Culture and the creative industries have been hit by a triple shock: to mobility; to supply chains; and to public sentiment.
Covid-19 is a public health emergency, but for most of us its defining experience is not illness, but confinement. People travel and congregate for culture in ways that are harder to replace than for retail or office work. And, even when culture can be distributed remotely – via Netflix or Spotify - artists, directors and producers have to come together to make it, in ways that are more problematic than for manufacturing or distribution industries. Cultural organisations have moved quickly to tackle this. Digital engagement has ramped up, with new online platforms emerging, experiments with pricing and free access and remote production techniques. Covid 19 will surely give added momentum to existing trends towards more digital engagement.
What though of when museums and concert halls reopen? Will they see again the kind of mobility required by overseas tourists, international block-buster art shows or globe-trotting superstar performers? To tackle climate change culture needs to change its approach to global travel, but pre-Coronavirus it felt like an idea whose time had yet to come. Will Covid-19 be a point of inflection for the globalised art and performance market? And if audiences are going to be more local, the perennial question of how cultural institutions connect with their local communities is more urgent than ever.
A graphic of the theatre economy has been circulating in the UK, showing how the performer on stage is just the tip of an iceberg. Most suffering industries could draw these kinds of scary supply chain diagrams. But few would have so many self-employed or micro-businesses: artists of course, but also producers, directors, writers, marketeers, designers, educators. And even the biggest cultural institutions are small in business terms. Individuals don’t have the financial reserves to survive a lengthy loss of business but, without them, the cultural industries cannot do their work.
In the current exceptional circumstances, many governments have provided generous support for lost income. But looking forward, how can the cultural industries make themselves more resilient to a downturn bankrupting the creatives they depend on? Bringing everyone onto the payroll of a big institution would be uneconomic. The French intermittent du spectacle approach has not spread to other countries. But could public and industry agencies devise more supportive contract structures, or financial support mechanisms for cultural micro-businesses?
In a crisis, practical concerns dominate. During the pandemic, our attention has been consumed by toilet roll and paracetemol, rather than sculpture and opera. And many reported failing to find the concentration to finally read Ulysses or Moby Dick. A recent survey in Singapore listed artists as the least essential profession. Many people’s perception of the centrality of culture to their lives has taken a knock and, as lockdown rules ease, people remain cautious about congregating with strangers. This isn’t true for all. A UK survey found the most engaged keen to start attending cultural events, but the majority were still coming round to re-engaging. This raises immediate and longer-term questions for culture. For reopening, how does marketing and outreach make culture salient again? And how do we make the experience safe, without killing the fun? Longer-term, how do we shift more people into the category who can’t wait to get back in touch?