Cultural Institutions in Times of the COVID-19 Crisis

By Joanna Zienkiewicz

Due to COVID-19 the activities of many cultural institutions, as well as of creative/artistic businesses and of self-employed creative workers had to be suspended. The situation has exposed and amplified the usual precariousness of the cultural industry’s workers, being exceptionally difficult for those dealing with artistic media that require liveness or social contact: music venues, festivals, theatres, etc. Many, for instance Berliner Schiller-Theater can count the losses from the performances that got cancelled in millions of euros, threatening the existence of the institutions and the jobs they offer (Wagińska-Marzec). Although audiences are usually encouraged to keep the tickets for events they already bought to use at later dates, any need to return the revenue already made adds extra pressures to the situation of reduced income. At the same time, arts and entertainment are consumed by the society of lockdown probably more than ever: stuck at home, many turn to watching series, films, reading books, listening to music, and participating in online cultural events from the comfort of their couches. The switch to online events allowed many institutions – for instance, the Groningen music venues Simplon and OOST who decided to stream their DJs live on platforms like Twitch or Zoom – to preserve their audiences; however, as the online events are normally expected to be free of charge, they cannot make up for the revenue lost from predicted ticket sales. While arts and entertainment are then nowhere close to disappearing, the threat of cultural institutions and workers not being able to deal with the financial losses experienced in the pandemic leads to widespread calls for crisis funds, grants, and larger subsidies from the cultural sector.

In these times, it might be especially crucial to examine what leads to such vulnerability of cultural institutions in the times of crisis, and how it might be dealt with. As Bojana Kunst pointed out in 2018, precarity is at the core of cultural institutions – a highly flexible, but also insecure sector (168). With a focus on projects, institutions are grounded in projective temporality creating a peculiar loop between the present and the future (Kunst 169). They are simultaneously imagined and suppressing irrational imaginations through protocols, bound by the neoliberal falsehood of progression and economization of creativity, in a “complex rhythmical loop between acting as-if and imagining of what is not-yet” (Kunst 178). In her view, already before the pandemic there was a strong “need to develop imaginative temporal forms of working that would have the power to resist the flexibility and precarity of contemporary work” (Kunst 177). Today, this need seems more urgent than ever. In fact, the crisis appears to intensify the “not-yet” aspect of cultural institution workings: maintaining grants and previously made ticket sale profits depends largely on the promises of delivering the live performances/festivals to the public in an unspecified time of ‘once the COVID-19 pandemic is over’.

In response to the social calls for supporting the arts, many financial measures have been promised by governments, ministeries, and art funds on national and European level.  In the Netherlands, funds for non-subsidized professional arts workers, programs of support for subsidized cultural institutions, and allowances to pay fixed costs have been already introduced; a few more funds and loans are waiting to come into action (CulturalPolicies.net). Some other countries- for instance Poland- still wait for the proposed financial measures for the cultural sector (“subsidies for the development of digital forms of artistic creativity and an additional programme compensating losses in culture caused by the epidemic”) to be implemented, with the only one adopted so far being the “Anti-Crisis Shield” fiscal leniency program (CulturalPolicies.net).

The pandemic – and the financial losses associated with it- do not wait. Still, the procedures for obtaining funds, grants, and subsidies continue to be lengthy, even in the times of crisis. Often, they require artists to participate in creative project competitions and to prove the economic value that their “not-yet” imagined futures (in which they obtain the funds) would bring. The bureaucracy associated with such competitions leads to their potential inadequacy for the fast-developing crisis: for instance, choosing the winning projects within the Polish ministerial program promising “20 million Polish zloty for culture on the internet” took around 2 months, causing the program to not be implemented until the end of May – the time by which many cultural institutions were already allowed to begin reopening (Ministerstwo Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego). Additionally, as Daria Gosek-Popiołek (a Polish Left deputy) argued, many relief plans and grants assume that the no-contract employees of the cultural institutions are artists only, which leads to a failure of financial measures to address the loss of income experienced by other workers carrying out activities in connection with such institutions: an example could be workers who contribute to language, sport, and psychological courses publically available in regional cultural centers (Januszewska).

The reason for the inadequacies of some financial measures can often be traced back to deeper misunderstandings of the role of arts and culture within the neoliberal framework. Art subsidies, as Robert Oosterhuis stated, are often not viewed as legitimate by the public in the first place – this is the result of the subsidy boards catering mainly to the opinions of professionals rather than employing audiences, users, and participants in their decisions. Cultural institutions need to constantly prove their use for the society; project proposals and competitions exist to codify human creativity in the constraints of “progression” and “economystification” (Kunst). While seeking to liberate the arts from such constraints of neoliberalism can be an ultimate goal, one might also ask – within the system, why is culture regarded as inferior (for example, to the sciences) in economic value and potential of contribution to the society in the first place? Seeing as the arts make substantial contributions to the national GDP of most European countries (e.g. in the Netherlands: 3.7 percent, which is considerably more than agriculture, forestry, and fishing (CBS)), the prevalent questioning of economic and social legitimacy of art appears to be ideological rather than practical. In other words, it might be that the issue was never in an actual lesser socioeconomic value of the arts; but rather, in the difficulty to discuss the “logic of imagination” (Kunst) in terms of contained solid spaces and protocols which the current social order came to privilege.

For the cultural institutions to persist in the pandemic, the support offered to them should aim to resist precarity first and foremost. It could be beneficial for application procedures to be simplified and de-bureaucratized at least; additionally, the funds could address the crisis better if they were developed in close discussion with cultural institutions.

Works cited:

CBS. ‘’Culture and Media Contribute 3.7 Percent to GDP”. CBS, 3 Dec. 2019, https://www.cbs.nl/en-gb/news/2019/29/culture-and-media-contribute-3-7-percent-to-gdp.

CulturalPolicies.net. ’’Comparative Overview: Financial Measures”. CulturalPolicies.net, 11 Jun. 2020, https://www.culturalpolicies.net/covid-19/comparative-overview-financial/.

Januszewska, Paulina. ’’Koronawirus Zabija Instytucje Kultury. Czy Rząd Wyciągnie do nas Rękę?”. Krytyka Polityczna, 17 Mar. 2020, https://krytykapolityczna.pl/kraj/koronawirus-instytucje-kultury-daria-gosek-popiolek/.

Kunst, Bojana. ’’The Paradox of the New Institution: On Time and Imagination”. The Future of the New, edited by Thijs Lijster, Valiz, 2018, pp. 168-179.

Ministerstwo Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego. ’’20 mln zł na Stypendia dla Artystów! Rozstrzygnęliśmy II Część Programu Kultura w Sieci”. Gov.pl, 22 May 2020, https://www.gov.pl/web/kultura/20-mln-zl-na-stypendia-dla-artystow-rozstrzygnelismy-ii-czesc-programu-kultura-w-sieci2.

Wagińska-Marzec, Maria. “Niemieckie instytucje kultury w okresie pandemii koronawirusa”. E-Teatr, 24 Mar. 2020, http://www.e-teatr.pl/pl/artykuly/288332.html.

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