COVID, culture and recovery (part 2 of 2)

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An image showing a ong road heading into the Mourne Mountains
Image: The long road ahead – Silent Valley by Philip McErlean (used under Creative Commons 2.0)

To support the Communities Committee’s consideration of recommendations for the culture sector’s recovery in Northern Ireland, this two-part blog post provides an overview of cultural recovery initiatives from other jurisdictions. Part 1 examined the local situation and recommendations for recovery proposed in neighbouring jurisdictions. Part 2 explores research from around the world, detailing how cultural sectors have aided recovery following past crises.

What can we learn from previous crises?

Academics from Ryerson University evaluated crisis recovery strategies of cultural sectors from man-made and natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. The aim of this research was to suggest ways to recover from COVID-19. One observation noted how help following Hurricane Katrina tended to come from areas largely unaffected by the disaster. Given that most countries in the world have been adversely affected by COVID-19, they highlighted that instead, sub sectors of the creative industries that have experienced record growth over the past 18 months, such as video gaming and streaming platforms, could offer their support. The researchers suggested:

…that those companies that have weathered the storm, if not flourished during the pandemic, should launch joint initiatives, production support, sponsorships and dedicated programs for individual artists or small organizations. Furthermore, the collective expertise among these sectors could support digital transformation initiatives for those that did not previously rely on online outreach. This includes the development of tailor-made, but scalable immersive experiences that allow audiences to engage with creatives in a digital first, or hybrid digital-offline context.

A technology-led, collaborative recovery is highlighted in both the Irish and UK taskforce recommendations included in Part 1 of this blog article. In Northern Ireland, Future Screens NI is funded by Arts Humanities Research Council and alongside NI Screen, have already collaborated with the Arts Council in COVID emergency funding initiatives. In December 2020, UUEPC recommended a number of digitally focused recovery initiatives in collaboration with private sector stakeholders. Also, ACNI acknowledged the importance of digital as an opportunity for recovery in its briefing to the Communities Committee on 1 July 2021. However, reducing any digital divide caused by people’s location, age and income, are potential issues for further consideration.

Examples of cultural recovery initiatives elsewhere

Arts Professional recently reported an ‘explosion’ of interest in applicants for the 2025 UK City of Culture, including a bid from Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council. This reflects findings from World Bank research on the social and economic benefits of cities leveraging their cultural assets to recover from the pandemic. However, achieving a fair distribution of support in both rural and urban locations in Northern Ireland, is a potential issue for future consideration.

United Nations (UN) – digitisation and creative cities

The United Nations (UN) designated 2021 as the ‘International year of creative economy for sustainable development’. In June 2021, the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Culture Organisation (UNESCO), launched a series of reports about the global challenges to cultural sectors as a result of the pandemic, as well as opportunities for recovery. Key findings included:

  Challenges Opportunities
Heritage and museums Implementation of digitisation policies to inventory collections and support education and outreach. Also, 50% of respondents noted a significant reduction in public subsidies, in some cases as high as 40% – and stresses that without urgent policies the place of museums in national cultural policies may be jeopardized. Strengthen direct support mechanisms to living heritage bearers. Offer digital technologies to support resilience and safeguarding and increase the visibility and recognition of living heritage. Integrate living heritage safeguarding into emergency preparedness, response and recovery plans.
Cultural economies Cultural and creative industries have fared consistently worse than national economies overall. A rapid drop in employment is affecting the livelihoods of creative workers, especially freelancers who are experiencing higher levels of income loss and unemployment. Digital innovations launched in response to the crisis showcases how digital adaptation has triggered the development of new production, distribution and consumption patterns.
Creative cities To ‘build back better’ for culture, key considerations highlighted in a joint UNESCO and World Bank paper included: Inclusive neighbourhood regeneration initiatives providing amenities and infrastructure supportive of creative activity.

Housing and safe performance spaces for performers. Urban renewal projects that utilise tech-enabled art and entrepreneurship.

It is estimated that for every creative job in a cultural and creative industry, 1.7 non-creative jobs are created.


Inventory of archaeological archives has been a long standing issue in this jurisdiction. UNESCO’s research suggests that the pandemic has highlighted further reasons to digitise our historical record, particularly when heritage sites have had to restrict access due to government restrictions.

European Union (EU) – protecting cultural workers’ rights

In September 2020, the European Parliament adopted the Resolution on the Cultural Recovery of Europe, recognising the importance of culture as a driver in Europe’s recovery post-pandemic. In March 2021, the EU published The situation of artists and cultural workers and the post-COVID-19 cultural recovery in the EU’.

Recognising the potential precariousness of an artist’s career, due to their non-standard working conditions, status and income, as well as their propensity to work across borders, a key recommendation from this paper included:

A European framework for working conditions in cultural and creative sectors and industries (…) would contribute to the sustainability of the cultural and creative sectors and industries after COVID-19, together with immediate forms of actions (access to funding, administrative support etc.).

EU research identified a number of challenges for culture and creative workers. These included:

  • Atypical work patterns require specific policy responses to ensure social protection, career development and skills upgrading pathways.
  • More likely to work part time and not have an open-ended contract and combine employment and self-employment.
  • Ernst & Young reported a 31% drop in culture and creative sector revenues in 2020, compared to 2019. Being hit harder than tourism.
  • Professionals that cannot make a living anymore with their cultural/creative job are more likely to leave the sectors and look for non-cultural jobs.
  • Multiple definitions of ‘artist’ hinders a unified recognition of their labour status.
  • The sector is characterised by persistent inequalities and increased risk of exclusion related to gender, disabilities, ageism, racism and xenophobia. This is reflected in the trend towards digital homogeneity.
  • The digital environment has created specific challenges related to cultural production and distribution, monetisation and fair remuneration of digital activities, and maintenance of cultural diversity.
  • The high mobility of cultural workers and artists is accompanied by a lack of unified regulation or policy coordination regarding taxes, social security, minimum wage, recognition of diplomas, and related access to funding and up-to-date information on these issues.

The SURE mechanism and REACT-EU schemes support self-employed workers and freelancers within the cultural and creative sectors in the EU. It is a matter for individual member states to implement such supports in national schemes.

Some of the impacts of the UK’s exit from the EU for artists in Northern Ireland, in terms of artist’s mobility and the movement of equipment for touring, requires bi-lateral arrangements between the UK and individual member states. According to a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee meeting on 9 June 2021, although 17 countries within the EU had agreed to waive visas for UK artists, negotiations are still ongoing with the remaining member states. A recent ACNI report summarised the implications of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU for local artists as:

  • loss of major sources of funding and income;
  • additional costs of taking work to the EU;
  • fewer performing opportunities for emerging and existing artists;
  • loss of trans-national partnerships;
  • shortening of tours;
  • difficulties sourcing materials; and
  • Northern Ireland becoming attractive to visiting artists.

United States (US) – culture heals, diversifies and stimulates urban and rural economies

The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) published a report in 2021 exploring how the arts and culture sectors have previously contributed to economic recovery and resiliency in the United States. Analysing data from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account, the research focused on the shock of the Great Recession. Researchers found that:

…arts and creative industries offer a powerful strategy for states and localities aiming to reignite economic growth. In addition to the healing value of the arts to communities and individuals, the arts have proven economic value and offer vital economic development strategies for diversifying and stimulating local economies in all types of communities…

The ways in which the arts and creative industries contributed to economic recovery are summarised as:

  • The arts tend to grow independently from other sectors.
  • Growth in employment in certain arts economy subsectors has a positive causal effect on general state level employment rates.
  • Arts employment per capita tends to boost overall employment per capita more strongly in rural areas than in urban areas.

Recognising the economic contribution of the arts, evaluations of recovery plans from a selection of different States following the Great Recession, evidenced the following key learnings:

    • Creative economy development strengthens overall economic development.
    • Those who work in arts and cultural spaces deeply understand economic and community development imperatives and the potential of their work to grow their communities.
    • Communities of any size have home-grown cultural assets that can be mobilized for economic good.
      Strategies that centre on the distinctive history, people, cultures and attributes of local communities can yield civic benefits as well as economic advantages.
    • Communities that make the arts and culture part of their economic fundamentals may be better equipped to survive current and future economic crises.
    • Success often comes through a combination of public and private efforts.

This research has evidenced how cultural sectors support the social and economic development of communities in the aftermath of an economic shock.

Supporting Communities

The cultural sectors have supported recovery initiatives previously in Northern Ireland. An evaluation of the Peace Plus II funded ‘Building Peace through the Arts: Re-Imaging Communities Programme’ in 2016, recorded a largely positive experience from the communities involved, although the short timescales to deliver the pieces of public art were highlighted by some of the artists. Talking about his experience of creating a public artwork in the Shankhill, one local participant noted:

The positive feedback from across the peace-line and from other sources [shows it] has promoted a very positive and welcome addition to the local interface area.

During 2020/21, ACNI emergency funding supported many community arts projects to support the health and wellbeing of communities during the lockdowns. For example, Replay Theatre Company took a converted transit van on the road to bring a special performance to vulnerable children across Northern Ireland who were shielding at home.

Considerations for longer term recovery

As well as emergency supports, DfC’s Culture, Arts and Heritage task force will consider a ten-year plan for Northern Ireland. DfC ran consultations for a ten-year strategy in 2016. The draft strategy focused on ‘cultural togetherness’ with key themes of equality, creativity skills, cultural value, cultural expression and wellbeing. The draft programme for government published in January 2021, acknowledged the value of culture and arts under the two outcomes ‘People want to work, live and visit here’ and ‘Everyone can reach their potential’. The related key priorities included:

  • Providing access to sports, arts and culture and encouraging and facilitating opportunities for people to get involved. Promoting built heritage, eco-tourism and outdoor recreation.
  • Providing spaces and facilities for sports, arts and culture events and activities to take place.
  • Supporting creative industries, oversight and delivery for the arts, cultural and language sectors.
  • Promoting cohesive communities through the culture, arts and language sectors.

DCMS’ framework for measuring the value of cultural and heritage assets suggests considering intangible value such as impacts on quality of life and changes to communities’ health and well-being, as well as the more traditional economic outputs and outcomes. As the reporting cards for the DfC’s arm’s length bodies are considered, a holistic approach to monitoring the impact of the cultural sector, across the remit of different Departments (e.g. Health, Education and Economy) is a potential issue for further consideration.

Social prescribing

A potential example of a cross departmental response to recovery, is the use of social prescribing. According to Arts Council England:

…evidence gathered by GPs indicates that one in five people visiting a GP does so for reasons that aren’t fundamentally medical – including loneliness, debt or housing. Up to another one in five people live with a condition or symptoms where medicine isn’t the sole, or even the best solution. That’s where social prescribing comes in…

Social prescribing means that rather than prescribing medicine, GPs, nurses and health practitioners can refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services. A potential outcome of this is for social prescribing to help develop the wider infrastructure of arts, cultural and other community activities (e.g. sport, nature) to support health and wellbeing. Projects supporting social prescribing have been promoted by local health trusts here, since 2018. In 2021, ACNI in its response to a consultation on Northern Ireland’s Mental Health strategy recommended ‘greater investment in, and use of, the social prescribing model. This would include arts provision as a central resource.’

Evidence is emerging of the benefits culture, arts and heritage has for our communities’ health and wellbeing, particularly through the darkest moments of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps a potential issue for future consideration, is acknowledging how cultural sectors contribute to the draft Programme for Government outcome ‘We all enjoy long, healthy, active lives’?