Here are the notes I prepared to speak at this morning’s meeting of What’s Next UK
No criticism: this is a brutal time. I have only respect for anyone carrying the responsibilities of running a cultural institution, trying to meet the different needs of staff, freelancers, audiences, funders and the wider community and avoid bankruptcy.
No certainty: my Impressions based on what I’ve seen and heard – I’ve no certainty of being right in what I say
Two ways of seeing themselves
Reading the submissions to the Civic Arts Award I was struck by one big difference: whether people saw their organisation’s survival as a management problem or as a community problem – in other words were they doing it alone, looking internally, or did they look outwards and see their future as inseparable from that of their audiences, suppliers, neighbours etc.?
Crises mark us, even define us: I expect that the reputations of many organisations – in the public, private and voluntary sectors – to be affected by how they are seen to have acted during the past year.
Two kinds of strategy
However they saw themselves, cultural organisations have also adopted two different kinds of strategies. The first was essentially about doing the work they do in other ways – most obviously online. Probably most organisations took that route. But others tore up their business model, or just left it on the shelf and asked how they could deploy their creative, human and financial resources to do something worthwhile. In some cases that took them a long way from their artistic mission and I don’t think they will necessarily want – or find it easy – to go back to what they did.
Of course these differences in how they imagined themselves and how they acted are not binary – there is a spectrum of responses. But there is also a real difference here.
The obvious change has been in use of digital technology. The past year has brought a long overdue transformation in use of and attitudes towards this, and there will be no going back. It is changing many things – audience profiles and expectations, business models, staff needs and so on. The only thing I can say about it with confidence is that the future will be hybrid. Live performance will never lose its appeal or importance, nor will visiting a museum: but people will expect a parallel digital offer.
The big concern here has been access, and it’s true that perhaps one in 5 people does not yet have the digital access others take for granted. The reasons are varied and where it’s a matter of equipment or data, some organisations have stepped in to offer help. We could do much more, with our cupboards full of unwanted but still serviceable computer equipment.
More positively, digital technology is also extending access – people with disabilities or for whom the bus fare to a workshop represents a significant expense, or living in rural areas are among those whose access has been transformed. Limits on numbers, costs and geography are being redefined. We need to understand and protect the best of this new access.
It’s essential to think about after: people will be traumatised, grieving, burdened by debt and uncertainty; children will have lost a lot, but it will be less obvious – and remember artists are also members of their communities, living the same difficulties
There’s been talk of ‘getting back to normality’ though it has diminished as this has gone. But whether you want to get back to normality depends on what normal was like for you before. I think there are a lot of people who will be asking for things to change – for their sacrifices to be recognised and justified by a new social settlement, like the Welfare States that came out the Second World War
- What can you offer them?
- What kind of experiences?
- What kind of stories?
- What kind of involvement and openness?
The photo at the top of this post shows Wanahca, part of a painting completed by the Vermillion Community Mural Project (South Dakota, USA), during the pandemic. I’ll be meeting the artists, Amber Hansen & Reyna Hernandez, this evening to record the latest episode of A Culture of Possibility, the podcast I make with Arlene Goldbard