Ben’s Strategy Blog: Navigating a future for our arts post-COVID-19

Implicit in much of the discussion about the COVID-19 lockdown is an assumption that we will exit from this pandemic and return to some sort of ‘normal’, albeit possibly a ‘new normal’. However, there is a small but real chance that there is no end in sight for social distancing and that our society, economy and cultural activity is enormously changed. How do we go about thinking through this possibility in order to prepare?

Scotland’s cultural sector is in terrible pain and filled with uncertainty about the future. Artists and freelancers have seen their work dry up completely whilst companies have had to cancel performances, exhibitions and events through to the summer, with a second wave of cancellations now beginning. Film and TV production has all but stopped and cinemas are closed, even if streaming is booming. Edinburgh’s festivals from Easter through to the August jamboree have all been cancelled and tens if not hundreds of others across Scotland will follow suit. Individuals and organisations are facing a massive loss of income, despite Creative Scotland’s re-allocation of its funding and support. Many staff have been furloughed. Meanwhile, audiences across the land are missing the thrill and inspiration that comes from seeing and hearing live performances and events and experiencing works of art up close and full size.

Social not-distancing

The whole of the European performing arts tradition is based on people gathering together in a space, usually a building, for a shared experience. In this experience the audience plays an important part: a feedback loop between the stage and the audience energises both parties; the audience member’s experience is changed and heightened by their sharing it with other audience members; the performance changes with the presence of the audience as they see or hear and respond to what happens on stage, which influences, in real time, the performers’ interpretations and delivery. Part of the experience of participating in culture is also the social element: the mingling beforehand, seeing friends, enjoying (or not) the event as a group. Accordingly, the very architecture of cultural buildings and the work they put on are designed for people not social distancing. Like the best parties, the best theatre, music and dance takes place when as many people as possible are squeezed into slightly too small a space.

When will the lockdown end?

In the media the discussion is all about when the lockdown will end but, in the absence of a vaccine, the infamous herd immunity or COVID-19 for some other reason fading away (as other coronaviruses such as SARS admittedly have), performing arts events at least seem unlikely to restart for some time. A vaccine needs to be proven safe and then produced in massive quantities and the experts are talking about some time next year at the earliest – if one can be developed, which is not a given. The chances are that there will be some loosening of restrictions before a total relaxation but bringing large groups of people together in enclosed spaces is likely to be last on the list. As a leader in The Economist (free, but you need to register) says: ‘Managing [a part-locked-in, part-let-out world] depends on testing… It will not be available on a truly mass scale for many months’.

Time for difficult thinking – but how do we do it?

The UK’s status as one of the worst countries in dealing with the virus demonstrates why it’s important to prepare and think about difficult problems in advance. Although it’s hard and upsetting, while some of the cultural sector’s effort should be directed to working out how to get back to work, there also needs to be some thinking about what we do if that simply isn’t possible, at least for some years. But, how do we go about thinking about such an enormous change?

COVID-19 has provided us with an unwanted rehearsal for many of the issues that global heating raises (this article provides a take on this and it is interesting to read just three weeks after it was posted, when some of the more outlandish things it discusses have already come to pass) and there is a useful link with the way in which some people are thinking about adaptation to the impacts of climate change.

Creative Carbon Scotland is part of the Clyde: Re:Built project (a Deep Demonstration Project co-funded by EIT Climate-KIC) developing a transformational adaptation strategy and implementation plan for the Glasgow City Region. One of the project partners has done a review of the literature about what transformation actually means and what the barriers to achieving it are. The review isn’t published yet, but I’ll summarise some key points which may be helpful.

What is transformation – and why is this relevant?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines transformational adaptation as changing the fundamental attributes of a system in response to climate and its effects, so it’s easy to see the link with the situation we’re in: the system of cultural production and consumption needs to respond to a fundamental change in the environment we’re working in. Transformation is often described as ‘doing different things’ as opposed to ‘doing things differently’. There is also a common theme of moving from incremental adaptation, where effectively you change only as much as is necessary to keep things stable, i.e. doing the same things differently, to transformational adaptation, where you make bigger changes to the fundamentals, i.e. changing the system and doing different things.

Of course, doing different things is riskier and a greater step into the unknown, but it does also provide the opportunity to do better things. We know that the current system of cultural production is rife with inequalities in terms of who creates the work, who attends or benefits from it, the power structures and systems it represents and replicates.

In Scotland, it is (I generalise) largely white, older, educated and wealthy people who consume much of the subsidised arts and culture that we produce and those who produce it and work in the industry tend to be from the same demographic – except that often they are younger, female and ill-paid. (Hmm. Notice any links with the pandemic?) Why would we change the system simply in order to replicate the problems of the current one? The Scottish Government has adopted the Sustainable Development Goals and integrated them into its National Performance Framework. Maybe if we are going to ‘do different things’ we can genuinely address questions of social and environmental sustainability by shaping the new system differently. (This aligns with Creative Scotland’s focus on Equalities and Climate Change in its connecting themes, which I understand are increasingly important to the agency’s current funding review.)

What are the barriers to transformation?

The review also identifies some common barriers to adaptation. They fall into three categories:

  • Economic and financial: These might include the availability of finance to plan and make any changes as well as the risk that the changes simply make the organisational plan and budget unworkable. We might want to do better things, but the additional costs might make our work too expensive for audiences or other purchasers.
  • Policy, institutional and governance: Funding policy or agreements might not align with a changed approach (I experienced this at Contact in Manchester when I was told that the drama department of Arts Council North West wouldn’t fund a youth arts centre, which was effectively what I was proposing. That later changed, but not until the theatre had burned down and I had left!). Governance issues might apply when existing decision-making processes aren’t able to handle radically new ideas or ways of working that may involve different groups, cross-cutting themes or competing priorities. (Another problem I experienced at Contact, which interestingly now has young people operating at board level and participating in key decisions.)
  • Social and cultural: Emotional, cultural, psychological and cognitive factors can shape decision making and hinder change both in individuals and groups, such as boards or staff teams. Change is difficult and worrying, particularly when the potential changes are high risk or radical. Our habits may make change harder to achieve. We may be reluctant to cede more power to other people or to focus on different audiences that are not like us.

These aren’t all completely relevant here but are useful to consider. And crucially, uncertainty about the future underlies them all: should we spend money on something that may happen more slowly or not at all? What if the policy- and rule-makers don’t make the relevant changes, or move in a different direction? And we, our boards, staff members and audiences will almost inevitably find change more difficult if we aren’t certain about the need: maybe everything will be back to normal by September!

Interestingly, the literature review notes that sometimes barriers to incremental adaptation are themselves triggers to more fundamental transformation. Because it’s difficult to make the small changes necessary to maintain the status quo, particularly in a given time period, more radical change may become necessary, more possible or even more attractive.

Lessons for the cultural sector

As I indicated above, some of the lessons from the world of transformational adaptation echo my personal experience and could be useful for cultural policymakers and organisations, and maybe also for individual artists and freelancers. Addressing each of the barriers leads me to suggest the following, particularly for the boards of our cultural organisations and our policymakers:

  • Financial: It isn’t going to be enough to simply cushion ourselves sufficiently to get through the next few months or even years. We may well need to explore different financial and organisational models for a different world. These will surely involve different ways of bringing cultural work to the public, particularly digital ones, but this itself may not be sufficient. We need to be cleverer and think differently, perhaps radically re-imagining what it is that we do, what we are for: cultural organisations are social ones too. This applies as much to individuals as to companies, and funders and policymakers may need to rethink their support mechanisms accordingly.
  • Policy and governance: Building on this, are the boards of our cultural organisations stocked with the right people to do this clever thinking, with the right information and experience to hand? Contact solved some of its problems after the devastating fire by genuinely involving young people in its governance – it’s now thriving in a way that seemed impossible under the previous board (the chair for much of my time at the young-people focused theatre was 76…). Now’s a good time to think about who we will need to help steer and take responsibility for the long-term sustainability of our cultural organisations in this different future.
  • Social and cultural: Habits die hard and change is challenging. We may need help in changing our thinking, not just doing the usual sort of ‘revisioning’ and post-it note exercises, but addressing the emotional and cognitive biases that we all have. Funnily enough, artists (in the broadest sense) are quite good at helping with this. Let’s get them in (and pay them for their work).

Those who know me know that I call myself a long-term pessimist but a short-term optimist. I know that ultimately I’m doomed, but I wake up every morning thinking that I’ll do what I can today to make the world a better place. COVID-19 presents us with enormous problems, but we’re trying at Creative Carbon Scotland to find the opportunities in this situation: how can what we learn from the pandemic be applied to our work on climate change, and how can the necessary changes make the cultural sector a better, fairer one?


Image by Magda Ehlers from Pexels via Canva.

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Creative Carbon Scotland is a partnership of arts organisations working to put culture at the heart of a sustainable Scotland. We believe cultural and creative organisations have a significant influencing power to help shape a sustainable Scotland for the 21st century.

In 2011 we worked with partners Festivals Edinburgh, the Federation of Scottish Threatre and Scottish Contemporary Art Network to support over thirty arts organisations to operate more sustainably.

We are now building on these achievements and working with over 70 cultural organisations across Scotland in various key areas including carbon management, behavioural change and advocacy for sustainable practice in the arts.

Our work with cultural organisations is the first step towards a wider change. Cultural organisations can influence public behaviour and attitudes about climate change through:

Changing their own behaviour;
Communicating with their audiences;
Engaging the public’s emotions, values and ideas.

Go to Creative Carbon Scotland

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