While the battle against SARS-CoV-2 is far from over, the selective lockdown has greatly slowed its spread. Economic life is gradually beginning to resume, and museums will soon reopen their doors. But what of the performing arts? Now is the time for major cultural institutions to show solidarity, and to open their large cultural spaces to artists who cannot yet perform in smaller venues, argues Paul Dujardin, CEO of BOZAR. But the creative sector will need support from Europe if it is to recover.
This coronavirus crisis has spawned a proliferation of warlike metaphors. The terrible virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic was marked out as the enemy, healthcare workers were soldiers, and hospitals and care homes became the front line; we are building up stockpiles, and whoever fails to follow orders is a traitor.
The problem is that such bellicose language often muddies the waters, stiffening the tone and needlessly exacerbating differences. Still, we can learn the lessons from times of war.
In 1945, just after the liberation, Belgium lay in ruins. The economy was devastated, and hundreds of thousands had lost their homes. On 21 December, 1945, the government issued a Decree-Law (essentially a law issued under special powers) authorising it to force landlords into providing shelter for the homeless – a natural decision given the scale of the housing crisis at the time.
Today, this kind of solidarity – albeit voluntary – should be an inspiration to the cultural sector. From 18 May, museums and exhibition halls will probably be allowed to reopen their doors. Under strict conditions, visitors will once again be able to enjoy the beauty of art. The decision comes not a moment too soon: surveys show that Belgians are increasingly disregarding the rules of social distancing. The time has therefore come to allow a (limited and regulated) resumption of social contact beyond the framework of work alone.
It will probably be a long time before major events such as festivals are authorised. But there are always ways to give some hope to the performing arts (theatre, dance, music). Major cultural institutions, such as the Centre for Fine Arts, must take the initiative by sharing their large auditoriums with colleagues who are not yet allowed to reopen their (smaller) venues. Let’s take a concrete example: BOZAR and its Henry Le Bœuf Hall, host of the annual Queen Elisabeth Competition, can accommodate 2,200 spectators. Even using only part of this capacity, we could allow more than 1,000 people safely to attend a performance. For most of the country’s theatre companies or musical ensembles, 500 people represents a huge audience, far more than they could accommodate in their own halls or cultural centres. With many rehearsals postponed and cancellations affecting major venues, there is plenty of free capacity. We are already discussing the subject with our colleagues at La Monnaie and with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. At BOZAR, we can certainly count on 60 evenings between now and the end of the year. But the idea is not meant for the big cultural institutions to benefit financially. Our colleagues who receive structural subsidies, who are managing to hang on, and who have furloughed their staff, still have more funds than the smaller players in the cultural sector, who are facing a critical situation.
Indeed, it is in the cultural sector’s own interest to show solidarity. It should not be forced to do so, like the landlords in 1945; all action must be voluntary. Once small and vulnerable groups start going bankrupt, the big cultural institutions will soon face grave difficulties of their own. This is precisely what has led them to condemn the Flemish government’s regrettable decision (eventually withdrawn) to cut subsidies for cultural projects.
Giving a temporary home to ‘homeless’ artists will not in itself save the cultural sector. Many other measures are needed. Not all artists and organisations benefit from the ‘traditional’ support measures adopted by the federal government and the various communities across the country. Small, vulnerable groups in particular have been left on the sidelines. The emergency fund being set up must also be used to support freelancers.
On 8 and 9 May, we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe and the 70th anniversary of the Schumann Declaration, which laid the foundations for European unification. In 1945, most European theatres, museums and concert halls lay in ruins, yet cultural workers and artists did not give up. The great European festivals, such as Avignon or the Kassel Documenta, among the most precious symbols of European heritage, stepped up to fill the void.
It is high time for the EU to take measures to help European culture overcome the coronavirus crisis. The European Parliament has already taken the lead: “Europe must not allow the very things that define it – namely, the rich, lively and productive cultural and creative scene – to disappear,” the Chair of the Culture and Education Committee, Sabine Verheyen, said on 5 May.
The relevant Commissioners, Mariya Gabriel and Thierry Breton, replied that the EU’s culture and values had to be preserved “at all costs”, and that the EU was preparing a support plan for the cultural and creative sector.
It is vital for culture, media and tourism in Europe, but also for the credibility of the European Union, that these fine promises and bold declarations actually become reality. Our beautiful halls may otherwise remain empty for a long time to come.
Paul Dujardin is Artistic Director and CEO of BOZAR - Centre for Fine Arts, Co-Founder of the European Concert Hall Organisation, Vice-President of the European Festivals Association and President of Europa Nostra Belgium.