Arts and culture in the time of coronavirus

Light effects on stage created with theatrical lighting equipment and a smoke machine

Credit: sdigital/GettyImages

Theatres, cinemas, museums, book shops and concert venues closed in March 2020 as lockdown began.

Arts organisations, institutions and venues were closed as people were crying out for entertainment, inspiration and light relief during lockdown.

The sectors had to quickly pivot to survive lockdown and reach the population, which was stuck at home.

Rapid funding was deployed from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to a range of projects through UKRI’s rapid response fund.

Boundless Creativity

May 2020 saw the launch of Boundless Creativity, supported by, among others:

  • historian Professor Mary Beard
  • author Bernadine Evaristo
  • actress Fiona Shaw.

The goal was to work with cultural organisations across the UK to find new ways to thrive in the digital, and lockdown, age.

The project involved the UK’s leading arts organisations and creative businesses and it has created ambitious, groundbreaking projects.

The project:

  • brought immersive experiences into living rooms across the country
  • placed some of the UK’s favourite art collections online
  • provided people with the chance to work in Wallace and Gromit’s new odd-job company.

Video credit: AHRC
On-screen captions and an autogenerated transcript is available on YouTube.

Online performances

While some of the UK’s larger theatres and companies have been staging digital performances for years, smaller groups hadn’t had the expertise or budget to investigate the technology.

The Digital Theatre Transformation project created a toolkit for theatre companies to help them get online.

It based its findings on the experience of the Creation Theatre in Oxford, which performed a sell-out Zoom performance of The Tempest in the early days of lockdown in 2020.

The project was led by Professor Pascale Aebischer and Dr Rachael Nicholas from the University of Exeter. Their initial report found that audiences were willing to pay for live, digital theatre, even after lockdown ended.

Professor Aebischer said:

Although efforts to provide free art content during lockdown were appreciated, we need to ensure this doesn’t become a substitute for audiences paying for tickets.

Theatre is diversifying, we were heading in this direction before the pandemic. I believe, depending on how many theatres survive, we’ll have traditional theatre performances alongside digital, with patrons for both.

Sheffield’s cultural recovery

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, around half of Sheffield’s population went to arts events like music performances, dance or theatre, and 40% visited museums and galleries.

A one-year project is investigating the pandemics’ effect on freelancers and the city as a whole, as well as how to get audiences back into buildings in a post-COVID world.

It is led by Professor Vanessa Toulmin from the University of Sheffield, and includes a multidisciplinary team.

Toulmin said:

This is a unique opportunity to bring together the expertise of my colleagues in the faculties of arts and humanities and social sciences so our research can have an immediate impact and help the city that we love so much.

The project is based in Sheffield but the findings will help cities and towns across the country.

It will provide guidance and expertise on how the arts and culture sectors can recover from the pandemic, wherever they are.

Capturing the country’s experience

Poetry has been used since the time of Ovid to capture adverse experiences, Professor Anthony Caleshu from the University of Plymouth points out.

He has been leading the Poetry and COVID project since mid 2020.

Caleshu said:

Poetry has been drawn on by politicians, healthcare professionals and teachers during the pandemic.

It provides succour, a means to think through our predicaments and a way to connect.

As well as publishing an anthology of poetry from professional poets in the UK and around the world, the project asked the public to submit their own poems for publication.

Over 1,000 poems have been published. They have been viewed and shared thousands of times online.

Many of the poems have been written in the most difficult of circumstances: times of loneliness and isolation, financial hardship, grief over the loss of friends and loved ones, or from those suffering from COVID-19 itself.

Poetry is often thought of as a marginal art form, but this project shows how it is still so meaningful to so many people’s lives.

People call on it when they need it most.

Last updated: 29 July 2022

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