The arts and cultural sector has seen radical disruptions to so many of its routines, revenues and relationships due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, physical distancing has shown all of us how much we need and value connection.  

Having zoomed in on China in our previous article, we now look to the rest of East Asia – from the well-subsidised sector in North-East Asia, to the artist-entrepreneur in South-East Asia. 

Several governments have already announced measures to address the social and economic implications of the pandemic. Some of these measures are financial, for the whole economy or – increasingly packages particularly targeting the cultural sector. 

The pandemic has also prompted an unprecedented acceleration in the digitisation of culture with lockdowns resulting in a massive expansion in online consumption of, but also participation in, the arts and creative industries. 

First responses

Across East Asia, national level responses for the arts and cultural sector have focused on policies and measures designed to provide guidelines or immediate short-term financial relief: 

  • The Taiwanese government was the first to set up clear protocols and guidelines to assure a protective environment for artists and audiences. This allows the performing arts sector to continue operating. 
  • The Republic of Korea has announced a budget of US$ 2.5 million to give artists preferential access to loans.
  • Australia has launched an AU$ 5 million development fund to provide urgent support to independent producers. It will also safeguard local content and creativity and offer increased support to the Indigenous arts sector.
  • Singapore has introduced rental waivers for arts organisations. 

Yet even with all of the financial and in-kind support, art professionals know there is a need for long term solutions to support the arts ecosystem through this crisis and beyond. 

Many arts professionals have created initiatives to assess the impact and demonstrate the value of arts and culture in this crisis. The ‘I Lost my Gig’ platform in the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand is collecting data on lost business.

New Zealand has set up a national advocacy campaign 'Share your Thanks for Ngo Toi (the arts)’. The Australian arts sector has united around #CreateAustralianFuture. Similarly, in Malaysia, where the sector was less united, COVID-19 has inspired the cultural community to come together to support each other. 

Greater solidarity across the sector has been a common reaction to this crisis, particularly in South-East Asia. Artists in the Philippines are offering skills workshops and design services at home to help build the skills of the people in their community who are out of work. Vietnamese artists came together to auction some 100 paintings through the Viet Art Exchange Public Group on Facebook from 23 to 25 March to raise funds for the fight against the pandemic. Artists are ready to contribute to raising awareness about COVID-19 be it through commissioned work for posters in Vietnam or design opportunities offered by the government in Thailand.

Resilience through Innovation

There is a shift underway to explore creativity as a form of resilience. Artists across the Asia-Pacific are adapting to shutdowns in a variety of ways with many swapping physical performance spaces for virtual ones: 

  • In Korea, digital platforms Naver and Kakao are streaming theatre and dance performances.  
  • The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra has been broadcasting new performances online via their Virtual Concert Hall.
  • The Biennale of Sydney, Australia’s largest international festival of contemporary art, is partnering with Google Arts & Culture to deliver live content. 
  • Melbourne’s ARTea are posting online tutorials and daily art challenges for those at home. 
  • The Australian government has also opted for a mandatory code of conduct to distribute revenue to media companies which could see Facebook and Google pay for content. This could either be as a proportion of the revenue user attention earns for the tech companies, or as a proportion of the cost of the content. 

Like their counterparts in Australia and Korea, Indonesian artists and cultural organisations have moved to online platforms. 

  • Jakarta’s MACAN Museum launched the Museum from Home, a compilation of various materials and inspiring activities to do while working and studying from home. 
  • Future 10 live streams of DJ performances, and virtual concerts are offered by Studiorama and Sounds from the Corner. 
  • New partnerships have emerged with crowd funding platforms like KitaBisa, Saweria and FinTech payment gateways like GoPay and OVO. 

However, in many parts of the world, digital solutions are still not an option. 

An estimated 3.6 billion people remain totally offline, particularly in developing countries. In some countries, digital penetration is only around 35 per cent, meaning that two in three people do not yet have access to online content.

The Indonesia Creative Cities Network (ICCN), a node of creative cross-community organisations with networks in more than 200 districts / cities in Indonesia, initiated a nationwide integrated program. This is an emergency response to domestic conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic to support communities and the cultural sector. 

A key part of the initiative is the Indonesia Creative Store - online and offline stores that will promote and sell a variety of products by creative communities from various regions in Indonesia. 

Plan for recovery

Whether it is the venues now slowly reopening in China or those in places like Taiwan that did not close, cultural destinations are understandably prioritising the health and safety of visitors and extensive precautionary measures have been implemented, for example, requiring visitors to wear face masks while onsite. 

The digitisation of ticketing allows museums to manage visitor flow and enable contactless entry so there is no need for face-to-face or touch-screen purchases. 

Some institutions have adopted shared QR code systems to allow online reservations through centralised booking systems, making it simple for visitors to plan and arrange cultural activities. 

As countries and territories look to return to normality some are looking at stimulus measures to promote activity. 

Malaysia, for example, has initiated income tax relief worth MYR 1 ,000 (US$ 231) per person to reduce entrance fees and hotel rates at tourist attractions to stimulate domestic tourism.

Even with all of the financial and in-kind support, arts and cultural professionals know there is a need for long term solutions to improve support to the arts ecosystem.

The value of the arts and creativity has never been clearer in this crisis and needs to be recognised. 

There will be a period of adjustment during which artists and cultural organisations will need public support as they reappraise business models and explore new solutions to secure their operations for the long-term.