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After two years of constant learning, Anthony Sargent thinks we now have the foundations for a new world.

Theater in Quarantine - Mask Study 1, created by Jon Levin, Katie Rose McLaughlin and Joshua William Gelb; April 1, 2020 Pictured: Joshua William Gelb The story of Theater in Quarantine.
Theatre in Quarantine Mask Study 1, created by Jon Levin, Katie Rose McLaughlin and Joshua William Gelb

Triggered by international attempts to analyse the multiple impacts of Covid, I have just finished writing a study following up one published last autumn by the Centre for Cultural Value, and in these pages.

Both studies are built on those foundations, but they aim to do something different. From that mountain of retrospective evidence, I wanted to derive some positive forward-looking messages of significant lessons and learnings from the pandemic. 

Unless some new variant reignites the Covid flame, it seems reasonable to regard the pandemic as nearing its end. Live culture is returning (albeit with some residual hesitancies) as our towns and cities start limping back to life.  

International travel, still confusingly regulated, is nevertheless becoming possible again. We can now usually read the whole of people’s faces rather than speaking to a masked void. Much of the world is starting to look more as we remember it from pre-Covid times - like a geological era so distant from the post-Covid world.

Changed relationships between cultural organisations and their audiences

But for all the elements of familiarity there are changes. We walk past shuttered shops and bars and theatres we know are unlikely ever to reopen. Services once provided quickly and efficiently are now randomly slow and disorganised, reflecting staffing fallout from the pandemic. Invitations are often caveated with anxious questions about vaccination status. 

Public spending cuts reflect the ways the public finances are having to be hastily rebuilt after the multiple shocks of Covid. Some road traffic flows are still sufficiently reduced to reconnect us with the joy of birdsong, despite the quarter of a million stray cats in the UK said to reflect locked-down people unable to visit vets to have their cats neutered. 

We have experienced an unprecedented explosion of online culture, delighting existing audiences and expanding access for many communities previously excluded. Artists have been quickly gaining far more comfort and confidence in the digital space, while discovering much greater expressive breadth in the ways it can be used. Some of these new online experiments will not outlast the pandemic, but we can see others starting to evolve for the future.  

There have also been changes in the relationship between cultural institutions and their audiences and communities. After a lifetime’s experience in communicating with their communities, the pandemic posed completely fresh challenges for cultural producers and presenters. Suddenly there was no upcoming programme to communicate, nor any authoritative sense of when programming would resume, or cultural buildings would re-open.  

For some organisations that represented an existential crisis, while others were inspired to rethink the whole nature of their relationships with their communities, giving those relationships real depth beyond the crisply transactional approaches of earlier times.

Old leadership styles hopelessly suited to rapid change

Some of the most far-reaching international learnings from these two years have been in the kinds of leadership that proved most effective in navigating the crisis, equally for cultural organisations big and small where the agility of small organisations often made riding the tumultuous waves of the pandemic easier than for less flexible large institutions.  

It has become ever clearer that the hierarchical leadership styles of old are hopelessly suited to times of rapid and volatile change. The sudden explosion of mutual-help networks crossing all previous boundaries of geography, artform, scale and profit/non-profit status gave leaders enormously valuable collaborative ways of addressing the challenges of Covid.

For the sector as a whole the pandemic shone a fiercely revealing light on the issue of work - what it is, how and where we do it, and how we are contracted and remunerated. Recognising that a third of the sector’s global workforce are not full-time institutional employees but instead work in a range of freelance, contract and self-employed modes, we can no longer evade the professional and moral responsibility to embrace those essential workers in better supported ways.  

In truth, it should not have needed the disturbing rise in mental health issues and burnout stress for us to recognise the challenges the sector needs to address with its workplace cultures and practices.

Complex trans-national cultural ecology

From the start, one of the pandemic’s clearest lessons has been how uneven was governmental comprehension of the cultural sector around the world. We need more effective informational advocacy programmes addressed to policymakers and political stakeholders, helping them better understand the structure and dynamic of the sector’s complex trans-national ecology and its multiple paybacks to society.

Before the pandemic’s seriousness was widely understood people expected it to be an intense but short-run shock, with ‘business as usual’ quickly returning as after a bad dream. It was only when the pandemic’s severity and scale became clearer, profoundly changing the ways people worked and lived, that some of those changes started looking like better versions of life before Covid, and the appealing idea of ‘new normals’ started winning currency.  

Now, the debate about where to return to ‘business as usual’ and where we should instead develop new, better normals learned from these two years is finely balanced. Some days seem excitingly full of learning and fresh opportunities; on others we are slithering miserably back to some of the worst behaviours and work practices of pre-Covid times.  

We are now at a critical fork in the road. We know we can do so many things better, some in evolved ways, others in wholly transformed ways. We know the learnings of the past two years could lead us to live better lives, professionally and personally, and that this is now a personal rather than an institutional choice.  

Each of us now carries our own individual sliver of the shared responsibility to absorb the positive learnings from the horrors of Covid. We need to make the right choices for the learnings from the pandemic to become the springboard into a new world that two years ago was unimaginable.

Anthony Sargent is an international cultural consultant and advisor.

 Anthony Sargent CBE
 @anthonysargent0 | @valuingculture

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