How arts and cultural institutions have responded to the pandemic #1

In this blog, François Matarasso discusses narratives of survival and how they shape responses to the pandemic in the publicly-funded cultural sector

This article by François Matarasso originally featured on parliamentofdream.com. François is an independent writer and researcher with a long career in arts practice, theory and policy.

Surviving to do what?

The Covid 19 pandemic and the public health measures imposed to limit infections have been devastating for the arts and cultural sectors. Since March 2020 most organisations – from great institutions like the National Theatre to the community art organisation where I have an office – have been closed, half-open, and closed again, as lockdown has followed lockdown.

The freelance artists, technicians, designers, musicians, performers, educators and others whose work is the lifeblood of those institutions saw their own livelihoods evaporate overnight. Unable to earn a living, and often excluded from government support schemes, many of them no longer work in the arts; some never will again.

It has not been easy for the institutions either, but there has at least been emergency funding from public bodies, foundations and the government’s cultural recovery fund. The future of arts and cultural organisations is uncertain but, for now, they are mostly still there. There – but doing what?

The Award for Civic Arts Organisations

Towards the end of last year I was asked by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to help with long-listing for their new Award for Civic Arts Organisations. Launched in November 2020, in a partnership with Kings College London, this prize aims ‘To shine a light on how publicly funded arts bodies have responded to the pandemic, despite the hardships they face themselves as institutions.’ My task, shared with three others, was to whittle down 260 submissions to a manageable number for the judging panel. We had criteria and scoring charts, but such processes are never easy. The outstanding and ineligible select themselves; after that it’s about degrees and subtle comparisons. As a whole, the submissions were very impressive, and I was often humbled to read about the courage and imagination with which people had risen to the crisis, while also coping with varied, overlapping crises in their personal lives. Many of these organisations had played a valuable part in how others lived through the first lockdown and its consequences. Early in December, we offered the judges a very strong field to consider and their shortlist  was announced on 10 January 2021. 

Reading about the pandemic experiences of 260 arts and cultural organisations helped me understand how the sector has navigated the tempest that hit it in March 2020. Although each submission was short, together they amounted to more than 150,000 words about how museums, theatres, orchestras, community art groups, galleries, dance companies, artists’ studios and many others responded to the effects of the pandemic in their communities and what has happened since.

The sheer number of these anonymous submissions made it natural to reflect on common ground, differences and tendencies, and to connect this with what I’ve learned from my work and conversations with a wide range of cultural organisations in the UK and beyond. As the pandemic continues to shape our lives, I hope it’s useful now to share some of my impressions with those who are having to deal with its problems day by day. 

A little clarification

But before I go further, I must stress that none of what I say relates to any specific organisation: the submissions I read were anonymised and their confidentiality will be respected. I apologise in advance if that makes some of what I will say abstract and theoretical, but it’s essential to keep a focus on what is happening in the field as a whole.

Just as importantly, what I write does not reflect the views of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. I’m grateful to them for asking me to read the submissions, but I’m writing, as always, in an independent capacity. Except for having participated in the long-listing, I have no input into the Award.  My interest is in principles and trends, not individual decisions.

Finally, my thinking about all these issues is still developing, which is why I call them ‘impressions’. I’m not offering certainties and I’m happy to be corrected where I get things wrong. And there’s a lot of ground to cover, so there may be several blog posts; I don’t know how many, and I can’t say how regularly they’ll appear because they have to be fitted in around my other commitments.   

Survival narratives

So, with clarifications and caveats out of the way, here’s one big impression I was left with after reading all those submissions: there are two different survival narratives. In using that term, I mean no disrespect. Stories help us make sense of our lives, individually and collectively, so the way we tell and retell our experience is central to processing, interpreting and eventually surmounting critical life events. One of the striking differences in the stories I read was how people imagined the crisis itself, because that shaped whether they responded defensively or expansively.

Some saw the crisis principally through the prism of their own organisation and the steps it had taken to secure its survival. Their strategy was defensive – cutting costs, furloughing staff, suspending activity. The aim, explicit or implicit, was to get through the storm until normal life returned and the organisation could get back to what it had been doing. Using the Internet as a platform for their programme – which perhaps 90% of arts organisations did – was primarily about protecting a relationship with existing audiences. Generalisations about art’s importance during lockdown replaced more usual ones about its importance to society or the economy, but were rarely anchored in evidence or experience. They sometimes felt like old prayers quietly muttered in times of danger.

Others saw their own problems as inseparable from those faced by the community they are part of, belong to and serve – their audiences, participants, staff and suppliers, certainly, but also neighbours and strangers in need. In this story, the cultural organisation was seen within an interdependent network of local people and groups, all threatened, but able and willing to bring mutual aid to one another. In doing so, some of these cultural organisations were rethinking their work from the ground up, not only in how they tried to offer their programme but also taking on responsibilities – such as distributing food parcels – they would not have envisaged in other circumstances. These organisations thought less about the future than the first group – the present was too urgent for that – but when they did, they often spoke of how they would not go back to their earlier ways of working.

In making this distinction between defensive and expansive strategies, I should add some caveats and subtleties. While I do see two clearly different approaches, shaped by how people saw their mission during the crisis, there is also a spectrum within and between those approaches. Some responded defensively, but also reached out to the community in limited but often effective ways. Similarly, there are wide variations in how expansively others reacted. For some, the measures they took were a shift in emphasis or priorities, especially if their programmes were already community-focussed, while for others the past months have brought such a profound change to their network of relationships and how they see themselves that it is hard to imagine how they would return to working as they once did. There is, in short, a very wide spectrum of ideas and responses within these two broad responses.

It’s also my impression that those who adopted defensive strategies tended to be larger institutions, and their approach may reflect the scale and complexity of their business. For some of these organisations, the loss of revenue associated with closure raised the prospect of rapidly rising debt and potential insolvency. So I do not criticise any of the choices people made in the urgency of crisis. As I wrote last year, I have only sympathy for anyone trying to save a business in this crisis, whether they work in culture or in any other field. But smaller organisations found it easier to redeploy a team of five or ten and find alternative ways of serving people in unprecedented circumstances. There are certainly lots of big institutions in the second group, but not many small ones in the first.

Do these different narratives matter? I think so, because they speak to how publicly-funded cultural organisations see themselves, and consequently how they will adapt to the new landscape that emerges after the pandemic. Crises are a test of character and I’ve thought from the beginning of this that people will remember how the public and private organisations respond which they interact. I’ve a feeling – and it is no more than that – that the organisations who ride into this crisis will do better in the long run that those who brace against it.


In keeping with the general nature of these posts, I’ll avoid using any images of cultural organisations or activity which might mistakenly be thought to identify anyone: so today, you get some sparkling snow.