The pandemic is a game-changer for cultural venues in Europe. After a year of uncertainty and turmoil, a path to a new future emerges in which building communities will take centre stage.
Over a year ago, a day before Belgium went into its first lockdown, I spent my day in Brussels. I remember wondering if I had made the right call by not cancelling the meeting that I was about to have. Boulevard Anspach, usually teeming with people hurrying from one place to another, was eerily abandoned. I remember thinking Brussels looked like that horrific opening scene from 28 Days Later. I remember feeling that the city isn’t meant to be empty.
The crisis lasted longer than any of us could foresee on that day in March 2020. It is now clear that COVID-19 had a transformative effect on our lives and on the future of European cultural venues.
Cause for Optimism
The year of solitude taught us just how essential other people are for our well-being. That the social aspect of culture -all too often mistaken for secondary to High Arts and flogging tickets- is at the heart of it all. A fish isn’t aware of the water it swims in until the fishbowl is drained.
In the last couple of months however, we have seen that there is cause for optimism. It may take us longer than anticipated but we will beat this virus. Moreover, venues can rest assured that they were dearly missed. People crave what we have on offer, so we can expect to return in full force once this whole thing blows over.
People crave what we have on offer, so we can expect to return in full force once this whole thing blows over.
And so, from the uncertainty and turmoil emerges a clear new path for cultural organisations and venues. Now is the time to take steps on that new path.
Asking Important Questions
Let’s think big. Let’s start from the essential questions and ailments of today’s society and see how we can offer solutions. Let’s not waste our time on merely seeking recovery. The question “How can we help this ailing industry recover from the crisis?” seems like an important one, but it really isn’t. It is small thinking.
The questions that we should occupy ourselves with these days are
- How can we bring people together through arts and culture after the pandemic?
- And how do we get everyone to join in?
Suddenly, these questions also bring new insights in older topics such as inclusion and diversity, safety, populism and equity.
In her excellent book The Lonely Century, Noreena Hertz offers loneliness as a lens through which we should look at today’s society. She is right to point out that meeting other people isn’t just good for our mental health but that it ultimately is a form of practising democracy. It is by meeting people who differ from us that we can find common ground. In a world that’s plagued by mind-numbing polarisation, that is quite the goal.
Can cultural venues fight loneliness? Can they help people discover what it is like to get together with others and build communities? Can they be hands-on experiments for democracy? And was there ever a time in recent history when this was more urgent?
And thus ‘thinking big’ becomes about what cultural venues can do to improve the lives of people, their mental health and their communities. It is about taking care of each other and not just about bums on seats.
And thus ‘thinking big’ becomes about what cultural venues can do to improve the lives of people, their mental health and their communities. It is about taking care of each other and not just about bums on seats. It is a new language for what we do and at the same time it is as ancient as humanity itself.
People need venues more than ever
The much-fabled Roaring Twenties will not be about binge-watching and livestream records – 2020 was the perfect year for that – but about meeting new people, deepening relationships and becoming better people doing so.
On the business side, European cultural venues will make money from it, precisely because it is a central human need. People need venues more than ever. Even if it is too early to see them right now, new business models will arise just as they always have.
So, let’s take a deep breath and appreciate this game-changer of a pandemic for what it is. An urgent call to choose building communities over individual consumerism. And a chance to put venues back in the centre of our way of life.
This article is an English language update of an article I wrote earlier in Dutch.