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Photo: KSNB / AP Photo / Jeff Chiu

Up until a week ago shuttered arts organizations were on the front line of reporting about the economic and social impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, alongside airlines and cruise ships, restaurants, hotels, conferencing and live entertainment. They have, inevitably and justifiably, all now been overtaken by more visceral reportage of health and social services as hospitals and emergency workers try to prepare for whatever lies ahead. The sector has pretty well shut up shop across North America, Australasia, Europe, the Middle East and most of Asia…museums, theaters, festivals, concert halls are all dark. By the time this article is printed, sub-Saharan African and Central and South America will probably have followed. 

The closures were initially “voluntarily” as the sector was confounded by the challenges of forward planning of programming and the sudden collapse of demand; now closures are mandatory as city-, region- and country-wide lockdowns have come into force, at least making insurance policy force majeure clauses easier to interpret. In the short term, the sector can probably struggle through, more or less. Here in New York, we got through 9/11, the Great Recession, Hurricanes Sandy and Irene. We know the drill: short term pain, emergency funding from the City, generous boards, surprisingly little permanent scarring. If we just look at precedent, then we would have grounds for believing that within a year or so we will be back on our buoyant trajectory.

But this may be the sector’s Black Swan, as per Nassim Taleb’s definition: unforeseen in advance; more obvious in retrospect; and highly consequential.  We need to turn our collective attention to this possibility as soon as we can find the mental space.  

The risk is that the scale, duration and ubiquity of the current crisis will simply swamp the available resources of the sector and its stakeholders in part because the cultural sector in general – and larger “legacy” institutions in particular - are slowly losing their collective grip on the philanthropic imagination and conscience, making traditional appeals to stake-holders less effective.

The current crisis may therefore appear to some as opportunity – as per my recent WSJ article – to ease transitions and consolidations; to examine more critically the impediments to organizational agility; and to ensure that resources are ultimately encouraging creativity and access and not simply supporting otiose institutional superstructures. Easing the transition – through creating pools of capital for restructuring and mergers – would seem an obvious next priority after emergency funding. Investments that accelerate the transition to a more viable balance between the virtual and physical and even graceful end-of-life interventions that protect institutional legacies and underlying assets should probably be on the agenda. As Alan Brown has argued, these scenarios are all preferable to a mass extinction event. This is an obvious opportunity for strategic philanthropic leaders to create funds to assist in a graceful re-ordering of the cultural landscape rather than simply shoring up the status quo.

A critical dimension that may be lost in the pell-mell of special pleading is some protection afforded to the sector’s creative and intellectual assets – artists, curators, etc. – many of whom have perforce been transitioned to the gig economy; and who will not automatically be the beneficiaries of institutional support. It is on their shoulders that the vitality and creativity of the sector largely rests. Last week the New York-based community organization Artists Literacies’ Institute started a public Google spreadsheet for arts workers to log their lost income. More than $2m was reported within a matter of four days.

The pandemic also brings into sight some entirely new scenarios, not just because of the scale of its impact but because of specific characteristics that may be difficult to model but that arts leaders are necessarily having to think through. An optimistic scenario in the US is that the world reverts to the status quo ante by, say, 1 June, based on a rosy take on the management of the pandemic in China, Singapore, and Hong Kong and an even rosier view that America is on the same trajectory. A mid-case scenario has things back to normal by the Fall season in September – Spring season down under. These are relatively easily modelled, especially given the experience of 2001 and 2008-9, including the pace at which audiences come back. A third scenario, however, seems to be worth considering, more troubling and more difficult to model:

The pandemic peaks in May or June as per the first scenario, but recedes and then breaks out again sporadically – like the 1918 Influenza and the Bubonic Plague - whilst an anti-viral is identified, trialed and distributed over, say, an 18-month period; and as a result, there is some lingering reluctance to attend social functions, especially among a more cautious older cohort – “social scarring”; a younger cohort, eager to socialize and re-engage in person, are looking for less formal, more interactive contexts – accelerating an already clear trend; Non-essential international travel is effectively off the agenda for a year or two, transforming cultural tourism and festival business models and leaving high-end cultural omnivores looking for new outlets.

These are all opportunities for the young and the brave. But the scenario clearly has some unwelcome implications for the business model of many cultural institutions. The question is how to do responsible, realistic contingency planning without it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.