COVID, culture and recovery (part 1 of 2)

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An image showing an audience at a music concert

To support the Communities Committee’s consideration of future recommendations for the recovery of the cultural sectors in Northern Ireland, this two-part blog post provides an overview of cultural recovery initiatives from other jurisdictions.

Part 1 examines the local situation and recommendations for recovery being considered in neighbouring jurisdictions. Part 2 explores research from around the world, detailing how cultural sectors have recovered and aided recovery during and following past crises.

Economic outlook in NI

According to Ulster University Economic Policy Centre’s (UUEPC) 2021 Summer Outlook report, the overall prospect of economic recovery in Northern Ireland (NI) appeared hopeful. However, in March 2021, 70% of workers in the arts and entertainment sectors were on furlough. By June, this percentage had reduced to 46%. This statistic was released before theatres and music venues were permitted to reopen in NI in July 2021. UUEPC predicted that NI may not return to pre-COVID levels of employment until 2024.

Indoor cultural venues were largely the first to close in March 2020 and the last to reopen in July 2021. In response to a Departmental request, in July 2021 the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) published a report evidencing the ‘immediate financial insecurity for those working in the creative industries’ due to the restrictions resulting from the pandemic. Key findings included:

  • a need for urgent support for individuals working in the creative sector;
  • a need for ongoing, strategic monitoring of the sector to support timely and proactive policy development;
  • a risk to the development of skills and careers; and
  • a longer term risk of NI’s creative talent pool diminishing.

The report also concluded that the £13m additional support from the UK Government would be insufficient to meet all of the sector’s need and should be released through grant programmes as a matter of urgency.

State of play

From 6pm on Tuesday 27 July 2021, indoor theatre and music venues reopened their doors to audiences for the first time since March 2020 and on 30 September restrictions such as social distancing for indoor venues were lifted. However, at the time of writing, face coverings were to remain a legal requirement and venues have been asked to check for proof of full vaccination, a negative lateral flow test or proof of natural immunity through a positive COVID-19 PCR test. Though venues are under no legal obligation to put these measures in place.

Support to date

An image showing a screenshot of an interactive map with a distribution of COVID-19 emergency funding for the arts
Figure 1: COVID-19 emergency funding for the arts

Since March 2020, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) has awarded a total of £26million in COVID-19 emergency funding to over 3000 artists and arts organisations. At a Communities Committee briefing on 1 July 2021, ACNI officials stated that more funding for the cultural sectors was expected in Autumn 2021, following the allocation of a further £13m from the UK Government via Barnet consequentials. However, this £13m was not hypothecated to the arts, meaning it was up to the Executive how this money was distributed between Departments. The Communities Committee wrote to the Minister to understand the Department’s plans for the funding, as well as actions following recommendations proposed by DfC’s new Culture, Arts and Heritage recovery taskforce. On 15 September 2021, Minister Hargey announced a £5m fund for individual artists and creative freelancers.

DfC’s Culture, Arts and Heritage recovery taskforce

In May 2021, the Department for Communities established a Culture, Arts & Heritage recovery taskforce of 26 members to respond to COVID-19 and consider measures to support the short term reopening and recovery of the sector. This was suggested by groups such as the Arts Collaboration Network in 2020.

According to its terms of reference, the taskforce was set up to:

    • support the reopening of heritage sites, theatres, performance venues and relevant public gathering places in line with the Executive’s Pathway Out of Restrictions;
    • stimulate culture, arts and heritage activity, re-start the cultural economy and enable the sector to play a central role in rebuilding social and economic life here;
    • explore outdoor performance/activity, including at youth, amateur and community level across the summer, autumn and into the longer term, as a means of encouraging participation and building audience confidence as the opening of indoor and outdoor facilities and activities rolls out;
    • advise on any short-term actions to support skills retention and to provide opportunity for potential new-entrants embarking on a career in the sectors; and;
    • identify medium to long term actions which might be considered in the development of a new Culture, Arts and Heritage Strategy.

As the last point highlights, the task force was also to support the development of a longer term strategy for culture, arts and heritage in this jurisdiction. Although a draft culture and arts strategy was consulted upon in 2016, a final version was not published. Also, DfC’s museums policy was published in 2011. At a recent webinar hosted by the Museums Association, plans to update this document were discussed.

Following petitions from cultural workers due to their difficulties in accessing supports, taskforce groups of cultural workers, officials and business people were set up by the UK and Irish governments in 2020. Their recommendations for recovery have included:

Ireland UK
Pilot a universal basic income scheme for a three-year period in the arts, culture, audio-visual and live performance and events sectors. Support New Cross-Sectoral Collaborative R&D. These new funding calls would be launched, subject to the spending review, successively over the next 24 months to target the specified research fields highlighted in the recommendations below.
Establish a new VAT Compensation Scheme for artists and for freelance arts, live entertainment and events workers and companies. Reach New Global Audiences. Starting with a survey of the innovative ways the sector has engaged, and begun to monetise their engagement with, international audiences. This will be accompanied by a call to arts funding agencies for collaborative research to increase understanding of how digital content for international audiences can complement or support international touring once resumed.
Transpose the EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market into Irish Law without adjustment or dilution of the intention of the directive as it relates to rights holders. Reshape the Policy Environment to Invigorate Creative R&D. DCMS will work with the HMRC and the cultural sector to revisit the definition of R&D for the creative industries, supported by research produced by the AHRC Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre to understand how R&D can be bolstered within the cultural and creative industries, to quantify the value of creative R&D, and offer workable policy solutions. We will also seek to learn from Festival UK* 2022 to understand the effectiveness of R&D in fostering creativity and innovation between cross-sector organisations.
Introduce a Business Supports Grant Scheme for SMEs in the events industry that are excluded from the COVID-19 restrictions support scheme (CRSS). Broaden access to digital for producers and consumers. AHRC new research on the barriers to entry into the digital market faced by freelance artists and smaller creative organisations, and will work with DCMS to look into framing new policy interventions that level up commercial opportunities for streaming beyond larger institutions and beyond London. We will incentivise the bigger players to make their platforms open source and / or develop a shared platform to give smaller cultural practitioners more control over their content and how they profit from it.
Government should commit to continue its provision of financial support to local authorities to offset any loss of income they experience in 2021 so as to enable them to maintain their investment in arts, culture and events at 2020 levels. Increase data sharing. New research will be initiated to increase our understanding of how innovative digital content can reduce barriers to audience participation, generate new income streams, support freelance artists and smaller organisations, and retain copyright for producers.
Establish a programme that provides wellbeing supports to the creative sector. Support future live performance. AHRC will identify the gaps in knowledge about COVID-secure environments for live cultural experiences. This research will inform future policy interventions to create a sustainable model for the sector. 2022 events across the UK – Birmingham Commonwealth Games, The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and Festival UK* 2022 – will be an opportunity to support jobs and promote the UK.
Establish a capacity building and upskilling scheme for artists and creative workers aimed at recovery and renewal through professional development. Build a strong, resilient and diverse digital skills base. Building on Arts Council England’s digital maturity index and tech champions network, DCMS will continue to invest in schemes such as the National Skills Fund, Digital Skills Partnerships, and Digital Skills Bootcamps. This will ensure the whole cultural and creative sector can embrace digital transformation and build a workforce with the necessary skills. AHRC will work with DCMS and other arts funding agencies (such as Arts Council England) to look at the digital skills gaps in the UK cultural and creative sector, with a particular focus on regional growth and interconnectivity and the demands of specific and diverse demographics.
Review the Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021 Plan for Living With COVID-19 to better reflect actual circumstances and the particular behaviours of artists, audiences and venue staff in this area of Irish life. Cement the link between Cultural Access and Health and Well-being. AHRC and other partners, with the support of DCMS, will launch a new joint research programme focusing not just on mental health but health generally. It will work with other relevant networks (e.g. the National Academy of Social Prescribing) to identify the local assets, partnerships and delivery mechanisms best suited to a national roll-out of arts-and-culture-based policy to redress the health inequalities that have been amplified by the pandemic.
Establish ‘Re-imagining our Public Spaces’: a capital improvement programme. Diversify and nurture talent. Arts funding agencies should undertake a collaborative project looking at the impact of COVID-19 on new entrants to the cultural and creative sectors’ workforce, and at effective interventions to reverse the labour market scarring and to bring back talent recently lost.
Establish and fund a Creative Green Programme.

Many of these proposals reflect the challenges and opportunities that emerged from an ACNI survey of artists and arts organisations in receipt of COVID-19 emergency funding support in this jurisdiction. ACNI officials summarised their key findings to the Communities Committee on 1 July 2021, as:

Challenges Opportunities
  • COVID 19 – social distancing and recovery
  • Budgeting, resourcing, capacity
  • Impacts of leaving the EU
  • Digital development
  • Training and development
  • Audience development and marketing
  • Lack of diversity
  • Succession planning
  • Environmental challenges
  • Growing budget for arts to ensure better regional distribution
  • Cultural Recovery Taskforce (10-year vision)
  • Cross departmental working (tourism, health and education)
  • Role of arts on health and wellbeing
  • Demonstrating impact and advocacy
  • Digital transformation
  • Strengthening partnerships with local authorities


Mental health and well-being for both audiences and those working in the cultural sectors was discussed by the Communities Committee as a key issue for consideration, particularly when 16% of 173 artists who responded to a mental health survey by Ulster University in 2018, reported attempted suicide in the previous 12 months. Further research about the mental health of arts workers during the pandemic is a potential issue for further consideration.

Also, the dual impacts of Brexit and the development of a digital divide, both for those working in the cultural sectors and for those wishing to access it, were also highlighted as priorities for consideration.

Subsector specific strategies

In January 2021, the Department for Digital, Culture, Music and Sport (DCMS) published a framework to help improve how the value of culture and heritage is articulated. According to researchers from NESTA’s Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre this is to aid decision making based on ‘a more holistic understanding of the impact that cultural investment might have in the realisation of macro-level policies’. Their research also highlighted the importance of local or place-based strategies, as well as acknowledging that a generic approach to income supports did not work for the arts, particularly as video gaming and digital arts sectors have flourished during the pandemic.

Music venues

Belfast City Council has led a bid for Belfast to become a UNESCO city of music in 2023. A UK Music survey of audiences reported that 66% of respondents planned to attend as many or even more gigs than before the pandemic. Yet, in 2019, a fifth Senedd committee inquiry into live music heard that over a third of grassroots music venues in the UK had closed in the previous decade due to increased overheads such as bills, rent, business rates and noise related planning disputes. Acknowledging the ‘piecemeal and ad hoc’ nature of previous attempts to support live music in Wales, the Welsh Government agreed to Creative Wales developing an action plan for the commercial music industry.

In June 2021, NI Screen commissioned research on the economic value and contribution of the commercial music industry to Northern Ireland. Also, Belfast City Council commissioned Sound Diplomacy to evaluate how to support the recovery of the city’s music scene. Concerns voiced by local artists like Van Morrison, may prompt calls for a music-specific action plan in this jurisdiction.

Heritage sites and museums

Researchers from Ulster University (UU) have been commissioned by UKRI’s rapid response research programme to explore the impacts of COVID-19 on heritage and museum sites here. The project is also evaluating how museums can contribute to community resilience and wellbeing in a time of crisis, as well as how digital technologies can be incorporated into services.

At a Museums Association webinar in June 2021, UU academics summarised some of their early findings, stating that they had found differing responses during the COVID-19 crisis; where some museums furloughed staff, others involved their teams in projects responding to COVID-19. Examples included Newry and Mourne Museum inviting residents to share a story of ‘Living in Lockdown’, whereas the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum launched a contemporary collecting project called ‘Covid-19 and Me’. Also, the Tower Museum in Derry/Londonderry launched its first website and Fermanagh County Museum built a new following on social media with ‘Guess the Mystery Object’.

The researchers also recommended museums and heritage sites as places for recovery after the pandemic. Recommendations for further consideration included:

    • thinking about the ways in which museum and family artefacts can be used to explore stories about the pandemic;
    • museums offering mindful reflection and self-care using virtual, video and digital guided practice as well as using its physical space; and
    • closer working between the heritage sector and community organisations to recognise and discuss the role of museums as social justice settings.

The report concluded that for these ideas to be furthered, adequate resourcing would be required.

Digital access to the arts

According to UK-wide research conducted by the Centre for Cultural Value, the proliferation of culture available online has boosted the participation of historically harder to reach groups, such as people with disabilities. This echoes findings from a general population survey carried out by Social Market Research for ACNI:

…among those engaging with the Arts during lockdown, 13% did so for the first time. They were more likely to be older, be from lower down the socio-economic scale and have a disability.

Also, highlighted by recommendations of the UK Cultural Recovery taskforce, finding ways to monetise this provision as well as understanding the barriers to freelancers and smaller arts organisations, are key issues for further consideration.

Part 2 of this blog article explores different jurisdiction’s recovery initiatives following previous crises. This is to support the Communities’ Committee scrutiny of future recommendations for the recovery of NI’s cultural sectors.