The lockdown has hit the culture sector especially hard. When people are told to 'stay at home' they can’t go to a concert or an exhibition together. This is particularly sad at a time when everyone is in need of comfort, inspiration and wonder. Art can't beat coronavirus - only science can do that - but art will be vital in healing the wounds inflicted by the crisis.
Large events have been banned until the end of August, but what about exhibitions? Smaller concerts? Readings? A decision on that is due on 3 May.
Paul Dujardin, CEO of the Centre for Fine Arts / BOZAR, offers his insight and a few suggestions that could prove useful in planning a safe and sustainable exit from the lockdown.
‘Can art save the world?’ was the question put by the late Eric Antonis, artistic director of Antwerp 93, Cultural Capital of Europe. Today it makes sense to ask it the other way round: ‘Can the world save art? ’
The Coronavirus Crisis has hit hard everywhere, but in the creative and culture sector the impact has been particularly severe. That sector accounts for 4.2 percent of GDP in the European Union. It is therefore logical that other industries feel the effects when museums and concert halls close their doors, and film and TV recordings grind to a halt. For example, the cancellation of the summer festivals has meant that potato farmers have had to destroy hundreds of tonnes of potatoes because... fewer people will be eating French fries. This is just one example of the complex ripple effects.
Fortunately these days, the internet provides opportunities to keep the blood circulating. It is heart-warming to see musicians, singers, filmmakers and writers keep in touch with audiences through the worldwide web.
There is no doubt that the lockdown will give a boost to digital culture. Exhibitions will have an online presence. The streaming figures for readings, concerts and theatre performances will skyrocket. But we all know that an opera or an intimate concert on your laptop can never replace the real thing. And it is far from a business model. The bottom line is certain: the industry won't survive economically without massive government support. This is true for just about every industry.
As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) said, all of humanity's problems stem from one thing: the inability to sit quietly in a room alone. People are social animals. They thrive on new ideas, contact, encounters and perspectives. Quiet and solitude can be beneficial when recovering from a period of hectic activity. But if it goes on for too long it leads to depression and, ultimately, madness. The fear expressed by psychiatrist Dirk De Wachter that the coronavirus peak will be followed by a peak of psychological symptoms is justified. We may soon be prescribing culture for vulnerable people instead of antidepressants.
Art and culture cannot defeat coronavirus. Only science and a disciplined population can. But art may be a vaccine to help us better understand and process the post-coronavirus period.
If we are to keep the virus under control, the restrictions cannot be lifted all at once. From the Ghent Festivals to Rock Werchter, this year's big events have been cancelled. But what about other events and initiatives?
Exhibitions are not concerts. BOZAR, like many other museums and culture houses, has the infrastructure, personnel and digital back office needed to keep the door to our exhibition spaces ajar. If we can go to the supermarket safely, we should also be able to see the Keith Haring or Van Eyck exhibitions, or visit Bokrijk Park safely. We can sell tickets digitally to avoid queues, establish audience quotas, allow only small numbers of people in the spaces and post security attendants.
This means convincing staff, artists and audiences that exhibitions can be visited safely again. Not as before, but perhaps in a calmer and more concentrated way.
What about concerts? Theatre, dance, readings and debates? The situation is trickier. It may be an idea to look at how the risk of infection was managed in Japan, even before the Coronavirus Crisis. There is a gulf between full lockdown and a return to the situation before 13 March. There may be compromise solutions, however.
The federal government, headed by minister Sophie Wilmès, has assembled a ten-strong working group to prepare an exit strategy. Team Exit is made up of renowned experts with a sound grasp of their specialist areas. It is to the government's credit that they have sought specialist input in a matter as delicate as this. There can be no room for political gamesmanship or financial gain. The culture sector will also have a voice in Team Exit’s discussions.
During the Second World War, Winston Churchill ordered that the paintings in the National Gallery be moved to a mine in Wales. But the museum stayed open. Once a month, a painting was brought back to London and exhibited. So began the ‘Picture of the Month’ idea, which remains to this day. London's favourite painting was Titian's ‘Noli Mi Tangere’. In English, ‘Do Not Touch Me’. How appropriate to this lockdown!
Back then, The Times wrote: “So battered and bruised is the face of London today, that now, more than ever, we need something beautiful to look at.”
Today we need the world to save art, only to ensure that the roles will be reversed afterwards. Soon our artists will be sorely needed to lend shape, sense and content to the post-coronavirus era.
Paul Dujardin, CEO, Centre for Fine Arts - BOZAR