The pandemic closed theatres, concerts and exhibitions, imperilling many freelances. How will the creative industry re-emerge?
The creative sector has been hit hard by the social shifts triggered by the coronavirus. Around Europe, longstanding cultural institutions were forced to close their doors for the first time in decades, some even for the first time since the second world war. The economic woes hit at a time when culture—films, books, music—was offering relief, solace and entertainment to entire populations forced into lockdown.
The numbers reveal the extent of the economic downturn. Early on in the crisis, a survey of galleries worldwide revealed a 70 per cent drop in income, leaving many verging on bankruptcy. Museums saw earnings crash by 80 per cent, according to the Network of European Museum Organisations.
The sector’s many freelances were suddenly exposed to the perilous downsides of the gig economy. Take the world-famous circus troop Cirque du Soleil, which in March laid off 95 per cent of its workforce, calling off performances in seven countries.
The European Commission was quick to acknowledge the creative industry’s turmoil, with Mariya Gabriel, commissioner with the cultural brief, describing the impact as ‘devastating’. European politicians from around the bloc spoke of the importance of throwing a lifeline to creatives.
And the sector is important: in Italy, for example, the state-funded museums arena had, ahead of the outbreak, been valued at €27 billion, or almost 2 per cent of gross domestic product, making it only slightly smaller than agriculture. Preliminary data from Eurostat suggest that the pandemic may affect 7.3 million cultural and creative jobs across the European Union. Of these, around a third are self-employed and lack adequate social protection.
Economic-stimulus policies are largely the handiwork of national governments, which decide how to support an ailing economy and which sectors to prioritise. Most European nations provided extra relief for small businesses, staff and the self-employed—funds which are also accessible for creative firms. Most governments have unveiled special measures for the creative industries too.
Some of these have been small scale and specific. The Bulgarian Ministry of Culture said it would launch a competition to encourage reading and support its library network. And Danish radio stations, in dialogue with the Ministry of Culture, are pushing Danish-produced music to support local artists.
There have also been large cash injections. In May the French president, Emmanuel Macron, called for a 12-month extension to the nation’s special unemployment benefits for actors, performers, musicians and technicians—a scheme designed to protect them during the sudden pauses between jobs. Macron said small companies and independent workers most vulnerable to the crisis would be eligible for a special €7 billion support fund. And the ‘particularly hard-hit’ National Centre for Music would be given an extra €50 million.
Germany, too, has won international praise for its speedy response to help a struggling industry. In June, as part of a large stimulus fund, it unveiled a €50 billion package aimed at freelances and small businesses, including the arts and cultural industries. This was distributed within four days. The Berlin Senate also offered grants to freelance workers and small businesses in the cultural sector.
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On the brink
However, many artists and creatives are still on the brink. In Germany, for example, federal funding can only be used to offset business costs, not personal expenses such as health-insurance contributions or residential rent, leaving many freelances stranded. One petition signed by almost 300,000 artists warned that creatives ‘live on the edge of the subsistence level anyway, but the current mass cancellation of events threatens to push them over this edge’.
It concluded: ‘Society may be able to do without cultural life for some time. But if it does so for too long, we could end up with nobody left to revive it.’
What will a post-corona creative scene look like? So far, there are no firm answers. The industry has come up with new formats which are imaginative but are financially unsustainable. Much creative output has been redirected to online audiences, with films, plays and courses often offered for free or at a low price. Once reopened, theatres and cinemas have seen their ticket sales plummet due to the need for social distancing in auditoria. Large performances and festivals remain off-limits.
Yet, indicative of the adaptability of this vital sector, artistic creation has also shifted overnight, processing and depicting a society in transition. Madrid’s Teatro Real opened its doors again post-lockdown with a modified version of Verdi’s La Traviata, incorporating distanced performers wearing surgical masks—albeit not without problems.
As long as the show can afford to go on, Europe’s creatives will keep creating.