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The new normal in culture goes digital

Theatres have been filling the seats again, to the point where now the numbers are inexorably climbing back toward full capacity. Museums too have begun to welcome more and more visitors, duly armed with their green passes.  


Studies on the effects of Covid on both production and consumption for creative companies have been run more or less across the board in every country. What has emerged is basically a substantial difference between some places (such as Italy) where the State has been directly or indirectly supporting cultural institutions, even without visitors or audiences, and other nations such as the US where the lion’s share of funding for museums and theatres comes from donations and ticket sales. 


This latter approach has undoubtedly impacted the capacity to contend with the crisis, to the point where in some cases, to cover current expenses (wages), American museum directors have had to resort to auctioning off works of art from their collections (deaccessioning). They’ve also been obliged to look for alternative revenue sources, such as selling online visits or on-demand streaming of concerts or operas. Case in point, the New York Met (Metropolitan Museum of Arts) recently announced a deaccessioning campaign of one million dollars. And the reason is simple: donations from countless private individuals and foundations that support the Met come with strings attached. They only can only be used for new acquisitions, not to cover operating costs. In other words, no one finances the museum’s actual operations. 


Obviously, even where support for cultural institutions typically comes from the private sphere, governments are making a major effort to deal with the exceptional effects of the Covid-19 crisis. The US Congress, for example, passed an economic stimulus package of $2.2 trillion (known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES)) which includes much-needed support for American museums and cultural institutions. But here too it was the private interventions of foundations and individual donors that supported the institutions. On 2 April 2020, the J. Paul Getty Trust, one of the richest art institutions in the world, announced it would be awarding $15 million in financial aid to LA artists and artistic organizations, in the form of subsidies ranging from $25,000 to $200,000. Distributed through the California Community Foundation, the Getty Trust’s pandemic initiative includes $10 million earmarked specifically for small and medium sized art institutions in the city of Los Angeles, to help cover operating costs and make up for lost revenues.  


In cases where either the central or local Public Administration guaranteed a contribution to cover out-of-pocket expenses, as was actually the case in pre-Covid years, what was missing was a revamp of the business model or an attempt to identify new sources of funding. And so, the digital divide expanded between those organizations that had previously invested in technological infrastructure and those that hadn’t. And this included the impossibility to continue working from home, to do fundraising (for technological development) and to tune in the public to digital channels, to name a few examples. During lockdown, few cultural institutions from this second group were able to come up with a better way to reach diverse communities without having access to physical space. In this sense, it certainly would have been interesting to share high-impact examples of digital innovation among creative industries, seeing as solidarity among various cultural organizations can be so consequential.  


So if on one hand, revamping the normal business models should have been one of the primary actions for cultural organizations to tackle during the lockdown, we shouldn’t forget that such an approach should be confined to a specific crisis scenario. This in light of every type of analysis done by theater managers and museum directors. In fact, digital could be a wonderful channel, used on its own for creating new online experiences for the public, or in an integrated way to complement live experiences. But digital is no substitute for listening to live music, admiring the details of a masterpiece or exploring archeological finds.