An opportunity for change
All participants were clear that the pandemic had dramatically altered the arts and cultural sector landscape, particularly with regard to the workforce. The majority of the participants in the roundtable have unionized workforces, with long-standing collective bargaining agreements. A common theme of co-operation and engagement was obvious across many participants, as unions recognized the unparalleled scale and complexity of the implications of lockdowns. Unions set aside previous collective agreements and, at least while COVID was seen as temporary, staff were supportive on the assumption that there would be (or will be) a reversion to previous practice. This represented a window of opportunity for long-standing structural changes to be made with less media interest and more acceptance.
However, as theatres, galleries and halls remained closed, staff morale and well-being has become a greater concern. One participant highlighted the relative youthfulness of its performers, which meant a wave of COVID infection when restrictions were eased but before that age group had been vaccinated. The results in many cases were unplanned closures just as potential audiences were returning to work and to arts and culture venues.
Where redundancies and restructures have taken place, there is a risk of losing organizational memory and what makes an institution special. The key, as one participant put it, was to promote these changes as a positive that will build a stronger foundation for a sustainable future.
In addition, the competition for talent has intensified. Content producers like Netflix that have benefited from stay-at-home orders are now offering large salaries and new opportunities for arts and cultural talent, both in front of and behind the camera. Retaining those gifted individuals is going to require a strong vision of the social and cultural benefit delivered by the sector if it is to compete on something other than attractive wages.
Reflecting social reform
Alongside the pandemic, no attendee hesitated in highlighting the importance of the ongoing efforts to drive social reform.
An attendee with a strong historical record for diversity and inclusion was clear that racial equity was now a much bigger part of all conversations, with much more openness to positive inclusion actions. This ranged from color-blind casting to requiring professional advisors to have multi-ethnic teams and suppliers having proof of diversity policies.
Workforces are also more forthright about bringing forward issues of grievance and the need to see real changes in attitude and practice. What was particularly noteworthy was that this pressure is replicated by audiences as well. If institutions are to continue to fulfil the role of social conscience and cultural memory, there is an expectation that they will lead where others will follow.
New audiences, new channels
Selling the changes enforced on organizations by the pandemic as a positive, as well as exhibiting the changes demanded by social change, means that arts and cultural institutions have to alter their engagement with the public. Attendees had clearly picked up the pace and saw these two threads as intertwined; delivering one would help deliver the other. Thinking afresh about how the public consume content in the very broadest sense could allow institutions to grow and fulfil their changing social mission much more effectively.
Lockdown meant closed buildings, so many institutions went online and some simply went outdoors. Institutions previously rooted to one location in one city began to reach out via new channels to new audiences eager for experiences while at home. This is unlikely to be a short-term phenomenon. Even where lockdowns have largely ended, at least for now, workforce patterns have changed. In large cities, the night-time economy may look very different with fewer people in the office Monday through Friday. Will people go to the opera after work, for example, if they’ve not commuted to the city that day?
With new channels, participants reported a much broader engaged demographic, but opinions varied on how best to retain and grow that demographic. In practice, a move toward more digital engagement means running, in parallel, two institutions — an online virtual one, and the physical establishment. While lockdowns persisted, providing digital engagement was a useful and beneficial activity for staff that would otherwise have had little to do. But as institutions reopen and those people return to their previous roles, one attendee was concerned that major investment would be needed to sustain the online presence. It’s a competitive space and one that institutions need to understand much more completely than was necessary before the pandemic.
COVID has clearly fundamentally altered the underlying economics and, in conjunction with calls for social reform, has changed the social mission of institutions that are keystones in our cultural lives. Roundtable attendees are fully aware of this transformation and are not only working to mitigate the risks but also to embrace the opportunities. Some of the changes may not be by choice, but creative thinking is one of the strengths of the sector, as is the talent to make those changes beneficial for everyone.