Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Covid Arts – The Arts in the Time of Pandemic
Dr. Olga Kolokytha, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, University of Vienna, Austria.
The Covid-19 pandemic does not only have a profound impact on health and economy worldwide, but also severely affects the cultural sector, which is among the first and most severely hit. All arts organisations have suspended their operation, all cultural events have been cancelled for the foreseeable future – in early April 2020, the time of writing this text – and hundreds of thousands of freelance artists and culture professionals have been left unemployed. Here in Vienna, which is also celebrating the Beethoven year 2020, the season for cultural organisations is already over, and, according to the last information on behalf of the authorities, there will be no events to take place in front of the public until at least the end of June.
One would think that, at this stage, the biggest challenge lies within the precarious working conditions of the artists, who are facing major financial difficulties because of all the event cancellations all over the world, but the museum sector is not left untouched – on the contrary. Even the wealthiest of arts institutions find themselves in a position in which, they have to suspend their operations and have no option but to fire professionals who work in them – see for example the case of MoMA, which had to terminate all the contracts of its educators – and at the same time they have to make themselves available to maintain the connections to, and communication with, their visitors and audiences.
The case of European countries that have suffered extensively by the financial crisis is interesting to note here as well. The Greek Ministry of Culture, for example, has recently announced the support of contemporary culture with €15 million, which will be directed towards concrete measures such as designated calls for the support of regional culture, small theatre organisations, contemporary dance, the development of short films and documentaries, and digital culture initiatives. This budget will also support art galleries, e-reading initiatives, the promotion of Greek publications, as well as contemporary Greek artists, through commissions from cultural institutions, among others.
There are many different sociological aspects and contexts that we as scholars and/or culture-makers will be called to look at. This period of social distancing and self-isolation has been marked by extraordinary acts of solidarity all over the world, in every domain and aspect of everyday life. It is probably the first time that society as a whole has demonstrated such unity, and an unprecedented number of actions of solidarity have taken place in such a short amount of time, from volunteers looking after elderly people, to industrial companies shifting production to making masks. Arts and culture are not an exception to this phenomenon, with artists performing online for free, and organisations showing their support to those in the frontlines of the pandemic, such as the initiative of the Greek National Opera to offer 20,000 free tickets for its performances to healthcare professionals as soon as it reopens and until summer 2021.
The arts have been proactive in assisting people in these unprecedented circumstances. One of the biggest developments of the pandemic in the arts sector is the turn of arts organisations towards various digital formats of cultural experience. The Vienna State Opera, for example, is holding online performances on its streaming platform, the National Theatre in London showing full-length plays every Thursday night, and the Museum of Science and Technology Leonardo da Vinci in Milan initiated a series through its social media called Storie a Porte Chiuse – Stories Behind Closed Doors, which narrated stories about the museum, its collections, archives and repositories, using video footage and archival material every day from the 25th February until 25th of June. The role and the importance of digitisation in the arts sector has become obvious through these initiatives of cultural organisations reaching out to their audiences through digital means, both as part of their mission to provide culture to citizens, and also in an effort to reach out to, and maintain the link with, their audiences of the future.
The significance of the arts has now become more explicit, perhaps because it is more needed than ever. Their ability to address different communities in times of hardship is obvious all over social media, where people post and comment on arts initiatives that keep them company, educate, entertain, and also console them through the period of social distancing and quarantine. At this time of unprecedented uncertainty, the arts provide a beacon and a common point of reference for the community to associate with and hold on to. As a result, different notions of arts spaces and different manifestations of cultural citizenship are created.
There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed, such as the sustainability of small-scale cultural organisations, of all those museums or collections that do not currently receive any income from visitors, and will not until further notice, but also the small-scale theatre and music groups who will not be performing for a so-far uncertain amount of time. Even large-scale organisations, such as the Metropolitan Opera, have already turned to urgent fundraising campaigns, which gives us a flavour of how critical cultural institutions envision the aftermath of this pandemic. The fragile conditions of freelance artists and culture professionals, administrators, technical staff, and all those who belong to the arts sector, is also an issue that seeks urgent solutions.
How is the next day going to be? And what will be the place of the arts in the new landscape after the Covid crisis? A number of responses from the cultural sector are already gathered by a number of cultural associations and organisations, such as the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO), KEA European Affairs, the International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts-IETM, and the Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends, to name but a few.
It remains to be seen whether the shift of cultural organisations to digital initiatives will be a temporary situation, or will become the norm – in which case, there will be substantial changes to audiences as we know them, and to cultural participation and cultural experience. Some measures in the form of financial assistance have already been initiated around the world, but more will definitely be necessary to support artists and cultural organisations, and to contribute to the sustainability of cultural institutions. One thing is certain: nothing will be the same after the Covid-19 pandemic. And its effects will have a profound impact not just for the economy, but for the arts and culture as well. This period will mark our lives forever.
Comment on this article – log in with your ESA username and password: a comment field will appear.