François Matarasso

What are we saving, and why?

This is an awful moment to be responsible for a cultural institution. Forced to close the doors overnight, you are flung into a torrent of demands and unprecedented decisions. There are staff who will need paying within days; freelance artists who can’t do their work; fridges of perishable food in the café; health hazards to assess; anxious trustees to reassure; donors to placate. Emails and phone calls flood in at all hours, each one asking questions you can’t answer, if only because you have no idea when you will reopen or in what conditions. After the first hours, you’re trying to save money wherever you must while honouring commitments where you can. Staff not furloughed have become ‘unproducers’ – dismantling the arrangements for future productions, exhibitions, festivals and events. It’s like producing, but with more pressure and no reward. Others are rapidly creating the digital offer through which you hope to keep an audience and demonstrate that, behind the shuttered facade, everything is fine – no, really, we’re coping, still working, thanks for asking. We’ll be back, very soon.

No one became a curator or a theatre director for this. It wasn’t covered in those MA degrees in arts management. Crises are not uncommon in the arts – a fire in the building, a media scandal over a show, a cut in funding. Good managers cut their teeth on such things and take them in their stride. But this is not a crisis: it’s apocalyptic. There is no one to turn to for support because the whole cultural sector is fighting their own fires. And beyond the cultural sector it’s the same. We’re all in it together, but each of us has to deal with their own problems.

In such circumstances, it’s not surprising if people sometimes make the wrong choices, as New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) appears to be doing with its education programme. According to a recent news report, MoMA has dismissed all its freelance museum educators, offering to pay them only for work due before the end of March. The museum is a private non-profit organisation, entitled to make decisions as it sees fit. It is also, Wikipedia tells me, the seventh largest US museum by budget, with annual revenue of $145 million and assets – not including its collection – estimated at $1 billion. In that context, the education service can hardly have been a major liability. Indeed, according to the press report, the explanation given to the sacked educators is that, even when the museum reopens:

“It will be months, if not years, before we anticipate returning to budget and operations levels to require educator services.”

Last year, I published a book with the subtitle How participation won, and why it matters. It was, in the way of subtitles, intended to be eye-catching, but it also expressed my view that participation has become a defining force in culture during the past half century, and that art institutions need to recognise and adapt to new expectations. Dismissing your educators because you think you won’t need them is the choice of an institution that has not understood that change, nor begun to imagine what the world will be like when it does re-open its doors. The financial and cultural power of a great institution can shelter it, at least for a while, from responding to the first development. Whether it will be equally protected from the consequences of the second is much harder to say.

I’m only beginning to ask myself how things will be after the pandemic, and I’ve no more foresight than anyone else. But it seems impossible that life will resume where it stopped. There have already been thousands of deaths and there will be many more. Millions will be mourning loved ones they could not even see at the end. Countless lives will have been damaged by the loss of income but also the loss of security that having regular work – perhaps as a freelance museum educator – gave. People might think differently about one another – better, surely, of health and public service workers who have protected them during this period, and of neighbours and strangers who’ve made new ties of friendship and community. Worse, perhaps, of those who have seemed to put their own interests first, and who don’t recognise what lands have been crossed and what new hopes have been raised as a result of hardship.

The responsibilities of cultural leaders today are awful (in the old sense of inspiring awe) and I wouldn’t swap places for a minute. But they are awful because they are so important. It might be a long time before the attention of those who run our great institutions can shift from rescue to recovery, but they should already be asking what they are saving and why. My guess is that every cultural institution will have to renew its relationship with its audience, and that empathy will be one of the most important assets they can bring to that process. Then, the museum educators might prove to be the most important members of staff – if you can win back their trust.

The image of the MoMA yard is from Wikemedia Commons