COVID and Culture: What’s Around the Corner?

Source: http://www.pixabay.com

I have COVID fatigue. Perhaps you do too. In the interests of self-preservation, plus concern for others, in the spring I went into a period of deep hibernation, not that there was much choice as most venues—restaurants, galleries, libraries, cinemas, museums, even parks—were closed. Then we started to “flatten the curve” (at least in my neck of the woods) and a gradual re-opening occurred—until the “second wave” arrived that is. Libraries and museums cautiously and partially reopened (with a limit of just 6 people at a time in all our local library branches). Parks reopened, outdoor restaurant patios sprang up and spread into adjacent streets that suddenly became pedestrian precincts, and even cinemas reopened with limited seating. But the local symphony hasn’t been able to perform, live theatre productions for the coming winter season have been cancelled, book launches are virtual only, and just about the only live music one hears comes from the occasional busker and street musician. The cautious re-opening is fragile, and it could be reversed at any time. It’s better than being in full lockdown, but it’s not normal. Perhaps it is the “new normal”, but it’s hard to adjust to. Probably like you, I am frustrated and antsy.

But if as consumers of culture we feel a bit frustrated, think of the impact on artists and cultural industries of all stripes. The impact is both economic and “spiritual”. COVID not only affects their livelihoods, it threatens to stifle creativity and inspiration, although the degree of impact depends on the genre. Artists can still create, musicians perform and compose, and authors write, but without outlets for their work, the creative spirit is dampened (in addition to the problem of paying the bills). There is still the online world of course, and while it provides an alternative platform which works better for some forms of creativity than others, it is not a substitute for the human interaction that participation in a live cultural event brings to both audiences and performers, consumers and artists.

And let’s not diminish the economic impact. This is significant. A recent study produced by Brookings, “Lost art: Measuring COVID-19’s devastating impact on America’s creative economy”, estimated the loss to the US economy for just the four month period of April through July to be 2.7 million jobs and $150 billion in lost goods and services for creative industries. The hardest hit subsector was fine and performing arts, losing 1.4 million jobs (50% of the jobs in the sector) and $42 billion in sales as concerts, theatres and galleries suspended operations. Design and advertising lost 13% of jobs, publishing 9%, film and TV 7% with smaller losses among other categories such as architecture and fashion. Among specific occupations in the creative industries, the hardest hit were photographers, who saw a decline in jobs of almost 17% with a 21% decline in income, but many other occupations were also hit—musicians, actors, writers, artists, and so on. And this is in a diversified and sophisticated economy where digital penetration is high. Can you imagine the impact in countries less well endowed?

In fact, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has surveyed the impact across many societies and economies. Quite apart from the loss of income support, COVID has had devastating effects on the cultural sector worldwide. UNESCO reports on empty cultural sites, closed institutions, suspension of cultural practices and unanticipated negative by-products such as looting of cultural sites as a result of inadequate security, lack of ongoing conservation work owing to loss of revenue, loss of educational materials, and loss of cultural diversity through suspension of cultural social practices. The impact has disproportionately hit poor countries and vulnerable groups the hardest, where out-of-work artists have no social safety net to fall back on. It is worth remembering that 46 % of the global population is offline. “Working from home” is often not a viable option.

UNESCO estimates that many museums, up to 13%, may never re-open, especially those largely dependent on admission revenues for financial support. In a survey, one third of independent galleries and art dealers indicated that they do not expect to survive. Some art institutions may have to close permanently. Overall, there could be a loss of 10% of GDP in some countries because of the impact of COVID on cultural industries, especially where culture is a key driver of tourism.

Is there any glimmer of hope in this bleak landscape? If you subscribe to the theory that out of adversity comes strength, then possibly some good will come out of the adaptations that have been and will be necessary to live with COVID.

First, I think COVID has shown us just how important culture, creative industries and institutions are to our daily lives, not just in economic terms but to our ability to exist as sentient beings. Think of the enjoyment and release that music provides, the escape of a good novel or film, the appreciation of the ingenuity of creators in the visual and plastic arts—in short, the importance of culture to spiritual recovery. For those of fortunate enough to live in a digital world, there has been an opening of new possibilities for access to content. But this can also be a double-edged sword for local creators who may suddenly find themselves in competition with artists a continent away. To cite a local example, my small but proficient regional orchestra, the Victoria Symphony, has not been able to present live performances. The alternative is to try to get the musicians together—in smaller groups than the full orchestra—to perform online. That draws people back in, and the next step will be to try to convert this online interest into revenue generation. But getting people to pay for online content is a challenge especially in a world of unlimited alternatives. If I am going to watch and listen to an online performance of, say, Mozart, why would I choose a local orchestra over the finest in the world, also available online?

Museums and galleries face the same challenge and have gone digital, mounting virtual exhibits and tours, similar to what classical music organizations are trying to do. That can work well where the offering is unique (rarely is this the case with classical music), but virtual exhibitions need to offer something special that cannot be obtained elsewhere. And, while the online environment offers consumers the ability to see or hear content, it does not offer the context of viewing or listening to it live, in an interesting museum building or concert hall, sharing the experience with others. We all know what the Mona Lisa looks like, but it’s the real thing that we want to see. That is what COVID restrictions are denying us.

So what is the answer? To date many of the responses from governments have been to provide various types of financial support to the sector, as I noted in a blog I posted early in the pandemic (here). The maintenance of subsidies and the provision of some income support helped stave off immediate collapse and enabled many organizations and creators to manage—barely—for the time being. Much of this support is of an interim nature however, providing help to get through the next few months while we wait to see what happens with COVID. This will be great if in the end we come out this collective experience with a vaccine, or a cure, and everything goes back to the status quo ante. Personally, I’m not betting on it. I have a feeling that we’re in this for the long-haul and that COVID—or the next pandemic—is going to require us to do some things differently on a more permanent basis. One of these will be the ways in which we interact with culture and consume content. But first we have to figure out how to sustain the sector economically.

There are various measures that can be taken to address the financial challenge that creative industries and professions are facing, although some painful adjustments are, I think, inevitable. With regard to the US, the Brookings study comments that;

“Small, stop-gap measures will not undo the damage; a substantial and sustained national creative-economy recovery strategy is required. This strategy must be bottom-up, but supported across the board and led by local public-private partnerships between municipal governments, arts and cultural organizations, economic development and community groups, philanthropy, and the private sector, with support from federal and state levels of government, national philanthropy, and large corporations.”

Brookings also notes that;

“…technical support is also needed (especially for smaller organizations) on how to conform with health and safety requirements as well as how to adapt their business models in light of a protracted period of restrictions on live performances”.

Going local might be the only alternative, just as domestic tourism has been encouraged to offset declines in international travel.

With reduced demand for large cultural events as a result of social distancing, there is an opportunity for communities to shift to locally sourced culture. Communities can develop strategies to hire local creatives and create online portals and platforms to allow residents and businesses to hire local artists, musicians, and performers for smaller-scale, local events.”

Locally, I have recently been to a performance of our ballet company, with just 40 people in the audience. The hall was set up cabaret style, limited to a “social bubble” of four at a table, and no table-hopping. Hand sanitizers decorated the cabaret tables along with a small bouquet. People were escorted into and out of the hall, with no mingling. The tickets included a generous donation, with a tax receipt, to the company. It is one way to survive for the time being and give young performers a chance.

While performing arts faces particular challenges, the film industry, music and publishing have been adapting to change brought on by digital technology for a number of years. COVID will accentuate those changes; for film production this will mean collapsing cinematic and streaming windows as the bricks and mortar cinema model faces new challenges; for music it will mean fewer live shows (an important revenue earner) and more reliance on thin online revenues; for publishing it will mean continuing to find ways to preserve the value proposition of physical publications. Greater reliance on digital platforms means greater susceptibility to digital piracy, and even greater efforts will have to be made to equip rights-holders with the means to combat piracy. 

Some elements of the cultural landscape will be changed permanently. There will likely be a shake-out when it comes to theatre, dance, classical music groups and artists, with the strongest surviving and others going out of existence.  Some creators will leave their professions to earn a living elsewhere. We will all be the poorer for this winnowing, although perhaps we will better appreciate the cultural entities and individual creators who survive.

I have no crystal ball, so as we now struggle through the second wave of COVID it is hard to know how our world will be changed. It is unlikely that we will ever go back to way things were pre-pandemic, but what the “new normal” will look like is still only emerging. In the meantime, let’s try to hold on to what we have, support and encourage our creative communities as best we can, and give thanks for the intangible yet essential nutrition we get from our creative industries and cultural communities.

© Hugh Stephens, 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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