The global pandemic has had a devasting effect on the cultural sector both in the UK and around the world with theatres, cinemas and libraries closed and artists and audiences confounded by social distancing and lockdowns.
The impact of COVID-19 on the cultural sector in the UK has been profound with the closure of venues and the cancellation of major events like Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Festivals. The UK sector is not alone in this – COVID-19 has affected artists and institutions around the globe. In the first in a series of articles charting how different countries have responded to the crisis we turn to China:
China, charting a course to recovery, culture and creativity during and after the pandemic
The value added of culture and related industries in China has reached over 3,472 billion CNY (about £400 billion), accounting for 4.2 per cent of GDP. However, during 12 weeks of lockdown the arts and cultural sector closed its offline doors and turned attention towards online audiences.
With 904 million people online in China and 99.3 per cent of them going online using mobile devices, there was no shortage of audience. Online applications saw huge growth including online education and live streaming which saw user numbers soar by 110.2 per cent, 41.1 per cent respectively.
Just days after the lockdown in Wuhan, China’s National Administration of Cultural Heritage issued a statement requesting the country’s state-owned and private museums to share their exhibitions online to 'encourage the determination and morale of local people to fight the epidemic.'
China National Museum, the Palace Museum, the Shanghai Museum and others responded with 3D virtual tours. The Palace Museum led a livestreaming session on TikTok that attracted 10 million online views.
China’s third-largest ecommerce player Pinduoduo said it is working with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and six other Chinese museums to live stream exhibits, develop virtual tours and to promote gift shop merchandise to consumers in China.
Across China the appetite for foreign content film and drama has increased, though there is a cap of 30 per cent for foreign content on streaming sites by law, Chinese streaming sites are actively curating foreign content.
Chinese video streaming site youku signed a deal with the BBC in mid -February to screen more British content seeking to become the 'number one platform for British drama'. The unique appeal of Sherlock and Downton Abbey help Youku to differentiate itself from major rivals iQiyi and Tencent Video.
With the population confined to the home the film sector has been one of the biggest casualties of the crisis. China has the largest number of screens globally and is home to the world's second biggest box office after the USA, the pandemic has led to China box office losses of more than 30 billion CNY (£3.4 billion) this year.
It is estimated that over 6000 film-related companies are going out of business and more than 1000 cinemas will close permanently across the country.
More people have been reading digital books, in March there was a 48 per cent increase in the reading of health and medical literature, 25 per cent in psychology and 190 per cent in pandemic-related material. Meanwhile publishers and physical bookshops continue to face enormous challenges from loss of revenue.
The London Book Fair (LBF), was cancelled due to the lockdown in the UK. Chinese publishers and writers planning to exhibit or participate in LBF were severely impacted. In response, the Beijing International Book Fair is now planning to build a virtual exhibition platform for international participants unable to travel to China.
The pandemic has also dealt a huge blow to the offline live music sector, over 8000 live performance projects have been cancelled or postponed, with an estimated total loss of over £1 billion to a music industry in China that is worth almost £50 billion.
COVID-19 has driven artists, cultural institutions and businesses to innovate. Music labels, live venues and short video platforms started 'speed-dating' collaborations, trialling all kinds of programme offers to attract and engage new audiences across all online platforms. Unlikely partnerships between art museums and grassroots short video platform Kuaishou emerged who jointly presented several concerts.
Massively accessible, digital offerings are here to stay and will co-exist with offline performances when venues eventually re-open to full capacity.
On 11 May the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MOCT) announced that venues will open with 30 per cent capacity but all performance permits for visiting artists and companies remain on pause.
The government has rolled out a series of tax and fee relief measures to alleviate the burdens on business, especially small firms and self-employed enterprises, with tax and fee cuts totaling £84 billion in the first three months of 2020.
China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) have also signed a strategic cooperation agreement to assist cultural and tourism businesses in China. The ICBC plans to provide up to £11.3 billion in financing credit to help them resume work.
The government has also launched a new funding scheme to encourage research projects that support innovative use of information technologies - such as 5G, cloud computing, big data, and AI - in the cultural and tourism sectors to aid in their recovery from the shock of COVID-19.
The key lesson from China is that innovation is essential to both responding to the immediate challenges rising from COVID-19 but is also critical to the future success of the culture sector.
UK institutions have taken a similar approach to their Chinese counterparts:
The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead has turned its website into a digital space that reflects the different aspects of the programme at this multi-gallery venue.
The National Theatre at Home programme has been streaming top quality productions like A Streetcar Named Desire and Twelfth Night to housebound audiences, as well as hosting a monthly quiz. However, as in China, the sector here needs to be nurtured and supported if it is to continue to innovate and thrive.
While COVID-19 has profound implications for the cultural sector, it has also demonstrated to people around the world the importance of the arts to our daily lives. Culture has been a comfort, a diversion, an intellectual outlet, a way to explore and find meaning even while confined to the home. There can be no doubt now that culture is vital to our wellbeing.
In the next piece in this series we will bring further learning and insights from across East Asia and our global network on how the cultural sector has responded to COVID-19.