The European non-profit cultural sector and the Covid crisis
Crisis as Reconfiguration
A hypothesis: a condition of crisis can be thought of as a displacement in the relationships between beliefs and ideologies, soft and/or hard infrastructures and material conditions. In such moments, a breach opens in what is ‘normal’, what passes for ‘second nature’, allowing us to see these relationships in a new light and creating an opportunity for already existing dynamics to realign in ways that may create a new constellation. Crises modulate the network of relationships that define our world at that time with greater or lesser force in different parts of that network, but they do affect the entire network to some degree. Crises can intersect as for example in the ways the climate crisis inflects the refugee crisis or indeed the Covid crisis itself.
The crisis we are living through now emerged at the micro-level of a virus entering the human world. It led to the most extensive biopolitical experiment ever carried out, and for most Europeans of post-WW2 generations the past months have perhaps seen the most disruptive experiences of their lives. The virus is invisible, inodorous, impalpable. But it spread through networks of trade, transport and social interaction that are the basis of our globalised lives and had consequences that are massively visible and palpable: lives cut short, hospitals overwhelmed, morgues overflowing, streets and skies empty of cars and airplanes, work patterns transformed or eliminated, inequalities exacerbated, the freedom to move and congregate curtailed and surveilled.
Nesta in the UK recently published a blog outlining ‘Four Coronavirus Futures’: a ‘return to normal’ which however could not really take place, because the crisis has opened a breach in ‘normality’, breaking the equilibrium and accelerating the emergence of new configurations; a state of permanent emergency with growing inequality and almost structural instability; a neo-keynsian post-coronavirus settlement and finally, the ‘Big Brothers’ in which biopolitical control is intensified and embedded in ubiquitous technologies. There are certainly other variants that one could think of as well.
In the middle of all this, like many others, I feel the need to try and understand how my professional environment, the non-profit cultural sector in Europe, has been shaken by the crisis, how within this particular network beliefs, infrastructures and material conditions have been transformed and how its transformation might affect the overall network in its turn. The nodes of a network in crisis are not simply on the receiving end of shock waves, they modify them and re-transmit them and how they do so feeds in to what kind of new configuration emerges at a broader level. I see the role of cultural organisations as being primarily one of amplifying or attenuating beliefs about how the world is or could be through their choices of programming, their inclusiveness or exclusiveness and their modes and channels of communication. The ways in which cultural organisations react and act does affect the overall evolution of our world and therein lies our responsibility. So, thinking through the current situation can help us better understand not only what arts organisations are, but how what they become can be a factor in determining which direction our societies travel in.
Survival in a European Context
At the time of writing, the sector is understandably still trying to find its feet because the shock it underwent was massive and extremely compressed in time. There were 8.7 million jobs in the EU cultural and creative industries in 2018 and their contribution to the overall economy is higher than that of the automobile industry. More than 30% of workers in the sector are self-employed, more than double the average, and SME’s dominated most cultural activities except broadcasting. The precarity of jobs was among the first elements to be highlighted as institutions closed, revenue streams were virtually eliminated and staff were furloughed or laid off. Cultural organisations and, to the degree they organised themselves, independent cultural workers turned to the state and the states in turn looked to Europe. In this context, how Europe and member-states framed the ways in which the cultural sector was supposed to move on through the crisis are significant for what they tell us about more general dynamics at work as policy-makers grapple with novel situations and perceptions.
The European Commission, after a painful and damaging process, announced the Next Generation Europe plan which together with other ‘targeted reinforcements’ to the EU budget created a battle-chest of €1.85 trillion for the period 2021–2027, articulated across three pillars: Support to member states, incentivising private investments and addressing the lessons of the crisis. The latter primarily aims to improve health and civil protection infrastructures and systems, but also to support research in areas identified as vital: “health, resilience and the green and digital transitions” (more on these later).
Within this overall package the urgent needs and the strategic framework for the cultural sector were addressed by two fundamental categories of support. The first includes the direct support for European cultural initiatives. Despite lip service paid by the commission to the significance of the sector and despite the forceful recommendations of the Chair of the European Parliament’s Culture and Education Committee Sabine Verheyen, the new budget foresees a very limited increase from €1.32 to €1.52 billion over 5 years for the Creative Europe program, which is the fundamental funding instrument for culture at the European level. Smaller programs for support for cinemas in the form of vouchers and a new call for developing ‘digital mobility’ in the performing arts have also been announced alongside other limited measures. Cultural organisations may also access funds through Horizon Europe and Erasmus +, though these are not specifically cultural programs. The EU also launched the Creatives Unite platform in order to provide information about initiatives.
The second category includes horizontal financing packages for EU member states, parts of which the latter may use at their discretion to support the cultural sector. A large number of such support initiatives have been undertaken by member states and updated lists can be found here and here. Most of these focused on providing immediate financial support to institutions and workers using a variety of instruments, the most ambitious of which was the one developed by Germany. Member states also developed a significant number of initiatives, many of which aimed to make use of digitalisation and online distribution of content (here are just two examples from opposite ends of Europe).
A first point of reflection is that the Covid 19 crisis posed a serious threat to European unity, both because of the difficulty in articulating a common response and because it weakened the importance of a truly European response in favour of national initiatives and local actions, even if these were framed as seeking to stimulate ‘digital mobility’ and transnational cooperation and were funded by Europe. Delegating the necessary additional support for culture to member states suggests that it is not a fundamental element of EU policy and that the vision for Europe in fact remains very much based on markets, industry, and finance. It also inevitably exacerbates the differences in opportunities available to cultural organisations depending on their location and the funds available there. A second point is that the European plan builds on policies drawn up before the crisis such as the European Green Deal and the digital shift. In fact, one of the main conclusions from our experience so far is that the Covid crisis has acted as an accelerator of trends rather than as a matrix for new ones.
Solidarity in a fragmented landscape
How did cultural organisations and the networks they collaborate in react? Overall, there was an immediate and pan-European communication between networks and a desire to find ways to collaborate. This was manifested in the collective letter sent to the Commission by 37 cultural networks, in the development of information aggregators mentioned earlier to assist organisations in keeping track of support measures and in the myriad collaborative projects and platforms that emerged in order to promote artworks, artists and organisations. It is apparent that there is a need for a European cultural area of exchange and collaboration in which organisations can work together on the basis of programs and projects that concern them and their audiences, that this transnational work needs transnational support not provided by local state-led programs, that this cultural area is perceived as being under threat and that the European Commission has not sufficiently appreciated its significance for the European project.
Of course, the pandemic itself cut off channels of collaboration: borders were sealed, and movement restricted in a way that no post-WW2 generation had ever experienced before. However, it is essential to reflect on how this fact materially amplifies and symbolically super-charges a trend that predates the Covid crisis. The reaffirmation of European borders, externally and internally was already well under way, articulated within the financial crisis (with its singling out of the PIIGS), the refugee crisis and of course Brexit. In Greece, from where I write, the Covid crisis coincided with an escalation of the refugee crisis, and these were deliberately amalgamated in the headlines of leading newspapers proclaiming that Turkey was sending over refugees infected with the virus. The combination of physical border closures and the state-led response to support local cultural scenes creates a real danger of the emergence of ‘national’ cultural ideologies and policies. It is too early to say to what degree this will happen, but I would contend that the ways in which cultural organisations (and the artists they support and promote) react to this context will be a defining moment for the existence of a European cultural sphere.
The closure of borders had immediate consequences at other practical and financial levels also since it radically affected the whole touring circuit which was a prominent feature of the European cultural sector. This especially affects large-scale productions, which were often financially viable only if they toured extensively and played to full houses. The slow-down in tourism likewise adversely affected large museums whose revenues depend to a large degree on such visitors.
Covid, the Climate Emergency and the Arts
In the same way as the Covid crisis intersects with other crises (the refugee crisis, nationalism) so it does with the climate crisis. The sudden cessation of travel and many types of industrial production made clear the effects of human activity on our environment. Much was written about birds reappearing in city parks, radical reductions in atmospheric pollution and a new-found silence in urban spaces. This breach in our polluting normality gave rise to an encouragingly generalised conviction that any resumption of activity should not be on the same terms as before, but should be defined by sustainable practices, something that as we saw was also a key component of the European Commission’s declared policies even before the Covid crisis.
As with the previous theme of borders, but this time with laudable intentions, mobility within the cultural sector had been in question before the Covid crisis. At the very least, concerned organisations had started thinking of ways to limit or counter-balance the carbon footprint of festivals or the art world, large music acts had announced new approaches to taking their massive shows on the road and studies of the internationalisation of cultural work had scrutinised its environmental impact. In conversations with many colleagues throughout Europe over the past months it has been clear that, although pre-dating it, this factor has emerged during the current crisis as a major factor in planning projects for the future. It will be interesting to see how the sector evolves in this regard, but two trends are already apparent: there will be less touring and much of that will primarily be regional, permitting travel by train. The implications of this seem to be clear: the concentration of sufficient funds, extensive rail coverage and geographic proximity will reinforce a primary touring zone in central and north-west Europe and entrench a periphery elsewhere that has yet to develop its own regional networks and will be in effect left out of most touring schedules. Although the carbon footprint of touring must indeed be addressed, a collateral result might therefore be further geographic fragmentation of the cultural sector and an increase in already existing inequalities. It should be noted that although this is a trend that has been intensified during the Covid crisis it will continue to strengthen even when the pandemic is brought fully under control.
Physical Distance and Artistic Forms
It is difficult, at the time of writing, to foresee how long other immediate effects of the pandemic will endure, most notably the very strange and uncomfortable imperative of “social distancing”. Certainly, studies carried out during the current crisis have indicated that physical conditions are prime drivers in deciding whether to visit a cultural space or not. A lot will depend on how regulations change over time, with the availability of vaccines for example, but also on how the public’s attitudes have been affected by their experience of being subjected to the most extreme set of biopolitical controls the world has ever seen. The need to create and program less expensive productions or exhibitions will be strong for as long as physical distancing regulations in performing arts spaces and museums or audience attitudes make it impossible to generate enough income from ticket sales. It will be extremely interesting to see how artists and curators react by possibly questioning well established forms and formats but also how institutions that grew during the previous decades will evolve as formats and audiences shrink. Over the past decades there has been a boom in the development of large cultural infrastructures. In today’s circumstances much of this infrastructure is a liability. The challenge is certainly not the same for museums or galleries and for theatres, concert halls and smaller performance venues, but in all cases business models and the ways in which art is presented need to be thought through. Historically, there has been a tight connection between audiences, cultural spaces and artistic forms and we are perhaps living through a moment of radical re-alignment of these elements.
Resilience and Community
Above all and at a very practical level, for the cultural sector and the whole ecosystem of artists, workers and suppliers involved in it, this crisis has been and still is about survival. As we saw, the EU and the member states, to very different degrees, stepped in to ensure the short-term liquidity of workers and institutions, but these measures are temporary. As the question of funding, always at the top of most organisations’ and artists’ agendas anyway, becomes ever more urgent (in the context of a dire global economic outlook) and ‘bums on seats’ of necessity becomes secondary as a metric, funders (private or public) will require different validation of the impact of their support. Again, this is not a new trend. For at least the past 15 years cultural projects have been increasingly assessed based on their contribution to political, social / philanthropic and development agendas. More recently, issues of equality, inclusion and diversity have gained traction, underlining the importance of the strategies that cultural organisations develop to engage new audiences. The Covid crisis is likely to accentuate these trends. First of all, perceptions of what is most important to society are consolidating around issues of financial security, health and environmental quality. With limited budgets available and confronted by a recession of massive proportions and an unknown duration, the allocation of funds between the maintaining job security, strengthening health services or the cultural sector takes on a new aspect. The restriction on mobility has reinforced thinking about relationships with local audiences as a prime component of organisations’ strategies. Into this overall context one should also add the fact that the Covid crisis, despite its supposed action as a great leveller in fact impacted society very much along class and racial divides. As I write, the Black Lives Matter movement has burst onto the global scene with a force that has, I believe, been multiplied by the pandemic’s exacerbation of insecurity and the questioning of power structures that ensues from the perception of the system’s overall fragility.
The idea that an organisation’s resilience can be linked to the strength of its relationship with its community in a broad sense has also gained significant traction. This overall context poses a challenge to the cultural sector. How it takes it up will to my mind be the defining element of the coming years. Many of the underlying concerns emerging from the realignment caused by the Covid crisis intersect with concerns of the art world: the renewed calls for a Universal Basic Income are relevant to the sector’s job precarity and the imperative of making recovery consistent with environmental protection chimes with the art world’s growing attention to climate crisis. The need to engage more deeply with local audiences, the imperative of having an impact and making headway in addressing inequalities and exclusions, limited revenue and limited mobility (and the resulting restrictions on scale, complexity and cost of productions and projects) define an environment that will deeply affect both artistic and institutional choices. Funding, necessary to all those who work outside the terms of the market, will in all likelihood be increasingly available to those organisations and artists who engage with research and education, with policies designed to address social problems (genuinely or as palliatives) and also with industry. The capacity of the arts to respond to a wide range of needs and demands, from providing disruptive creativity to industry to helping to resolve deep issues of inequality and exclusion stemming from an overall economic logic has been a subject of much discussion for many years (see for example: Belfiore, Eleonora, and Oliver Bennett. 2007. ‘RETHINKING THE SOCIAL IMPACTS OF THE ARTS’. International Journal of Cultural Policy 13(2): 135–51.). The issue of whether the sector will undergo a phase of instrumentalisation or whether the actors involved will devise ways of addressing these imperatives and retain the speculative, critical and aesthetically innovative power of artistic work has been made even more pressing as the Covid crisis evolves.
One of the ways in which the cultural sector has reacted to the restrictions imposed by policies designed to contain the pandemic has been to massively move online. As I noted above, at the level of EU planning but also for cultural organisations this is not just conceived as a stopgap while the latter cannot implement physical programs, it is a fundamental policy. Clearly the implications of this vary tremendously with different sectors of the cultural world. Whereas museums are more sanguine about the potential of delivering content online as an alternative to physical visits, the performing arts see this as substantially more challenging. Overall, the reaction of the sector has been to saturate the web with artistic content and webinars, but it is doubtful whether at this stage and in most cases this is more than a tactical reaction and reflects a deeper strategic approach. Awareness of several important problems with online content delivery is also growing.
Quite soon, a recognition set in that uploading existing content is not the same thing as creating content for the Internet. The challenges in addressing this are certainly related to the costs involved, but also to the existence of the required skill sets within cultural organisations. As mentioned above, funding is being channeled in this direction but the ability to absorb it will depend on the sector’s capacity to adapt its human resources and workflows and its will to redefine the formats in which it creates content. This is another and critically important problem. Although there has been an impressive range and variety of online content generated over the past few months it is a truism to point out that the exclusive medium of delivery to audiences is a screen. If one reflects on the importance in recent years of experimentation with in situ projects, immersive technologies, interactive environments, participatory works, durational performances etc., as formats for creativity and audience engagement it is clear that the move online entails a radical curtailment of artistic possibilities. Not to mention the loss of communion between audience and artists that is so essential for the performing arts.
Furthermore, although the internet might seem to be a relatively barrier-free space, we know it is far from being a level playing field. Indeed, the more the volume of available content increases, the greater the investment needed to attract any kind of attention. For smaller cultural players these costs are quite simply prohibitive and even though engaging niche communities is within their grasp, this disadvantage will reinforce the disparity between wealthy and frugal organisations, much in the same way as the geographical zoning mentioned earlier. On a similar note, although by and large access to broadband internet services is increasing throughout Europe, this trend is not uniform, with significant disparities along class, age and geographic lines. Furthermore, it would be important to understand whether online content manages to attract more diverse audiences or whether it reproduces the attendance patterns of the organisations. Based on studies that show that the primary barriers to cultural participation are not cost or physical access but perceived representation and relevance (see two relevant reports here and here), one can doubt whether it does on its own lead to greater diversity. From experience many cultural practitioners recognise that engaging new communities involves physically going to those communities in ways that create connections with experiences and issues that are of importance to them. Achieving this online is far more unlikely and this should be borne in mind if, as I suggest above, embeddedness in communities is an essential component of an organisation’s resilience.
The move to digital also does not in any obvious way replace lost revenue streams. Whilst some very high-profile cultural organisations already offer ticketed streaming services they are the exception rather than the rule. For most, online was a way to raise one’s profile and provide ancillary services that create modes of fidelity, but revenue was generated through ticket sales, F&B outlets and merchandise. I also believe that it is doubtful whether website analytics will on their own convince funders: they reveal little about real audience engagement or impact and the virality of a video-work does not on its own say much about quality, though other online services such as providing resources or educational programs might be more convincing.
Taking our Place
Cultural organisations must therefore consider carefully what the centrality of digital media means for them and how it transforms their role in the creation and distribution of content. My contention is that we need to rethink their location in a media landscape that Manuel Castells [c.f. Preface to Castells, Manuel 2010. The Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed., with a new pref. Chichester, West Sussex ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.] has described as being defined by a convergence of horizontal (built on user generated content) and vertical (traditional flow from a centralised source to a user) networks of communication. Cultural organisations that have a fully worked out online strategy are indeed both broadcasters of content and aggregators of user-generated content of various kinds. They sit alongside traditional media in the networks of communication and create and influence publics in very much the same way, albeit using different forms of discourse and content. Understanding that cultural organisations are increasingly also media organisations is paramount if we are to conceive of ways in which they can articulate their potential as critical agents within the communication network and create spaces for challenging discourses.
The reappraisal of how the non-profit cultural sector has been transformed during the crisis and realistic assessments of how the various trends I have touched upon will continue to evolve is of critical importance. The challenges are quite monumental, and the bigger picture must not be obscured by the urgent need to ensure short term survival. No doubt the Covid crisis has revealed the precarity of the sector but durable remedies to this can only be developed if we are able to convince other actors (the state, funders, audiences, communities) that we are essential nodes in the social network. To do this we need to respond to our communities’ needs (including of course the needs of the artistic community) that have emerged with tremendous force during our current experience such as combating the climate crisis, addressing employment precarity or dismantling structural discrimination and to do so by changing our own practices as well. We need to understand that our own resilience is based on our contribution to the resilience of the societies we live in and whose support we ask for. We need to do this whilst confronting radical changes in the way we create and present art and at the same time finding ways not to weaken what makes the art we promote powerful; its capacity to invent, speculate, challenge, engage and redefine what we think is possible in our lives. We need to be aware of the new forms of social, geographic and economic marginalisation and fragmentation that the Covid crisis highlighted. We need to profoundly understand what our position in the digital communication network is and make use of our power as media organisations to amplify voices that open perspectives onto a more equitable world.