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COVID, acceleration of transformation in Arts & Culture

James Huang | 2021.07.27

One of the most distinctive outcomes of the crisis for the cultural sector is that it shrunk the global to fit our computer screens and made local events resound globally. The digital or immaterial became tangible, substituting for what we previously enjoyed as physical and proximate.

Deep, penetrating crises of the kind provoked by Covid-19, change convictions, invert perspectives and reinforce contradictions that previously seemed to be manageable. The crisis is resurfacing anxieties in the cultural sector about the role of technology, the physical experience of culture and the viability of funding models. Forcing adaptation to the exigencies of social distancing, the crisis will accelerate the digitalization of the cultural sector, overhaul funding models, reduce the dependence on physical presence and create a momentum for scaling up.  

Our collective experiences during the crisis confirmed that culture is indispensable in times of ordeal, but that it is more fragile than we think. Organizations in all corners of the world are facing the same difficulties of keeping afloat while implementing sanitary regulations, reorganizing events and reducing budget shortfalls. The strong demand in recent years allowed museums to increase ticket prices without suffering drawbacks. This appears now as a distant memory. In the new reality, there will be fewer visitors, strict restrictions on their numbers and public apprehension as to the safety or necessity of visits. This will force cultural organizations to reorganize and reduce their staff, adapt their operational models to lower demand and look for alternative sources of funding. It can be expected that some organizations will have to cease operations or to procure partnerships in order to survive.  

The end of physical? vs. digital

The crisis is likely to change the perspective on technology, as cultural organizations realize that they are vulnerable to unpredictable disruptions to their "physical” model. This will encourage investments in technology and the hedging of operational risk by building up digital capacity. Many cultural institutions already had projects along these lines, but the crisis will reinforce their interest in building up digital audiences. 

Organizations tend to be concerned about diluting the experience of physical attendance when offering digital services. But the crisis will help overcome their reticence and compel the reconsideration of the relationships between material and immaterial, digital and physical. These are often seen as opposite categories but can also be complementary. 

Direct contact with a work of art is important, and artists and musicians everywhere feel the loss of proximity to the audience. But the last few months have demonstrated that events in a particular time and space can be experienced emotionally by audiences in another time zone or geographic space as well. As the crisis confined us to our apartments and impeded social interaction, it also helped create a digital global community of cultural consumers who watched the same performances online and experienced similar emotions independently of space and sometimes even time. This experience confirms that digital does not necessarily mean "less”. Multiple cameras and high-quality sound are contributing to an experience that approximates that of the "physical” event. 

From individual to common platforms

Patterns of cultural consumption and production are evolving. At the rate at which technology is advancing, it is inevitable that digital platforms will become more important in the consumption of all cultural forms. The art market is leading the way, as we are witnessing a lot of new digital initiatives and platforms trying to subvert the physical restrictions on attendance to galleries and auction spaces.

The acceleration of the digitalization of culture will have wide-reaching consequences, affecting the organization of work, social inequality and consumer choice. The digital cultural sector was already heavily populated in the past by users who liked exploring on a broader scale than their local theatre or opera house can provide. The crisis enlarged the digital audience considerably - many of those who saw a ballet or an opera online for the first time may be tempted to do so more regularly.  

Monetization needs increased quality

There has never been so much cultural content available for free, as nowadays. There are free film festivals, online concerts of all kinds and amateur musicians streaming to the world. The sheer scale of global exposure to cultural content is unprecedented, especially among the less privileged parts of the population. It is intriguing to speculate on the effects of the crisis on cultural consumption. Its distribution will probably not change much, but its appreciation by society may increase. If the pie is growing in size, the smaller slices would still be bigger than what they used to be in the past. 

The expanding digital offer will raise the quality of cultural products and formats, as institutions worldwide will compete with each other to attract subscribers and digital audiences, and create partnerships with platforms. This means that high-quality productions will become increasingly affordable and accessible. hanks to the digital, it is easier than ever to enjoy performances in different genres. Another advantage is that an event can be put into context to create a unique digital experience around it by adding relevant materials. The customer has more power over digital content and the conditions of its consumption. 

COVID, acceleration of transformation in Arts & Culture
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