BLOG 11th May 2020

What next for the NI arts and cultural sector in a socially distanced world?

As we digest the UK Government emerging plans and wait to see what the NI Executive does to ease the current lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, arts and cultural venues, museums, galleries, producers and promoters across NI are trying to work out how to get back up and running in the new normal.

This challenge is particularly tough for buildings-based organisations who have to think about the safety of staff, volunteers, artists and performers as well as audiences. I’ve seen some commentary that now is the time to move on from our obsession with getting people to come to our venues and the moment for more engagement with people in their homes and communities has truly come.

I agree that more connections to people where they are is a good thing at any time. Working with people to help them fulfil their needs through everyday creativity, as people seems to be doing in lockdown, is a sure way to secure an arts organisation’s relevance and social value. Stella Duffy sums it up well for me.

But the fact is we operate in a structure with lots of cultural building and whether they are full or locked down, there are bills to pay (rent, utility, insurance, maintenance) and paying those bills relies on people coming through those doors. This is a tough circle to square and needs government support for those trying to make a budget with a building in it work at all.

Venues have many things to consider and here are a few thoughts:

Do venues wait to re-open until social distancing has gone away or radically reduced?

The arts sector is full of committed and passionate people who know the positive impact that culture and creativity has on people every day. We always push on – through funding cuts, through economic crisis and in NI’s case through all the years of The Troubles. But we’ve never had to face in our lifetimes a global health pandemic on this scale. Major companies like British Airways are saying they could lose 12,000 jobs and close their hub at Gatwick airport because of the impact of people flying and the costs in running socially distanced flights. The cultural venues face the same challenges but without the desire to hike up ticket prices to meet the losses given reduced capacities. I’m really keen to get back and see some live theatre and music but if my local venues can’t afford to open the doors to have me and 20 others, as opposed to me and 99 others, then that’s another consequence of the crisis to be faced.

Venues will make their own decisions on this based on their internal scenario planning and hearing from audiences but this questions needs to be asked and stakeholders and funders involved in working out the possible answers.

If venues decide to go ahead and open - what can be gleaned from elsewhere?

Supermarkets, shops, take-away restaurants and off-licences have been social distancing for some time and I think they offer us in the cultural sector some food for thought (really no pun intended).

  • Hygiene matters: The continued need to be scrupulous about cleaning and washing hands will go on. Can venues offer a kite mark clearly on display and communicated via marketing to say that they have increased their sanitation? The tourism body in Portugal have done just that to re-assure tentative tourists. Visible additional hand sanitisers and even masks may all need to be provided and may be hard to find.
  • Health concerns: What about the approach being suggested in some places that venues take people’s temperatures as they enter the building. This is a huge ask for staff, volunteers and audiences. And what then happens if someone has a temperature – how challenging would it be to then have to ask the person to leave the venue. It’s a massive customer care challenge.
  • Marking your venue out: One-way systems, circles to show safe distances and lots of signage are all prevalent in those places that are operating through the lockdown. Can these be turned into something more in the cultural sector? Maybe an opportunity for our freelance artists and designers to make them look better than your average Tesco or adding some information about the performance or venue. Manging queues is also a challenge. Many ticketing systems offer print at home or simply show your phone on entry. But if you may have queues as you get people, into the venue in a managed, and inevitably, slower way, can we entertain the queue so it feels like part of the experience not a chore. At one small local supermarket near me, the security guy who is managing the queue is also doing ad hoc quizzes to help the time go by and keep spirits up.
  • Flipping the message: We know that people are open to brilliantly executed experiences so can we make a virtue out of all of this. Socially distanced venues will be quieter and maybe more enjoyable venues? No mad rush to the bar at the interval (because interval drinks can be ordered in advance online), no people sitting on top pf you with all their shopping and a chance to spread out a bit. I’m not trying to be overly Polly-Anna here but even in lockdown people have talked about the silver linings of being at home as well as the very real challenges.

What the places that have remained open have tried to do is offer a mix of in-venue (shop), online and home delivery.

It’s a mix the cultural sector has been operating with anyway, so offers some options.

Can digital content be combined with the physical?

The rush to put creative content online has been seen from large and small cultural organisations and the uptake seems to be significant, with people using creativity to educate their children, relieve mental health issues or just get away from the seriousness of the situation we are in.

But online is not for all cultural organisations. There are some great examples locally from The Lyric Theatre to Tinderbox, Golden Thread and Big Telly to name but a few. But others have not been able, due to capacity or skills issues, to create and sustain a purposeful online offer. Others haven’t even tried again partly due to practical considerations but also because it doesn’t fit with their purpose. Also being able to generate income from online content, especially as the platforms become ever more crowded, is not easy so sustainability becomes a huge risk.

Can online be combined with the physical? Maybe a number of tickets are available for a socially distanced performance and a number for live streaming or access to a recording later. Maybe at different price points to meet demand from those desperate to get out and those wary of leaving home?

As a sector we need to talk to the digital and tech companies across NI especially those with skills in VR and AR. There must be clever ways of doing social distancing using technology and making it ‘fun’ as well. Also for anyone who is worried about e-commerce and sales of merchandise this article might help.

What about the great outdoors?

Eastside Arts are delivering, at the request of care home staff, live performances in the car parks of some nursing homes – all socially distanced with permission from the authorities. By all accounts this has been a huge success. The UK Government also seems taken with the idea of us doing more outdoors in the next phase.

Drive in movies are still happening at certain times so can drive-in concerts, theatre or comedy all be viable options – maybe even a drive in festival?

How many times have we answered consultation exercises about our public spaces and how to get people to use them more? There is now a real chance to create socially distanced and enjoyable events on a regular and consistent basis in our town squares, public parks and green spaces - at least as long as the weather can be accommodated.

Staying at home will be a reality for many though. Fears around health and people who are older will remain. Again like supermarkets, home delivery is being used by some organisations. Collections in a box have been used by museums for some time so could they be adapted to bring culture and creativity to front doors.

Of course having creative ideas to meet the socially distanced challenge is probably not going to be the biggest problem we have in the arts sector. Lots of ideas will be found. What is at the crux of this is the cost to implement these ideas, train our staff and volunteers (assuming you have sufficient staff and volunteers), creating the information collateral, buying the additional equipment and signage not to mention no matter how creative we are, dealing with significantly lower capacities for a prolonged period of time.

This is where government at UK, NI and local authority level must step up and offer clear guidance, accessible resources and additional financial support to help the sector emerge from lockdown, change what we do to meet the needs of the public and continue to make a positive difference to lives across NI, now more than ever. This blog focuses on audiences, others will be written about the challenges actors, stage managers, musicians, technicians, stage managers, costume-makers, lighting designers and the entire range of professionals that make live events happen, also face around social distancing. None of it will be easy.

Thrive will be publishing resources around social distancing and holding events to help with this so keep an eye on our website and social media to find out more.

In addition we will be helping you to think about how you stay on purpose at this time of major change.

If you want to find out more about what your audiences are thinking at this time, get in touch with Sarah about our Audiences Survey. A free online survey for your bookers that will give you insight into what they need now and in the months to come and inform a UK-wide benchmark in partnership with Katy Raines at Indigo-Ltd.

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