Museum News

International News

Cultural Centres Sound the Alarm

This article was first published by ENCC https://encc.eu/news/reopening-how-cultural-centres-are-doing

After six months of crisis, how are cultural centres doing ? ENCC asked their members throughout Europe, especially those who are regional or national networks of cultural centres, and have a good overview of their members, how they are coping at the start of this season like no other. Here is a first report from ENCC: 

We started the conversation by discussing a major concern for everyone: the impact of health safety measures and restrictions on cultural spaces. The first conclusion, seen from the European perspective, is a glaring disparity in the rules themselves.

The first conclusion, seen from the European perspective, is a glaring disparity in the safety rules and restrictions.

At the time of writing, indoor cultural events in Latvia are restricted to 50% capacity, with a maximum of 1000 participants. Each participant or family group must have at least 3 m2 space ; masks are recommended (‘but no one wears them’).

In Denmark, seated activities require 2 m2 per person. If participants are moving around, they need 4 m2 space. Gatherings are restricted to 100 participants, or 500 if seated for the whole duration of the event (which of course requires a huge venue). Plans to double the number to 200 participants have been cancelled, due to infection numbers rising over the last weeks. The authorities are currently debating the use of masks and mandatory registration to events.

In Austria, the federal rules seem to leave a lot of room for interpretation, with municipalities applying varying distances of 1 or 2 meters between participants, and in some cases cancelling all events.

In Hungary, 500 is currently the maximum number for events (including musicians and technicians); masks are not required, only physical distancing and disinfection. However, at time of writing, stricter rules are seen as possible in the near future.

In Poland, cultural halls can only be 50% full, with one free seat between each viewer. Masks are mandatory, as well as online registration and opting-in to tracking systems.

In Italy, cultural centres have been gradually allowed to reopen since June, following strict rules according to types of activities (theatre, courses, dance, music, sport…). In recent days, with the number of newly infected people increasing, dancing has been prohibited both indoors and out.

In Belgium, the Flemish and French-speaking cultural sectors have recently negotiated to reduce physical distancing at cultural events to 1 meter (as compared to 1,5 meters previously). Masks are mandatory from age 12 up, with indoor events still capped at 200 participants.

‘We are preparing for events, but there is a big chance that we’ll need to cancel every single one of them tomorrow.’

Many of our members underlined the difficulty for cultural centres of adapting to constantly changing, unclear or nonbinding rules. ‘We would like more uniformity in policy’, said Leen Vanderschuren from the Flemish cult! network. ‘Because now cultural institutions are strongly dependent on the decisions of their municipality. This summer, over 130 municipalities [in Flanders] cancelled all cultural events on their territory, without even discussing the decision with cultural experts.’ Yvonne Gimpel from IG-Kultur, the Austrian network and lobby for cultural organisations, added: ‘The combination [of different interpretations of rules] with last minute decisions taken on the go makes things worse. For example, right now in Austria a “traffic light” system is planned to start next week –a good idea, but so far we lack any information on what consequences a change from green to yellow or red means for cultural events, and it will most likely be recommendations, not legally binding rules’. [Edit 10/09: the Austrian ‘traffic light system’ is now implemented, prompting IG-Kultur to write: ‘This makes the situation even worse (…) It is completely clear that the corona traffic light to contain the epidemic development is understandable and that health takes priority. There cannot be any certainty in planning the course of an epidemic. Planning security in financial terms, however, is possible and requires support measures and failure funds’]. Sylvena Bayrakova from the Chitalishta Union, a network gathering 1800 cultural centres throughout Bulgaria, wrote: ‘We are facing the same issues here:  uncertainty, constantly changing rules about wearing masks and the number of allowed participants/audience. ‘ ‘We are preparing for events, summed up Pál Szénási from A Vértes Agorája in Hungary, but there is a big chance that we’ll need to cancel every single one of them tomorrow.’

‘The good spirit to continue programming despite all is amazing; but what worries most are the mid- and long-term perspectives.’

Though a vast majority of our members’ (and members of our networks’) cultural centres have reopened and are surviving, they seem to be coming now to a turning point. Almost none are operating at full capacity, and a lack of recognition of their difficulties and structural support is darkening their short and long-term perspectives.

  • Adél Toth from the KKOSZ network in Hungary described a fragmented situation, where a number of municipalities have cut back cultural staff’s working hours by 50%. National support has been mainly directed towards live music and performing artists, not towards cultural managers and other staff, while a reform of working rights in the cultural sector, designed before the pandemic and pressed through despite the situation, means that cultural workers will lose their status as public employees. ‘The consequence of these two issues could be that a large number of workers leave the sector’, she commented.
  • In Denmark, wrote Vibeke Sonntag Larsen from the Kulturhusene network, ‘some of our members have received compensation for employees who have been sent home, some for lost income due to cancellations. However no ‘compensation package’ has been made directly for cultural centres.’ In spite of a recent national decision to earmark €90 million in extra relief for culture, ‘there is a common opinion among most cultural workers and stakeholders that the initiatives to support the cultural sector have been far too few and have come far too late.’
  • Over 200 cultural centres in Belgium participated in the ‘Red Alert” action, organised on August 28th by the Association des Centres CulturelsASTRAC and cult!. Each centre glowed red from 9 to 11.55 pm, to let policy-makers know that it is ‘five minutes to midnight’ for the cultural sector. The action (which originated in the UK and was adapted in the Netherlands) was widely covered in Belgian regional and national press, and showed broad solidarity between small, locally-embedded cultural centres as well as established national theatres.
  • Yvonne Gimpel noted that in Austria, ‘all support measures for the cultural sector end this September, even though we’re all well aware that corona will have its grip on the sector much much longer. So all risk is outsourced to the cultural sector (whereas support for for-profit organisations is extended until March 2021). She added: ‘Most cultural centers managed to survive these difficult months. The good spirit to continue programming despite all is amazing; but what worries most are the mid- and long-term perspectives (no financial reserves left, less audience not only due to distancing rules, end of support schemes, etc.).’
  • Piotr Michalowski, secretary of the ENCC Board, concluded from Poland: ‘Generally the aftermath of this situation will be felt in the next year, when the budgets decrease because of the recession. And no one can predict yet the scale of the crisis.’

‘Our biggest concern regarding cultural centres is how they are going to survive in the years to come. How will institutions and activities be prioritized? Will all subsidies be spent on saving the big venues who are bleeding – or will there be a new focus on smaller events and activities which can be carried out safely?’

Several members described a paradoxical situation where smallish municipalities and organisations may be temporarily suffering less in spite of receiving less direct relief. ‘The smaller the town, the better the situation seems to be, for their budget is lower originally and they are working with a lower number of employees, at a lower  financial risk’, wrote Adél Toth from Hungary. Vibeke Larsen noted that in Denmark, most of the cultural centres who remained closed over the summer were either the ‘bigger centres, who had already cancelled their large events, or the smallest voluntarily-driven centres who did not feel able to secure the high standards of cleaning and regulations.’ Obviously, in the current context, the focus is on small-group activities: ‘smaller concerts held both outside and indoors, meetings, workshops, talks, and so on.’ Vibeke added that ‘the venues who have been able to do this are the ones who have been willing (and able) to go through with activities even though they cost them money, as the income is decreased by half, due to the limited number of people attending.’ Here again, due to differences in revenue proportions from ticketing (see for example the petition below from theatres in Belgium), large venues may be more fragile.

In spite of this potential ‘small-is-resilient’ effect, the fear is, of course, that relief will be mainly directed to the largest organisations. ‘Our biggest concern regarding cultural centres is how they are going to survive in the years to come’, concluded Vibeke Larsen. ‘How will institutions and activities be prioritized? Will all subsidies be spent on saving the big venues who are bleeding – or will there be a new focus on smaller events and activities which can be carried out safely?’

‘On the one hand differentiation between culture and the other sectors, with culture last on the priority list (for example, free COVID-19 tests for tourism and travellers, while cultural centres have to pay the costs themselves); on the other hand one-size-must-fit-all solutions.’

For the moment, frustration is high about not only the lack of specific support and understanding of the plight of cultural centres, but also the sense that culture is getting unequal treatment compared to the transport sector (where physical distancing is generally not required), or even amusement parks. Here is Yvonne Gimpel again on the Austrian situation: ‘On the one hand differentiation between culture and the other sectors – with culture last on the priority list (for example, free COVID-19 tests for tourism and travellers, while cultural centres have to pay the costs themselves); on the other hand one-size-must-fit-all solutions (the Austrian support scheme ending this September is for all non-commercial sectors, whether culture, sports, social or environmental work, churches, etc – which doesn’t reflect the realities of cultural work)’.  Some of our members’ demands resonate through the network:

  • Specific and sustainable measures tailored to cultural spaces’ realities, striving for regional (if not international) coherence and reducing leeway for spur-of-the-moment microdecisions;
  • Maximum capacity for cultural centres should be estimated in proportion to usual capacity, not as an absolute number (such as ‘200 participants’);
  • Specific recovery support for cultural centres, taking into account their role in community life and their capacity to host smaller groups and activities which may be uniquely suited to the crisis.

On the European budget level, our network has signed and participated in many calls asking the European Commission and Member States to earmark a percentage of its recovery funds for culture, as well as double the budget for Creative Europe, triple it for Erasmus Plus, and earmark 1.2 billion for the European Solidarity Corps. The European Parliament has been making the same recommendations for years, and in fact just held a meeting about this with the German Presidency a few days ago. The results of these decisions will of course impact the level of support that member states will be able to direct towards the cultural sector at large, and cultural centres in particular.

This is a work in progress, do not hesitate to contribute by telling us about your challenges and recommendations. Please send data, experiences or demands from your cultural centre or network to encc@encc.eu.

ICOM UK