Contrary to common beliefs, social and economic crises can be productive periods for the arts. According to Cosslett (2020), “isolation has historically proved fruitful, and artists are producing new work all the time,” and the artistic projects which have burgeoned across the world since the beginning of the pandemic corroborate this statement.Footnote 3 As a matter of fact, some of the most significant art movements (e.g., expressionism and modernism) emerged as a response to political and economic uncertainty, even if unstable conjunctures can also lead to quality leveling-down, art frauds, and illicit trade (Moldoveanu and Ioan-Franc 2011; Euwe and Oosterlinck 2017). What is more, the key role of art and culture during economic downturns and their role in education and entertainment are widely acknowledged. Participation in culture and the arts is indeed viewed as an escapist therapy to isolation (Tajtàkovà et al. 2019). For this reason, art consumption and participation tend to remain relatively dynamic in both crisis and post-crisis times, although characterized by a “lipstick effect” suggesting that consumers tend to favor cheaper outdoor cultural activities in order to still satisfy their desire for consumption (Tajtàkovà et al. 2019). Other studies have shown that high art institutions remain visited (Sokolov 2019), whereas the high-end art market has proved to be relatively robust and quick to recover (Goetzmann et al. 2011). Therefore, one could argue that the current crisis is an opportunity for cultural institutions and industries to renew their business models and foster structural changes (Reiss 2001; Bonet and Donato 2011; McDonnell and Tepper 2014). From that perspective, and as an exogenous treatment affecting all cultural subsectors, the COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed as an unprecedented occasion for innovation and experimentation.
It is however true that global crises also generate substantial uncertainty within a field where financial and human resources may differ significantly, limiting de facto some innovation opportunities. We have witnessed this vulnerability in recent periods of economic turmoil, such as the 1973–1975, 1993 and 2008–2009 economic crises. Typically, crises of this magnitude tend to undermine an already challenging context in which cultural institutions and organizations face decreasing government funding, shifts in philanthropy, growing competition, technological changes, and rising costs of artistic labor (McDonnell and Tepper 2014). Since it strongly relies on government funding in Europe (Bonet and Donato 2011) and private patronage and donations in the United-States (Renz 2003), the cultural sector remains particularly precarious and all the more vulnerable in uncertain times. To some extent, the current pandemic shares some similarities with the 2008 financial crisis, since the economic recession predicted by economists is likely to affect the sector’s three main sources of revenue: government funding, private donations, and income generated by sales and ticketing. Consistent with what Bonet and Donato (2011) found for 2008–2009, and despite the approval of emergency funds and exceptional credits, future budget restrictions from governments and private sponsors are a likely scenario of yet-unknown proportions, as well as the bankruptcies of profit and non-profit cultural structures. Household spending and consumption practices have also proved to decrease in times of recession, with cultural goods and services at the forefront since, unlike physiological needs, they are not considered vital. Nonetheless, despite the long-standing socio-economic consequences of 2008, it is encouraging to see that most leading cultural institutions (museums, concert venues, theatres, etc.) are still standing, just like art sales have experienced significant growth, and creative industries have continued to flourish in major cities and local urban hubs.
Yet the 2020 sanitary crisis differs from the 2008 economic downturn. One of its main distinctive features is the temporary closure of all cultural structures and the suspension of on-site cultural activities. To that must be added an unprecedented systemic uncertainty, resulting from the combination of three types of uncertainty (biological, economic, and idiosyncratic), and causing severe asymmetric effects on the economy (Dasgupta et al. 2020). On the supply side, this systemic uncertainty seriously complicates planning, decision, and production making. On the demand side, it generates “a variety of individual-level responses, making it almost impossible to offer clear solutions” (Dasgupta et al. 2020: 2). In fact, the pandemic has challenged the fundamentals of the expected utility theory (EUT), by preventing suppliers and consumers from identifying the probable outcomes of specific decisions amid the crisis, and from taking optimal decisions based on prior experiences. In such a situation, procedural rationality tends to prevail in the decision-making process, to reach not optimal but “reasonably good” outcomes (Simon 1957; Dasgupta et al. 2020). In light of this, it is necessary to assess the extent to which measures taken to cope with COVID-19 have—momentarily or durably—modified consumption patterns.
The experience deriving from consuming the arts and culture is inherently multifaceted. It can be individual or collective, physical or virtual, active or passive, public or private, on-site or in private environments, open-air or indoor, all these categories not being mutually exclusive. Evidently, art consumption is not only concerned with the purchase of tangible cultural goods (e.g., works of art, books, records, DVDs, video games, etc.). The industry of cultural services and participation in cultural events are part of the broad consumption experience (e.g., visiting exhibitions, attending concerts, theatre plays, traditional folklore, etc.). The distinction between high and popular culture finds its origins in sociological and economic theories which state that consuming art and culture requires symbolic capital, which varies amongst socioeconomics groups (DiMaggio and Useem 1978; Bourdieu 1979; Andreasen and Belk 1980; DiMaggio and Mohr 1996).Footnote 4 While the debate surrounding these two categories is out of the scope of this paper, the consumption process remains experiential, characterized by different levels of proximity and interactions with the good and service. Cultural operators can operate at a local, national, or international levels (with different levels of reputation), and specialize in mainstream or indie cultural content. The access to the latter can be free or by payment, with prices ranging from a few euros to several million (in the case of the art market). When purchasing cultural goods or attending cultural events, people simultaneously seek functional, symbolic, social, and emotional benefits, with different degrees of experience (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Botti 2000; Colbert and St-James 2014). Those degrees of experience not only depend on the artistic discipline in question and on the nature of the goods and services consumed, but also on the configuration of cultural markets that vary in space and time (Moldoveanu and Ioan-Franc, 2011). Table 1 summarizes the main patterns of art consumption.
The shutdown period has substantially affected a key pattern of art consumption: its social and experiential dimension. Whereas some consumption patterns have temporarily disappeared since the beginning of the crisis (i.e., collective, physical, on site, indoor, public, etc.), some others have dramatically risen for they are less affected by social distancing (i.e., digital/virtual, private, home, free and open-access).Footnote 5 Additionally, crucial parameters such as the structure’s status (e.g., public or private, commercial or non-profit), its field of specialization, and missions (e.g., education, entertainment, conservation, research, etc.) may have impeded efficient crisis management. Further, while the closing measures applied to all types of structures (e.g., concert venues, museums, theatres, creative industries, auction houses, etc.), the easing of containment measures and the reopening of countries reveal differential and uncoordinated treatments. On the one hand, museums, art galleries, and other indoor cultural spaces are progressively being allowed to reopen under strict social distancing measures (e.g., online reservation, limited number of individual visitors per hour, floor marking, etc.). On the other hand, the future of some other structures remains extremely uncertain at this juncture, as is the case of theatres, concert venues, outdoor and indoor festivals, opera, etc. The performing arts, which require a minimum audience in situ, can hardly comply with such measures. Operating at a limited seating capacity would even lead to significant income loss and cost inefficiency.Footnote 6 Despite these institutions’ economic weight, public authorities and policymakers are still struggling to agree on economic reopening plans that would simultaneously ensure the security of artists, organizers, and attenders. As a consequence, several cultural sectors remain in a grey zone regarding their future operating procedures. The lack of coordinated directives creates asymmetric effects among cultural operators that prevent the whole sector from recovering homogeneously.
The prolonged suspension of some cultural activities requires significant state interventions (e.g., direct financial aid, subsidies, emergency funds, tax incentive for donations) to guarantee their survival in the short term and viability in the long run (Reiss 2001; Bonet and Donato 2011). Financial and logistical support of artists and cultural agents must therefore be encouraged, just as the necessity of considering the cultural sector as an ecosystem within which different stakeholders interact with each other permanently. Amongst the proposals made by economists, Benhamou and Ginsburgh (2020) are in favour of a “New Deal” that would weigh each cultural subsector based on its contribution to the general economy. In that respect, the recovery process should not focus on consumption but on investments in the lower end of the pyramid to relieve authors, artists, and creative people, as well as fragile or unfunded structures, from financial pressure.Footnote 7 We further argue that these financial supports, and future funding, should be designed according to each cultural subsectors’ inherent characteristics and consumption modalities, and by considering the ability of eligible cultural structures to endure systemic uncertainty.