In the third part of our COVID-19 responses series, we explore how the arts and cultural sector across the Americas are responding to COVID-19. 

There are multiple ongoing efforts to survey arts and culture audiences but initial reports find considerable wariness.

A New York Times/Siena College Research Institute poll published at the end of May found that theatregoers are hesitant to return and worry that the people around them will not follow the rules.

Social scientists are trying to determine under what conditions audiences might be willing to return. 

Social not-distancing

A study in the UK by the Policy and Evidence Centre for the Creative Industries suggests arts and culture have become an even more integral part of most of our daily lives during confinement in large part thanks to the initiative of many artists.

Cultural consumption and participation patterns are changing and will continue to change for a long time to come. The arts and cultural sector are exploring their role in finding new solutions to our increased social isolation.

Access to arts and culture during lockdown has been vital for so many: assisting cultural connectivity, stimulating creativity and supporting health and wellbeing.

Digital technologies are recreating the spaces in which people usually encounter the arts as these spaces are closed indefinitely. New digital content and platforms are the answer to many a search engine quest to fend off isolation. 

Arts festivals are going online and creating greater accessibility with free programming in Argentina. The City of Buenos Aires Government’s Cultura en Casa platform is sharing content (opera, theatre, music, dance) from the city’s various cultural venues, including streaming Minefield, a British Council-supported play about the experience of veterans from the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. The play was watched by 170,000 people during the 48 hours it was available. 

In Canada, festivals have moved online, and some new online initiatives have arisen, including the Festival of Social Distancing, an online artist community made to celebrate and showcase the work of the many artists around the world who have been affected by social distancing 

In Chile, the government’s platform Elige Cultura hosts online content across the artforms, from over 300 Chilean films to books, museum tours and music.

In Colombia, Retina Latina offers Latin American films for free; Teatro Colón in Bogotá streams past performances, and the Gaboteca has opened up a digital archive for everything (film, books, articles) Gabriel García Márquez-related.

In Cuba, the national literary, musical and filmic canon is being made available online through various platforms.

In Mexico, Contigo en la Distancia is a government initiative to give access to most Mexican cultural archives and resources – including the national recipe archive.

In Peru, Cultura24 hosts concerts, plays, courses and everything cultural – including a couple of British Council-supported plays from Shakespeare Lives.

In Venezuela,  El Sistema has launched a Virtual Hall to stream concerts from the various orchestras managed by the programme.

Rethinking audience engagement

As cultural venues open, expect fewer intermissions, digital-only ticketing, and more rules about entering and exiting. One venue, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, hopes to reconfigure flexible indoor spaces. Others, in warmer climes, hope to do more work outdoors.

Some orchestras hope to stage socially-distanced, reduced-ensemble concerts for small audiences as soon as this summer; in August, the St. Louis Symphony hopes to begin with what its chief executive, Marie-Hélène Bernard, calls 'very small live experiences'. 

Arts and cultural organisations are also re-thinking audience engagement through digital approaches as well as continuing to commission artists to create/inspire new work.

Richard Nelson has written a play for Zoom, and celebrated productions from the past are streaming. Online benefit play-readings are also proliferating and virtual town halls have become the new theatre hangout.

Play at Home, (a collaboration between the Public Theater, Baltimore Center Stage, Long Wharf, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and Woolly Mammoth Theater, is a website featuring new plays, intended to take no more than 10 minutes to read, that are free. This enables anyone to read or perform them at home or by video conferencing. 

Deaf West Theatre in LA is looking to digital for ways of expanding access, but has noted less than 15 per cent of online theatre is captioned or interpreted or in any way made accessible to the deaf community.

The artist-run space Durden and Ray in LA has organised installations of outdoor works around the city that you can see on a walk or from car, and the L.A. Philharmonic musicians are giving porch recitals for their Pasadena neighbours.

Mutual support

We are seeing arts and cultural organisations coming together and creating peer support groups. In New York, 200 arts leaders come together for a daily Zoom call sharing expertise and exploring solutions together across art forms, including cultural organisations of all sizes.

Xacara in Mexico has created a digital campaign and community to showcase globally emerging artists from Latin America, together with short support video clips signposting emerging artists to various support. 

The crisis highlights how important it is to engage in mutually beneficial collaborations with other sectors that foster innovation — through, for example, scientific research, digital entrepreneurship, community action, and international cooperation.

Sustainable progress in rebuilding our societies, as well as the reorganisation and adequate funding of the ways we create, produce, and interact with audiences, will require the best in artistic and literary creation.