Last month, the OECD held a webinar on “Cultural participation and local resilience: Strategies for the recovery”. Their session “Covid-19 and festivals: industry response, strategies for the future and contributions to recovery” invited festival capitals around the world to share the impacts COVID-19 has on their sector, and the solutions that have emerged as these cities navigate towards a ‘new normal’.

The current situation is very conservative

In Adelaide, social connections, well-being, mental health, trade and investment, audience participation, volunteerism, business models of art enterprises etc. have been harmed.

In Singapore, performing arts are mostly hit; visual arts are better, but still quite limited. Festivals are significantly scaled down. In the worst months, all activities went digital. In better months, cultural venues stay partly open with a capacity of around 20%; and even so, it takes a lot of paperwork to bring in foreign artists. Increasing the capacity of bigger venues is foreseeable in the future, but testing is required beforehand.

Brussels suffered from a sudden attack on festivals in March. Public encounters are essential not just for arts, but is an integral feature of festivals. Meeting became a new value in our society, and the Brussels as a place for this encounter – the crisis has made us realise that.

Similar reductions in activities and incomes were also seen in EdinburghWith 40% of their annual audience coming from abroad, COVID-19 has been a major shock to the Scottish festival capital's creative and leisure economy.

Public safety, terrorism, or other risks have always been there to be considered by Krakow when organising festivals, and now a pandemic. Significantly, 12% of the city’s budget is allocated to culture, and a fourth of that to major festivals. However, even planning future events is difficult, with double or triple scenarios.

Digitalisation as plan B

Digitalisation is a frequent topic of discussion when exploring COVID-19 alternatives. A digital shift is experienced in Adelaide, but questions how to use these platforms to serve international cooperation and all the sectors affected by the physical restrictions of COVID-19.

Going digital opened new opportunities for Singapore, with a virtual live discussion with Margaret Atwood – who would otherwise be reluctant to take a nine-hour flight for a face-to-face session. The city is looking into new innovative business models to make art financially sustainable, especially concerning monetising digital arts. An initial research showed that the audiences are willing to pay around $10 for such an event. Fund-raising has a new form, with a live streamed event with dinner packages delivered to the homes of the audiences.

A digital plan B has emerged for Brussels. Exploring new business models is energy and time intensive – while at the context of COVID-19, it was needed urgently, accumulating a burn-out situation for festival-makers. Nevertheless, innovations were made and new skills were learnt, which is useful for the future.

Digitalisation is not really an option for Krakow’s festivals, which are centred around direct artistic experiences. There has been more focus on local and virtual community-led events, mainly for arts’ sake. But the economic sustainability of art is still in trouble. Hybrid solutions with limited audience are not profitable, but still could give some continuity to artists and to cover their salaries. 

Emerging new solutions

COVID-19 restrictions gave rise to new form of cross-sectoral cooperation and resource sharing. The unused festival budget was distributed to artists and companies to work out some joint solutions. “Solidarity” and collaboration between NGOs, businesses, local public government has never been so tight.

The CCI in Edinburgh has simultaneously several projects in collaboration with the universities on digitally retooling projects, provision of an open-source kit for integration of sustainability into daily practices, geo-mapping of digital cultural venues for more sustainability for the future. Festivals Edinburgh has also conducted a research on their roles and impacts on the sector and wider ecosystems, to help define better strategies.

Public grants are vital for artists and performers to innovate, cooperate across sectoral boundaries and use the digital platforms. Down-sizing of the sector is not acceptable, civil society should be included in dialogues and listened to. In Singapore, the art and entertainment sector is the second priority for the Job Support Scheme (JSS) from the Ministry of Finance.

Arts uplift spirits, and ever more so now in times of isolation. In Europe, there has been a transition from the ROI model to Return of Investment for arts. It is essential that we see artists on the EU level as well, and start to improve their working conditions.

Watch the recording here.
Photo credit: Jonas Von Werne from Pexels