Participants in Docudays - a digital film festival in Ukraine
Docudays.UA Human Rights Film Festival: Ukraine’s first digital film festival. Image ©

British Council

August 2020

Following reports from China, East Asia, and the Americas, our series on how the arts and culture sector is responding to COVID-19 moves on to Wider Europe.

This huge and diverse region encompasses Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, the South Caucasus, Western Balkans, and Central Asia, as well as Israel.  

Digital democratisation and innovation 

The lockdown broke new digital ground for cultural organisations in the region.

In Russia traditional players including the Bolshoi Theatre and State Hermitage Museum took their extraordinary collections and archives online, democratising access. Hermitage Director Dr Mikhail Piotrovksy said, ‘in one week, after the closure, our website had over four million visits … ordinarily we wouldn’t have that many visitors to the museum in a year’. 

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts also noted a 1521 per cent increase in virtual tours and reported that physical closure had pushed them to examine their own inclusion policies, and further improve access for disabled audiences. 

In the Western Balkans, effective online engagement has caused museums to rethink digital strategies after re-opening.

Arta Agani, Director of the National Gallery of Kosovo reflects they became ‘more open in a closed-down society’, while Jasminko Halilovic, founder of The War Childhood Museum in Bosnia and Herzegovina, highlighted the need to find mixed models for the entrepreneurial museums of the future.

The music scene in the South Caucasus has responded actively to lockdown. In Armenia the new Music 20 festival livestreamed the State Symphony Orchestra to online audiences for the first time.

In Georgia, United We Stream is broadcasting live DJ sets to fundraise for Tbilisi’s legendary clubs.

Digital innovation in the independent sector has been equally important.

Docudays.UA Human Rights Film Festival became Ukraine’s first digital film festival, swiftly moving online with a programme of 70 documentaries from 32 countries that were watched 52,689 times – significantly extending reach. 

Digital has also proved an important space for collaboration, protest, and campaigning for the arts. To draw attention to the 250,000 jobless entertainment professionals in Ukraine, the lighting company Alight coordinated partners in 25 cities to mobilise 5,400 lighting fixtures into an installation called #stopculturequarantine_Ukraine.  

In Central Asia, two heroes of indie theatre, Artishock in Kazakhstan and Ilkhom in Uzbekistan have collaborated on a new online piece highlighting out of work actors.

Support for the sector

As elsewhere around the world, the cultural sector in Wider Europe continues to be hit hard by the crisis.

There are a few emerging examples of government support, particularly for commercially important sectors, and for the fragile freelance workforce. 

In Ukraine the newly appointed Minister of Culture and Information Policy, Oleksandr Tkachenko lobbied to decrease VAT for the creative industries from 20 per cent to 7 per cent, also committing to spend one billion Hryvnya (£30 million) for cultural sector support.

The EU funded House of Europe programme is also providing emergency grants to the cultural sector.  

In Turkey, IKSV (Istanbul Foundation for Arts and Culture) authored a policy ‘The Uniting Power of Arts and Needs of the Cultural Field During the Pandemic’They have collaborated with Netflix on a fund for out-of-work film and media freelancers, and on a similar scheme for classical musicians. 

The Sarajevo Film Festival launched a call for their Work-in-progress post-production fund in support of films whose production is on hold due to COVID-19 and in North Macedonia the government organized an open call for live gigs that were streamed on national TV.  

In Azerbaijan some broader government initiatives for hard hit sectors – including exemption of micro-enterprises from paying certain taxes – have benefited cultural operators.

In Georgia, where research shows that the crisis has left 40 per cent of creative professionals without any source of income, some government grants have now been announced, including for creative industries and disability arts.  

There are also artist-led initiatives, for example Omuz in Turkey which recognises how the pandemic has heightened economic inequalities in the visual arts, and links those who are in need of financial support with those who want to donate.    

A different normal?

In Turkey, state and private museums and open-air concerts re-opened from June. Much of the busy autumn cultural calendar is planned to go ahead, with some delays, higher use of outdoor venues, and increased digital components. This includes the re-worked Istanbul Design Biennial

Istanbul Fringe Festival will take place in a hybrid format: international artists will perform digitally while local artists will perform live, within social distancing regulations.   

Ukrainian producers are exploring new models for concerts working within the city infrastructure. One interesting example is the ‘Vertical Concerts’ programme on the roof of one of Kyiv’s hotels.

Although the popular music festivals in Serbia have been hit hard, with Exit Festival postponing its 20th edition to 2021 other summer events in the Western Balkans are going ahead, including the Sarajevo Film Festival in August, with limited capacity cinema screenings (a full house is now 30, rather than the usual 220) combined with an active online presence.

These articles have highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the way people globally engage with arts, culture and creativity.

Artists and cultural organisations are currently faced with decisions about how to connect with audiences and adapt to the new changing circumstances in a creative and sustainable way, adapting business models, ways of working and how they engage and work with their audiences. 

Claire De Braekeleer, Wider Europe Arts Director, British Council and Ian Thomas Head of Evidence Arts, British Council

See also