Culture, Shocked: Why supporting the creative sector helps economies and societies recover

Banner image: Shutterstock / Yau Ming Low
Culture, Shocked: Why supporting the creative sector helps economies and societies recover

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit our Digital Content Hub.

A different kind of culture shock

COVID-19 has disrupted the livelihoods of culture and creative professionals profoundly. Think of the laid-off engineer of an event production company whose calendar of upcoming events and concerts has been wiped out. It is also the furniture maker who was unable to market and license his new line at design fairs. And it is the director of a small museum worried about whether she will have to lay off staff.

Yet the challenges the sector is facing today are only the tip of the iceberg. Social distancing requirements and drops in tourism may mean theatres, museums and other venue-based institutions are operating at half capacity or less for the foreseeable future. The cancellation of festivals and trade fairs has triggered an investment shock, as artists, writers, film-makers and software designers have lost ways to promote and sell their work. The public and philanthropic funding that the sector relies on is on shaky ground. Local and regional governments, which account for roughly 60% of total public expenditure for “culture, recreation and religion” on average, will soon be facing extreme budget pressures.

Read the OECD Policy Brief Culture Shock: COVID-19 and the cultural and creative sectors and more on key policy responses

Image: Jeffery Edwards

We risk losing a lot more than just jobs

Culture and creative sectors account for approximately 1-6% of employment across OECD regions. However, this likely underestimates the true contributions of the sector, as it does not capture hybrid employment, second jobs or volunteers. Mega cities like London or New York have even higher concentrations of creative jobs and a diverse set of creative businesses. For example, in London the creative economy accounts for GBP 52 billion a year, one in six jobs, and an additional GBP 40 billion through its core supply chain.

Beyond these figures, the crisis has highlighted the broader role culture plays in society. During lockdowns, music, art, literature and film were an important lifeline to the outside world for many of us. Beyond individual well-being, cultural amenities make our cities and regions attractive places to live, visit and invest, and are often at the heart of urban regeneration strategies. Cultural institutions partner with schools, hospitals, prisons and job centres to support inclusion, and are important venues for intercultural exchange. Creative workers and firms make our whole economies more innovative, through crossovers with other sectors and by breaking new ground in design, production and business models.

Accordingly, if culture and creative industries get left behind in the post-COVID-19 recovery, it’s not only the event production engineer, furniture maker, museum staff and freelancers who will suffer. It’s the productive fabric of our local economies. It’s the shared experiences that bind us together. It’s all of us. And this risk is real. According to the International Council of Museums, 90% of museums globally (more than 85,000 institutions worldwide) temporarily closed during the crisis, and 10% might never reopen.

The current policy response just isn’t cutting it

Emergency policy responses to COVID-19 have been unprecedented in their scope and scale. But they aren’t necessarily well suited for the peculiarities of a sector heavily reliant on an ecosystem of freelancers, micro-firms, non-profit organisations, artists and artisans who pair standard employment with part-time gigs and contracts. In Europe, the percentage of those self-employed in the cultural sector is at least double that observed in total employment, and in some countries they account for almost half of all cultural employment (e.g. 48% in the Netherlands and 46% in Italy in 2018).

Many self-employment COVID-19 response programmes do not cover self-employed income if it comprises less than 50% of the total, leaving those who work part-time or run their own business on the side with significant earnings gaps. Lending institutions struggle to value intangible assets such as specialised skills and expertise or reputation in specific creative communities, making them more reluctant to lend to small businesses in the sector. Innovation support measures largely target technological projects, overlooking the creative skills, new business models and new forms of co-production that the cultural sector generates.

Image: Shutterstock/Diego Grandi

Let’s not waste this crisis: culture as an asset for the recovery

This perfect storm is an opportunity. In the recovery, cities and regions have the chance to reconsider their growth models and move towards one that promotes culture as a driver of social impact, favouring resilience, skills creation and pro-social behavioural changes. It can be a model that builds on crossovers between culture and the education or health sectors to drive future innovation.

For this to happen, we first need to ensure that cultural institutions, creative workers and firms can survive the crisis by addressing the policy gaps described above. A road map for this is outlined in the OECD’s new policy brief, Culture and COVID. Over the longer term, the massive digitalisation of the cultural and creative economy is clearly not temporary, and could lead to new ways of experiencing cultural and creative activities as well as new market potential. Investing in digital infrastructure and skills will open up new opportunities. Finally, the sector itself must be better organised, bringing its collective voice to recovery taskforces and investing in better data to bolster arguments for the role they can play in the recovery.

The time has come for culture and creative sectors to get their due with policymakers. The sector’s economic, social and innovation footprint is both under-documented and underestimated.

There is hope. Innovative policy actions are already taking hold. In the United Kingdom the Arts Council has suspended targets and confirmed grants on the condition that arts organisations continue to honour the agreements with artists. In Brazil, São Paulo is looking into direct employment of creative workers through a programme of hiring freelancers and the self-employed to generate online content led by the city. In Canada, Quebec’s École ouverte online educational meta-platform helps disseminate museum and art content. The sector rapidly innovated and adapted to support all of us during lockdowns. Let’s seize this opportunity and make these innovations a driving force in the recovery.

The time has come for culture and creative sectors to get their due with policymakers. The sector’s economic, social and innovation footprint is both under-documented and underestimated. It would be a mistake to continue to treat culture as the “poor stepchild” given the massive potential it holds for all aspects of our lives.

Also on the Forum Network: The Final Curtain? The impacts of COVID-19 on the creative economy in Brazil by Luiz Gustavo Medeiros Barbosa, Executive Manager, Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV)

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