Jul 2020

Tuesday, 30 June 2020 at 11am EST | 4pm BST | 7pm GST


  • Manal Ataya, Director General, Sharjah Museums Authority
  • Justine Simons OBE, Deputy London Mayor for Culture and Creative Industries, Greater London Authority, Chair, World Cities Culture Forum
  • Kim Spence, Director, Kingston Creative; Researcher, Southampton Solent University
  • Adrian Ellis, Director, AEA Consulting; Chair, GCDN – facilitator

Summary of Key Points:

How do and should cultural districts plan ahead, amidst the urgency of immediate concerns and the opacity of the future?

Facilitated by Adrian Ellis and attended by more than 80 audiences, this session explored focal areas and practical solutions in relation to urban cultural planning for the future, as well as challenges and opportunities.

Although cities are at different stages of dealing with the global pandemic in differing contexts, the discussion amongst the contributors surfaced some common concerns and focal areas for longer-term strategic planning for culture:

  1. The emergence of common agendas and shared concerns about culture across cities, and the need to learn from each other

Drawing on her work with the World Cities Culture Forum, Justine Simons shared the key common concerns about culture that have emerged across cities worldwide. These include:

  • the need to monitor, capture and share data about the consequences of the pandemic on culture, so as to better understand how to respond and plan effectively
  • the corresponding need to ensure sustainability in terms of this sharing of data as well as best practices for reform and recovery
  • the challenge of securing philanthropy and sourcing for revenue streams for culture, particularly due to the waning of cultural tourism
  • the need to rebuild trust in communities, due to a general sense of a decline in public confidence in returning to cultural institutions and venues
  • the shift towards the hyperlocal and a focus on addressing the needs of the local people and to foster community-building
  1. The need to be conscious that the global pandemic has reinforced and exacerbated issues of equity and inclusion

Simons also highlighted how the pandemic has emphasised and exacerbated inequalities including:

  • Although there has been a universal shift and rush to digitalise, the digital divide has also been widened, with the advantages provided by technology available only to those who are able to access it.
  • Reinforced the fragility and precarity of the conditions of cultural employment. Two key vulnerable areas to pay attention to would be: (i) protection for freelancers and (ii) the challenge of monetising digital content
  1. The importance of organisational agility and adaptability

In response to Ellis’s question on strategies to balance between operational challenges and longer-term policy planning, Manal Ataya shared the learning points gleaned from her own experiences in Sharjah:

  • the need to be cautious and resist the urge to be reactionary and offer quick fixes to immediate shifts and changes
  • at the same time, there is a need to not remain trapped and ensure organisational nimbleness, particularly in terms of quick radical redeployment of resources
  • as cultural workers and leaders on the ground, there is a responsibility to listen and respond to artist and community needs, especially in relation to lessening bureaucratic complexity

Ataya also suggested the following focal areas in terms of longer-term organisational restructuring and planning:

  • an emphasis on adopting a growth mindset, including capability development for staff
  • to avoid working in silos and to foster better communication as well as more efficient coordination amongst local partners and stakeholders
  • the commitment to cultivating and engaging the new audiences and users that resulted from the shift towards the digital
  • the provision of more appreciation and support – particularly funding – to the digital engagement and technical teams
  • broader responsibility for staff welfare and well-being,
  1. Despite the challenges, there is a need to better articulate and advocate the value of culture

All contributors stressed the need to advocate the value of culture, even in the midst of pressing problems like public health. They also acknowledged the challenge of doing so.

  • As Kim Spence aptly states, the global pandemic has surfaced a paradoxical conundrum for culture: while there has been a demand for culture and cultural enrichment during lockdown, it was the cultural workers that felt and bore the brunt of the covid-19 crisis.
  • With reference to how Kingston Creative teamed up with other organisations to increase the supply of masks through a project that employed local artisans to produce and distribute masks across several communities, Spence also highlighted the pandemic as an opportunity to demonstrate the broader value of culture.

In terms of articulating the value of culture, all contributors noted several dimensions including the need to shift beyond audience numbers while also acknowledging that culture has to address wider priorities such as social justice, equity, wellness and climate change.

The open discussion highlighted the global pandemic as presenting opportunities for reform, particularly in terms of rethinking persistent issues related to representation, diversity and the social impact of culture:

  • Reassessing the role of cultural infrastructure by rethinking the balance between protecting the integrity of cultural assets particularly historical monuments and harnessing the opportunity for education and conversations on public diversity
  • Leveraging on the shift towards the digital as a means to reconnect with diasporic communities

Summary produced by: Hoe Su Fern, Assistant Professor and Arts and Culture Management Programme Coordinator, Singapore Management University