Apr 2020

On March 23, Tim Jones of Culture Mile used the GCDN list-serv to ask if other members would like to discuss the impact of Covid-19 on cultural districts. The response was high; 58 individuals representing 41 districts replied. 42 went on to join four calls over the next two weeks.

The video calls were intended to be an open space for members to share their individual experiences and begin to collectively sort their thinking, however rambling, of the early stage impact of this devastating pandemic. Despite different contexts and models of districts, there were some clear commonalities, shared agendas and a desire to keep talking. GCDN is pleased to facilitate this and to understand what further practical support is needed.

Most members had already been through the initial emergency response involving closure of buildings and ensuring the initial safety of staff and community. All were still dealing with the fallout but were beginning to be able to think about what is needed next. What does it mean for cultural districts when people are no longer able to gather? How can districts reposition themselves during and beyond pandemic to stay relevant and support resilience in their communities? How can we best plan for an uncertain future? Although too early for conclusions, this was a chance to start to ask the right questions together.


‘We can not act like nothing happened; everything has changed. We will come back different. Our cities will be different. We cannot claim we are the same districts.’
Vilma Jukurte, Director, Alserkal Avenue


The following is a summary of some of the main topics that emerged:

Changing relationships with stakeholders and communities

  • Ongoing relationships with artists, freelancers and residents, many of whom are highly precarious: co-ordinating public messages – signposting relevant advice and support from external sources – seeking emergency funds
  • Managing cancellation and/or postponement of programming
  • Keeping relationships alive between constituent institutions, trying to ensure they take a coordinated approach
  • Helping artists and businesses rethink business models eg online teaching and impact investment models – see Upstart Co Lab
  • Mental health and wellbeing for communities – see Australia Wellbeing Collective
  • Setting up staff to home work effectively – see Art Centre Melbourne’s Homeworking guidelines
  • Implications of sudden mass move to digital tools and communication


Programming during lockdown

  • New focus on digital and broadcast
  • Already testing new formats such as online festivals and exhibitions – see Nantes, Alserkal Online
  • Simple ways to connect community eg Dallas have started Zoom happy hours and dinners
  • Melbourne considering the practicalities and ethics of public art installations for people who are out taking their daily exercise
  • Concern of how to manage deluge of content coming online and pay for it when simultaneously making difficult decisions about staff/buildings
  • Need for new business models around digital – good content can be expensive, how will artists and others be paid?
  • Others inviting artists to make work in response to Pandemic, ‘we must create space and time to critically reflect this new era’
  • Appropriate programming when reopen – ‘it can’t be celebratory’
  • HOTA doing small bursts of grants to help keep people alive – see ‘Rage Against the Virus’ – can only spend a week making work and then some are digitally presented


Financial challenges

  • Huge challenges for all; keeping buildings open without revenue, postponing programmes, limited cashflow, philanthropy diverted etc
  • Concern that so many artists and creative businesses are unlikely to survive – what does this mean for a cultural district’s responsibility, relevance and narrative?
  • Challenges with fundraising when so many different needs (eg healthcare)
  • Implications on government funds and networks such as Creative Europe etc
  • Egs of collective approach for emergency funds – see Dallas Better Together collective fundraising from businesses who have profited from district
  • Public private partnership with state/regional government eg City of Chicago with Illinois
  • Budget planning – modelling for different re-opening dates and planning for future echos


Testing new engagement and business models

  • Alserkal Avenue encouraging people to pre-buy vouchers
  • Testing barter system across the neighbourhood so they can help each other
  • HOTA have a Netflix type annual membership where people subscribe for a year


Repositioning of Districts

  • Recurrent question of what it means to be a district without physical gathering – impact on the community’s identity
  • Move to online services and promoting district mission digitally
  • Renewed focus on civic and community role
  • Strategies to remain relevant eg Melbourne has set up an innovation group and Alserkal have a thinktank of artists and local residents
  • Cross-disciplinary collaborations needed including between big and small orgs
  • More centralised data collection function is critical (Karen Brooks-Hopkins)
  • Navigating the role of culture within this crisis; from ‘there is no role for culture right now’ to we need a big moment to help us rebuild; others spoke about the need to remind of the economic engine of the arts – an essential asset in rebuilding cities
  • ‘How do we kill unsustainable models and find new ones’


New partnerships

  • New links with other parts of the city and services to have a bigger purpose eg transforming use of site into foodbanks and deliveries
  • Providence and HOTA connecting artists with healthworkers, helping them go for grants together (see Creative Community Health Training program)
  • Planning for further potential re-use by emergency services eg as hospitals
  • Some sites returning to their original purpose eg Borough Food Market now for local people rather than millions of visitors
  • Rethinking mission to help elderly and vulnerable residents
  • New partnerships with retail – with the further demise of ground floor retail, what are the opportunities for cultural sector to be involved eg meanwhile space /experience economy
  • New partnership with other less affected industries eg HOTA working with construction industry to commission public art
  • Some spoke of the need to work with the rest of the cultural sector and take a collective approach to rethink better economic and data systems – eg Karen Brooks Hopkins spoke of the ‘myth of endowments’ at this time


Re-emerging from lockdown

  • How will audiences’ appetite change – economically, socially, psychologically?
  • Supporting appropriately powerful artistic work to help audiences make sense of the moment – and finding funds to do so
  • Growing issues of staff and community mental health
  • How will audiences be encouraged to return? Impact of health and safety checks
  • Impact of the decimation of the travel industry – need to focus on local and domestic audiences
  • Finding space and attention within a very crowded calendar of cultural events – a need to coordinate
  • Look to Asia for advice about reopening and audience attitudes eg Melbourne in discussion with Shenzhen Concert Hall
  • Programming will have much bigger focus on wellbeing and health and on free, open air events – what is the business model for this?
  • Advocacy and evidence of the value of cultural districts required in the rebuilding of cities and societies
  • Need for further scenario planning – a ‘W’ shaped pandemic likely


What do members want GCDN to do now?

  • Centralise tools and resources – share good ideas of what people are doing
  • Help with scenario planning / new logic model – help us understand how we come back in new way and how audiences will engage
  • Continue calls ‘to have a couple of hours to free ourselves’
  • Request for messaging/chat function beyond email and framework for provocation pieces
  • Potential opportunity for members to join up and have a unified voice about the value at this time


‘Artists will have a role in helping us make sense of what is happening in the word – they will play a role in bringing community together, inspiring and telling stories of humanity’
Fiona Poletti, Executive Director – External Engagement, Arts Centre Melbourne


‘What does it mean to be a resilient community? How do we actively prepare for this in the future?’
Christos Carros, Executive Director, Onassis Cultural Center


‘How do we rethink public gathering? Will we need to help rebuild public confidence’
Angelita Teo, Director, Olympic Foundation for Culture and Heritage


‘We have to change our approach; start with the domestic audience’
Duncan Pescod, CEO, West Kowloon Cultural District Authority


Links shared on the chat during the sessions