns I shared with Ellen was the fact that, over lockdown, we saw an increase in the individuality of people, with clothing becoming the main tool to express yourself. With so many independent businesses going out of their way to create, alter and present new clothing pieces, fashion itself became a creative tool. Depop, Etsy and Vinted became popular clothing stores, allowing fashion to become both a sustainable and creative venture. What will happen now once clubs are opening and people return to the likes of PLT and Asos for their fashion fix?

“Personally” Ellen added, “being in lockdown, and having small businesses become more popular – I think that will stick. People have spent a long time in lockdown exploring their creativity, and it has, in a sense, become a norm. My tastes have been fine-tuned by what small businesses are achieving and I think it will have become an ethos and passion for many people to continue to appreciate art.”

As we leave lockdown, and venture back into normality, it would be good to remember all of the creativity that graced our feeds during this time. Whether come 21 June you will be heading to a club, pub, or using the time to revamp your style and space for summer, try to look first at the independent businesses, like Rose Totes, that got us through the pandemic for your splash of creativity.

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