Arts, culture, and the instinct of recoil

by Gareth Roberts

The COVID-19 pandemic is already having a profound altering effect on our towns and cities. The restrictions placed on business operations and social interactions have rendered places temporarily incapable of offering many of the functions, and ultimately serving the purpose, that we have erstwhile looked to them to provide. Much of the focus thus far has been on the high street, specifically retail, and the implications for places large and small the pandemic presents. However, equally as important to many places, and a by-product of the structural changes we’ve witnessed over several decades which have increased its significance, is the role of arts and culture.

Michael Edwards of Chicago’s Loop Alliance, a form of business improvement district which covers downtown Chicago’s most dynamic mixed-use area, outlined their approach to recovery planning at IPM’s recent international webinar. Incidentally, the Loop district is home to a world-class cultural offering, including the Art Institute of Chicago – the 2nd largest art museum in the United States, and Millennium Park – which features Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture. Michael suggested that the district’s emphasis on being ‘clean, safe and fun’ would now change to a focus on providing an environment that is ‘clean, safe and healthy’. This swapping out of ‘fun’ for ‘healthy’ is a necessary approach that we are likely to see enacted in all places as we move through the crisis and into pre-recovery. IPM’s 25 factors that contribute to place vitality and viability demonstrate the importance of the ‘fun’ Michael refers to, with ‘experience’, ‘non-retail offer’ and ‘innovation’ (which includes events and festivals) constituting crucial components of successful places. Cultural provision features heavily within these, and with safety and social distancing requirements now the foremost consideration, it is these factors that will slip as priority areas – at least until we enter the recovery/transformation period

Photo by author. Sarah Morris at White Cube Gallery.

Indeed, the immediate practicalities of the situation for the cultural sector are stark. Restrictions put in place to combat the pandemic have been broadly consistent across the world, with cultural provision – being as it is non-essential – universally closing its doors to the public. In New York, the Met Museum was one of the first cultural institutions in the United States to opt to close its doors, setting off shockwaves across the sector and resulting in many other galleries and museums following their lead. The provisional Met estimate was that they would be closed until July, resulting in an estimated $100m loss in income (across admissions, shop, and cafe/restaurants). Whilst this is alarming, the Met is in the advantageous position of having amassed an estimated $3.6 billion endowment (essentially a cash reserve built primarily through donations). Clearly, the majority in the sector won’t possess such a safety net. The National Centre for Art Research (a U.S. organisation), estimates that on average, museums and galleries in the states have cash reserves to remain operational for approximately 13 months, however this is skewed significantly by a small number of well capitalised museums (the Met being a prime example). The reality for many in the U.S. cultural sector, which we can reasonably assume also applies to the UK and across the world, is that this period will be considerably shorter, so it seems likely that some institutions may never re-open their doors. As such, the cultural assets of our towns and cities will quite probably be diminished as a result of the pandemic. 

This raises a number of important talking points for arts and culture and the role it plays in our towns and cities. On a practical level, how will cultural operators/attractions survive an extended period of inactivity, and for those that are able to reopen, how will they do so in a way that ensures people are confident to return. Then, perhaps more interesting, is consideration of how the legacy of the fallow period will impact on the longer term future of the cultural sector and influence our fundamental relationships with places, how we perceive them, and the intrinsic value they possess.

The UK government’s three-stage plan, which would appear to span IPM’s COVID-19 pre-recovery/recovery phases, is vague when it comes to museums/galleries reopening, but one could assume that this provision will come under phase 3, provisionally scheduled for July at the earliest. Ireland’s five-phase plan is more specific, with gallery and museum openings coming in phase 4, which has an implementation date of July 20th. Theatres and music venues will reopen in phase 5, scheduled for August 10th. So the UK cultural sector is facing, optimistically, another two months of closure. The sector has been able to access the government’s furlough scheme, which covers 80% of employee wages for a set period that was originally due to end in June, but is likely to be extended. Whilst this is welcome, and contributes to the short-term survival of cultural provision, there are concerns as to how long this can be sustained.

To assist with bridging the gap, Arts Council England recently introduced a £160m fund to support the cultural sector, receiving over 14,000 applications. However, they have accepted that they will not be able to help everyone, with the somewhat grim acknowledgment that the fund is intended only to, “prevent the fabric of the cultural sector from unravelling immediately.” Elsewhere, esteemed theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh has suggested that productions are some way off being able to restart, acknowledging that it’s, “inconceivable whilst social distancing measures are in place,” and thus calling the future of the West End and Broadway into question. Indeed, this comes amongst calls from other theatre professionals for urgent government bailouts in order to prevent the industry collapsing. In Greater Manchester, the Combined Authority’s Night Time Economy Advisor, Sacha Lord, has introduced the ‘United We Stream’ fund to raise money through donations for night time economy operators in the city (including theatres and music venues). 

Whilst welcome, the period for which these measures and initiatives can be sustained is limited. Funding, and the good will of the public in supporting cultural provision, can’t be expected to endure indefinitely, and as such the emphasis will soon shift more firmly to when, and how, the cultural sector can begin to reopen and generate its own revenue. It is this prospect that raises the more fundamental considerations of our relationships with place, and unfortunately, it may be when the real problems for the cultural sector begin. 

It is certain that the period of recovery and transformation will be protracted. Whereas the introduction of lockdowns across the world were largely instantaneous, the reversal of these measures will be staggered, and likely imbued with uncertainty and ambiguity. Aside from the key driver of public health advice, the recovery will be predicated on the confidence of the general public in returning to public spaces and attractions, and one would assume this confidence will need to be developed and rebuilt over time. Indeed, the period of time it will take for us to return to an operational degree of comfort in public space will be, to an extent, relational to the duration of time we are instructed to avoid this. In other words, the longevity of the lockdown will have a direct relationship on the duration of recovery. Since being instructed to ‘stay at home’, we have become accustomed to doing just that, trips to the shop for groceries are now anxiety inducing ordeals, we carefully slalom through others in public space where previously we’d have paid no mind. We have all, to varying degrees, developed an instinct of recoil throughout the crisis. This instinct has become further entrenched the longer its deployment has been necessary, the result being that it has become a habit that won’t be easy to shake off. 

Photo by author. Sarah Morris at White Cube Gallery.

So, for those in the cultural sector that are able to weather the initial storm, ride out the crisis stage intact and are in a position to open when permitted, the real challenge will be how to ensure people want to visit them again. Will people want to attend theatre shows? Will people be willing to return to galleries and museums? How will social distancing and safety requirements impact on the experience of visiting these institutions? Anyone who has visited the Louvre will attest that their experience was anything but geared to ensuring social distancing. Being able to view the Mona Lisa without a sea of other tourists with camera phones aloft blocking the view would, on the one hand, be a welcome change. However, for the museum, their business model will be predicated on achieving requisite visitor numbers, with the whole operation structured around this. See also theatres and music venues, who too will rely on a minimum number of paying customers. If social distancing puts paid to this, then the model ceases to be viable. Unless people are willing to return in their numbers, and unless regulations/safety restrictions permit them to, then institutions will find themselves in the unenviable position of costs of operation that are not supported by revenue. What about price/admittance increases to counteract lower capacities you may ask? The crowd science indicates that ensuring requisite social distancing based on current guidelines, and reconciling the necessary decrease in capacity with a compensatory increase in cost, presents an unrealistic scenario – at least for attractions that require visitors to remain in stasis for prolonged periods (music venues, theatres). The capacity would be too low, and the required revised price of admittance would simply be too high. Provisional estimates set the personal space requirement for one individual at anywhere between 5-12m², so for many attractions it’s not a workable option. For galleries and museums that can work with managing steady flows of people, this will be more worthy of consideration. Reduction in offer and implementation of lower cost structures is another possibility, but how much can be stripped back before the ‘product’ or experience loses its lustre?

Whilst in the UK we will need to wait until July to see how readily the public return to visiting museums/galleries and other cultural attractions. Elsewhere, countries around the World are pressing ahead, with openings planned for this month. Some museums in Germany opened their doors in early May, with Belgium and Italy scheduled to follow suit later this month. Bart De Baere, director of Museum van Hedendaagse in Antwerp, Belgium, has suggested that museums are ‘ready to serve as a test room for the post-lockdown experience’. He may have a point. The willingness of the public to return to cultural provision in public spaces will be a proxy measure for the recovery period more broadly.  By extension, how other countries fare will provide an early proxy for what the UK and our cultural sector are likely to experience in due course. In essence, this is an opportunity to see into the future, and learn lessons prior to the event. In Seoul, South Korea, who have been heralded for their handling of the pandemic, galleries have been open for some time. Various Small Fires, a small gallery with a sister operation in Los Angeles, are maintaining their operation with careful safety and social distancing measures in place. For their current exhibition by American artist Josh Kline, visitors are invited to book private thirty-minute visit slots, with the entire experience being touch free. Doors are opened prior to arrival, with a single staff member on hand to answer questions. Clearly, the scale of this operation is far removed from the likes of the Met, or indeed even most smaller galleries, though it does offer an insight into the kind of measures that are necessary in the current climate to ensure that people are willing to suppress their instinct of recoil and feel comfortable in these spaces. 

Despite the furlough schemes, funds, and the best efforts of the cultural sector, cultural provision in our towns and cities will be hit hard. In a worst-case scenario, we’ll see a combination of some cultural provision ceasing operation before the end of lockdown (estimates from the U.S. suggest up to a third), followed by some of those that do reopen succumbing to the unviability of the operating environment they will face. Dependent on the extent of this cull, the cultural offer of our places may change significantly. This raises deeper, almost existential questions around why, and in what ways, we value places. Will London mean the same to people without its museums and galleries, will New York possess the same meaning without Broadway? Would Manchester without its music venues be the same city as it was before? These are somewhat extreme worst-case scenarios, but they exemplify the point; that sense of place and culture are intertwined, one without the other diminishes and dilutes. We create connections with places because of what they mean to us, and we ascribe this meaning based on what the places offer to us. We project aspects of ourselves into places so that they come to represent how we perceive ourselves (or how we’d like to be perceived). To have the meanings we value eroded or stripped out is therefore to lose part of ourselves. Once this happens, the places we have developed relationships with over time are no longer the same places, and no longer mean the same thing to us. The implications of this phenomena will be interesting to observe.

In time, the cultural sector will ultimately prevail and recover, but for many places, the interim period will be cause for recoil.