The impact of Covid-19 on the cultural sector: Priorities and opportunities

The impact of Covid-19 on the cultural sector: Priorities and opportunities

Dr Ricky Lawton, Director of Research & Analysis

21 January 2021

Feeling a little out of sorts? A bit low? You’re certainly not alone. Across the board, the Covid-19 pandemic, and return to the ‘new normal’ of Lockdown#2 has affected all walks of life. Endless social media posts share ‘home-schooling tips’; articles on ‘Zoom fatigue’ abound; we all lament holiday plans abandoned, or important birthdays and milestones marked with social distancing measures in place.  

We all feel the difference, but how exactly do you begin to quantify the effects of being separated from friends and loved ones? Or the effects of our daily lives being disrupted at a minimum, and, in some cases, drastically altered? Or how the economic uncertainty and financial precarity is affecting households across the nation? 

Understanding how the pandemic (and the subsequent lockdown measures) have affected wellbeing is a good place to start. Simetrica-Jacobs’ conducted a survey during the peak of the pandemic. The data showed that the Covid-19 health pandemic not only had a major impact on health, but also on people’s wellbeing: levels of wellbeing and psychological distress were at the lowest in April 2020 than they have ever been since records began in the UK. The negative wellbeing impact on the total wellbeing cost to adults in the UK was equivalent to around £2.25bn per day, or around £43 per adult per day. The full report can be found here: https://www.jacobs.com/sites/default/files/2020-05/jacobs-wellbeing-costs-of-covid-19-uk.pdf 

The lockdowns that have followed in response to Covid-19 have had a significant effect on our social lives, with lockdown#2 leading again to the closure of nearly all of our recreation, cultural and heritage sites, as we prioritised fighting the virus and saving lives. 

There’s light at the end of the tunnel of course. But as the cultural and heritage sector starts to prepare to reopen to the public, we turn to exploring how the pandemic has affected public behaviours around culture and heritage and, critically, our responses as a public to a sector forced to operate in lockdown mode.  

At the same time, there were positive cultural changes that were prompted by the first lockdown experience:  

  • Evidence suggests that more people accessed culture online during the first lockdown, with popular examples being the  National Theatre streaming productions of Frankenstein  and a Streetcar Named Desire , the Globe theatre streaming a Shakespeare play every day for a fortnight, tours of gallery exhibitions such as Andy Warhol at the Tate Modern  and Picasso at the Royal Academy, and Street View tours at the British Museum allowing remote visitors to zoom into display cases and even read the labels
  • Lockdown has provoked a renewed focus on public donations to support cultural institutions
  • Our own survey evidence shows that people have been taking up or increasing creative pursuitsThe Simetrica-Jacobs Covid-19 survey shows that creativity was the second biggest change in people’s behaviour during Covid-19 lockdown: A quarter of respondents reported that had been engaged in creative pursuits more during the Covid-19 lockdown, with 59% about the same and 15% engaging in creative pursuits less. The highest increase was socialising digitally, with 41% reporting they had done more of this during lockdown. 
  • Those who reported having done more creative activities during the first lockdown reported significantly higher levels of wellbeing – life satisfaction, happiness, and sense of purpose – compared to those who did not. 

Meanwhile, the cultural sector is again locked down and the financial dangers to cultural institutions is a matter of growing public awareness. 

This raises important research questions of direct relevance to the cultural sector in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak: 

  1. Understanding public preferences towards remote or digital access to cultural collections and productions. Many institutions have provided some content for free, but continued social distancing measures will necessitate lower levels of footfall. We need to understand people’s willingness to pay to support the continued existence of cultural institutions which are at risk of permanent closure in the context of the financial and operational constraints presented by the Corona crisis, which has included the closure of most cultural sites and puts at risk ongoing revenue streams.  
  1. Measuring the welfare impacts of prolonged closure of all cultural institutions during the Coronavirus shutdown: What would give you the same level of happiness that you are missing out on by not being able to visit museums, galleries, theatres, and other cultural and heritage sites? 
  1. Valuing the public’s willingness to pay to remotely access cultural institutions via digital services, and how this can be turned into a new revenue stream for the cultural sector going forward.  

These are important questions for the cultural sector, especially in the light of the Government announcement of £1.5 billion rescue package for the arts, culture, and heritage sector. The bail out was welcomed by many of the regional theatres that Simetrica-Jacobs surveyed as part of our ongoing research, but raises the question of how best to distribute this government money to maximise the benefits to society. 

Answering these research questions would provide evidence about the value people place on preserving cultural institutions and accessing digital culture. Particularly in the current context, where people are having to self-isolate and access to cultural services has been temporarily removed, it is vital that we can empirically understand the positive value people place on culture. This also provides important evidence of the positive values that digital cultural services offer to the public, in response to the likely higher demand for such services going forward. Critically, this evidence can contribute significantly to the Government decisions in response to this month’s Spending Review. 

While good evidence exists of the values of traditional cultural venues like museums, galleries, and theatres, other less traditional venues, like comedy clubs and music venues, have less evidence to support their claims for bail-outs. Yet, a Live Comedy Association (LCA) survey shows that 77% of venues saying they will be forced to permanently close within 12 months and a third saying they will go under in six months. There is clearly a need for new and more far-reaching valuation research on the value of the cultural sector beyond the traditional theatre, museum and opera venues. 

Simetrica-Jacobs would also be interested in exploring partners to help us to collect data for cultural sector by adding a new module of questions to the Covid-19 survey on the impacts of lockdown on cultural sector and public preferences. 

New modules can be added and new data collected within a week, to enable comparison of past (pre-Covid-19), current and future (predicted post-Covid-19) engagement with cultural sector. This is not only relevant during the lockdown, but also beyond as cultural institutions continue to be at financial risk. 

If you are interested in knowing more about Simetrica-Jacobs’ research in the culture and heritage sector and how it could help your organisation, please contact Dr Ricky Lawton at r.lawton@simetrica-jacobs.com  

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