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Anthony Sargent says we need to identify what we've learned from Covid, then build on those foundations rather than reassemble broken pieces of the past.

Man in a mask sitting in a low, celingless room
Theater in Quarantine - Mask Study 1, created by Jon Levin, Katie Rose McLaughlin and Joshua William Gelb.

International crises have a way of generating their own industry of studies intended to explain them, to measure them, to attribute blame for them. So it has been with Covid, declared a global pandemic in March 2020.  Many studies have sought to quantify the damage caused by the pandemic - the job losses, the business failures, and in our world the extent of arts projects cancelled or abandoned, tours lost, filming and recording projects aborted.  

But of course those are all moving targets. Every time we try to quantify those effects, the number has risen. We won’t be able to finalise those metrics until Covid is in the world’s rear-view mirror - only then revealing the full extent of its global consequences. 

But there was another problem with that work. It was essentially backward-looking, leaving an unmet need for a different kind of study - something more action-oriented. We needed to extract from all the pandemic’s devastation the larger lessons and learnings for the future of our sector, showing how the harrowing experience of Covid can point to new, better kinds of thinking and a different kind of future.  

An avalanche of consequences

So last spring I embarked on a study aiming at that different target. In April 2021, I reached out to colleagues in eight international networks and thirty countries around the globe, asking about the pandemic’s lessons and learnings local to them. Within two months I had received a mountain of information from 22 international organisations and 93 individuals in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australasia, which forms the backbone of my study Covid-19 And The Global Cultural And Creative Sector, What Have We Learned So Far?, co-published last month with the Centre for Cultural Value at the University of Leeds.

In the eighteen months since Covid was declared a pandemic, truly global in ways that not even world wars have been global, the world’s cultural sector has been impacted more traumatically than by any other crisis in living memory - Covid’s avalanche of consequences compounding one another in the depth and breadth of the damage and the secondary fallout they caused. 

The endless cycles of enforced business closures, lockdowns, travel bans, distancing measures, quarantine and working-from-home regimes caused the longest discontinuity to our sector in living memory, triggering a tsunami of business and organisational failures and severing so much of our essential professional and supply chain connectivity. And yet, fascinatingly, the learnings from Covid have been strikingly consistent around the world.  

One interdependent creative ecology

Internally, there are lessons about the importance of building more organic and empathetic company cultures around clearly defined missions; about the value of inclusive leadership styles which value non hierarchical collaboration above strident egotism; about the operational importance of nimble improvisation in addressing crises; and about the critical importance of escaping from the iron grip of old-school organisational silos. 

The world of online and digital culture has been utterly transformed in the past eighteen months. We need to understand the resulting possibility of an exciting new world of hybrid cultural experiences, rigorously evaluating all the experiments we put in hand at such vertiginous speed during lockdown.  

Looking outward, there are lessons about the value of generous-spirited partnership between organisations in addressing shared adversity - across all normal boundaries, linking large and small companies, unlocking new skill-sharing opportunities between very different kinds of organisation. 

We have learned so clearly in these 18 months how we are all - artists, producers, presenters, venues, festivals, managers, publishers and so many other essential trades - bound indissolubly together in one interdependent creative ecology.  We have gained confidence in transacting, quickly and easily, even the most complex business across time and space using the constantly evolving online tools.  

A more rational relationship with risk

We can also see so clearly the critical need to form a more rational kind of relationship with risk. We must prefer evidence based, calmly logical analysis to being influenced by today’s incendiary Wild West of ‘post-truth’ conspiracy theories that infect social media. 

We know we need to think afresh about the whole industry of touring, which was already colliding with the ever more urgent imperative of the climate change agenda. We must develop communications strategies to address what we have learned to be governments’ damagingly uneven comprehension of the cultural sector – where some of the well intended ‘recovery strategies’ imported from other industries misfired in the very particular ecology of the cultural and creative industries.  

We also have profound lessons to learn about how we can recover and re-incentivise audiences after this endless Narnian winter of suspended animation. We will need to connect with our communities in new ways, offering them fresh, deeper, less transactional kinds of relationships.  

Constantly evolving new normals

Taken together, these sorts of issues hold the key to whether or not we will harvest the real lessons of the pandemic for the future of our sector. Covid has been a moment of agonising loss but also of precious, once-in-a-generation opportunity and learning.  Many of the discoveries we have made in these terrible times contain jewel-like glints of new futures, new ways of working, of living, of being – with constantly evolving new normals rather than any single New Normal.  

No one of the enquiries and analyses referenced in my study answers all the existential questions about the future of our cultural and civic life after this unprecedentedly long closedown. But between them they will help us genuinely ‘build back better’, and seize the opportunities contained, chrysalis-like, in this extraordinary, unique moment.

Anthony Sargent is an international cultural consultant and advisor.

 Anthony Sargent CBE

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