The cultural sector across the world is facing a crisis due to COVID-19. The International Council on Museums (ICOM) reported that 95% of the estimated 60,000 museums worldwide have been closed during the pandemic. In mid-April, the OECD estimated that spending in the ‘recreation, culture, hotels and restaurants’ sector had declined by 75% in G7 countries. By the end of May, an estimated 46% of countries had re-opened or partially re-opened heritage sites, but after weeks of closure, the work of these institutions, including site management, is at risk.
Some might argue that worrying about culture during a global health crisis comes from a place of privilege. But according to Cultural Times, art and culture around the world provide a livelihood for 29.5 million people. Furthermore, cultural capital is of intrinsic value, providing delight and wonder, forging social cohesion and challenging the status quo. Images of impromptu balcony concerts in Italy at the start of the crisis warmed hearts, not just in Italy, but in other countries looking on.
During the early stages of the response to the pandemic, €37 billion were made available by the European Union via the Corona Response Investment Initiative. Sabine Verhayen (EPP, DE), Chair of the Culture and Education Committee, called for the funds to be made available within the cultural and creative sector. Petitions have sprung up to encourage governments to provide support for the Arts and its workers, with around 100 top names from the field signing an open letter to the UK Prime Minister, pleading for help for the UK’s world-leading creative industries. Meanwhile, all over the world, cultural recovery programmes are being put into place.
But what can we as individuals do to keep the sector alive?
In a survey of over 23,000 respondents by Australia Council of the Arts, just over half of respondents said they would not be comfortable attending performances with more than 100 people when restrictions ease. This fear of being in close proximity to crowds is likely to be echoed elsewhere. To assuage audience anxiety, venues globally are drawing up new working protocols, for example in Costa Rica and Spain, where a maximum capacity of up 30% is proposed. Others are looking at open air performances. Could it be that we see an upsurge in public taste for smaller gigs and more intimate shows?
While this is intriguing, it’s worth bearing in mind that many cultural institutions will need to find radically different approaches to their budgets if they are to continue to function. The UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) needs to fill venues at 80-90% to recoup its costs, and 90% of RSC staff have been furloughed during the last months.
Many institutions have found ways to continue to make their offer, such as plays and exhibitions, available during this time. Galway 2020, European Capital of Culture, made an online video of Savage Beauty, a three-mile site-specific light artwork, comprised of 1000 pulsing lights, across Ireland’s Connemara mountains.
Most of these online ventures are not generating income as they are free to access at the moment, but it’s possible the increase in digital festivals, performances and exhibitions could reach new audiences and create new revenue streams in the future. According to the World Economic Forum, more people say they are prepared to pay to subscribe to providers of digital culture now than before the pandemic. More than half of Generation Z and Millenials, and 40% of Generation X respondents, have now said they would be prepared to pay to access news media, music and culture, compared to just 20% of ‘Boomers’.
Supporting artists, musicians and performers directly by subscribing to their websites, or purchasing albums or artwork or writing straight from them, is something we’ve been able to do for some time and is perhaps more important now than ever. In the same way, supporting our favourite institutions, or those we are longing to visit when travel restrictions are eased, may be something we need to adopt.
If we want them still to be there when we arrive.