How can we preserve the entrepreneurial spirit that has characterised the sector’s response to the pandemic, and which of the new ways of being should form part of a new compact with our audiences and communities? Hilary Carty looks at the challenges ahead.
Marta Demartini Photography
In the space of a month in March 2020, it became clear our society would undergo fundamental shifts as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Good governance kicked in – annual accounts, that had hitherto seemed something of an academic exercise, took on the import of a doctor’s prognosis, as organisations scrutinised restricted and unrestricted reserves and initiated conversations to try to secure their business as a ‘going concern’. The government, funding bodies and grant-makers responded with extraordinary speed and flexibility, acknowledging this as the biggest threat to our industries in our lifetime. For the cultural and creative industries, with our plethora of small businesses, extensive networks of freelancers and often fragile business models, the threat was, and remains, severe.
The negative impact is already becoming evident, with the first notifications of organisations going into administration. Looking ahead, it is inevitable that more businesses will fold. What may have seemed a robust business model pre-Covid-19 has now been lethally stress-tested. Those that survive will have made many radical operational shifts that must become permanent. What emerges from this pandemic will be a re-modelled cultural landscape, new modes of engagement and delivery and, at least in the medium term, a sector in recovery rather than equilibrium.
Still innovating, creating and sharing
In March we locked down the venues, the buildings, the offices and moved home, balancing on kitchen tables and makeshift home working areas as we scanned the intimacy of colleagues’ bookshelves in a speed-date with digital platforms we’d had scant intention of knowing just a couple months previously.
By April we were operating with swiftness and learning new skills. We were also learning that we could still navigate and discern. Board meetings took place (online); recruitment processes continued; and key stakeholders contributed to decision-making. Big deliberations could not be deferred. Critically, whether we are individual artists or national multi-platform organisations, new experiments with technology reminded us that creativity is our business. We could still innovate, create and share – be that ‘no-budget’ new items from our living rooms, or fantastic productions from our back catalogue. And Covid-19 continues to unleash new adventures in online engagement with art and culture, locally, nationally and globally.
Some organisations have gone further, shifting focus by re-purposing their creative spaces and resources to respond to the immediate social needs of the communities on their doorsteps. They are learning different ways to be a ‘go-to’ destination by filling the evident gaps in community resources – whether distributing food, medicines and hosting neighbourly conversations, or applying craft skills and 3-D printing facilities to making PPE for those on the front line. It may not be art at its most intrinsic, but it is relevant, effective, and it is civic. It responds to the most critical need and engages that community we seek to entice to cultural engagement, remembering that building civic relationships is at the heart of creative enrichment with, by and for those same communities.
At Clore Leadership we faced the challenge of recalibrating our highly valued residential programmes, and moved to re-cast our knowledge and experience towards new short-form offers. A podcast series, Leading from a Distance, shares tips, tools, advice and approaches – as we do within our programmes – now made available to the sector at large. We convened respected leaders and thinkers to debate the imminent issues challenging cultural professionals, be that Furloughing, Building Resilience, or The Future-thinking Role of the Board. We have taken the core of what Clore Leadership has historically provided in person and translated it to the virtual space. That has meant opening up small and large-group conversations; matching peer-to-peer buddies and mentors with mentees; and creating new resources on crisis management.
The adaptive, innovative, and resourceful leadership at the heart of our approach, and the strong networks that share the practical and the emotional support, have kicked in to great utility. Something about the expediency of the moment demanded, from all of us, an entrepreneurial and imaginative response. Despite the challenge, it has been instructive to see the sector as a whole innovate and create, at pace.
Looking ahead, even the most optimistic assumptions see a period of elongated hiatus as we ease tepidly out of lockdown, all the time carefully watching developments elsewhere in the world. We might anticipate a society hungry for social interaction after extended social distancing, and with a renewed joy for personal creativity and local connection found whilst at home – but at the same time with a real antipathy to large gatherings and close proximity. We might anticipate lean organisations, focused on a new and rationalised ‘core’. We can foresee a heightened demand for digital engagement and learning, strong collaborative approaches and increased connectivity for resilience. But we know this will be against a backdrop of shrunken assets and budgets, curtailed to conserve resources – to survive, not yet to thrive.
Culture and creativity have pivotal roles in stirring the aspirations of individuals and communities. The job of inspiring, engaging, energising and stimulating is critical for effective human relationships and societal enrichment. We witnessed the value of engagement and participation in arts and culture, joyously evidenced on national and hyper-local channels during lockdown. Now let’s raise our voice as the ‘essential work’ is prioritised. As the most severe Covid-19 measures are further relaxed, our challenge will be to learn new ways of re-threading creativity and cultural engagement through the societal mix and re-uniting our communities with the reasons why we are here. Keeping the touchstone of our organisational vision and purpose, we can now expand the options for how that purpose can be achieved.
How might we keep that entrepreneurial spirit when the context is less stark? Which of the new ways of being should form part of a new compact with our audiences and communities? Is free online content only possible if you work at scale and with pre-Covid resources to re-purpose and re-use? Can we really expect to ‘return’ to the pre-Covid cultural ecosystem? Should we? Are those priorities going to feel as important and urgent after the experiences we have just shared? Is that even feasible?
Responsive, relationship-driven and relevant
In truth, right now we are planning for factors we don't yet know or understand. We don’t know the rules of engagement, the timings, the constraints – and yet, we do need to prepare for a future that has a place for us. This crisis has stripped back the layers and demanded that we be responsive, relationship-driven and relevant.
The funding bodies have done just that. In relaxing grant conditions and creating emergency funds, they discarded pages of directives and responded to sector need. Can we induce and encourage that approach to ‘stick’? Is there an option for a more equitable prioritisation of new resources, that remains relevant to fresh ideas, collaborations and alliances, and that is more part of our future than our past? Can we pause to address some of the structural and societal inequalities that have perpetuated and divided access to cultural engagement for many? And might we create ‘Opportunity Funds’ that support new creative energies and reduce the precarity for our creatives and entrepreneurs?
We need to loosen our hierarchies to facilitate more of the dispersed leadership that has given space to entrepreneurship and then embed these new ways in our new norms. Can we maintain the partnerships that responded to imminent threats, as nourishing, resourceful collaborations going forward? And can we open up the curriculum to be more comfortable with hypotheses, conjure with complexity, and skilfully navigate data, as core tenets of decision-making in the new era?
In any crisis, leadership is critical. In order for great culture to have a strong comeback from this crisis and continue to benefit people’s lives and the economy, cultural leadership is critical. So, at Clore Leadership, we too are asking deep questions and recalibrating. We need our cultural leaders to have the skills, perspectives and resources to respond in the moment, for the future. We need to support current and aspiring leaders to become genuine stakeholders in the making of their ‘new normal’. We have experienced the lockdown, we have learnt new lessons, now for the courage to step forward. The uncertainty remains. The challenge remains. But with creativity in our DNA, who else should take the lead?