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On the Situation in the Cultural Sector and our Responsibility

Due to the global impact of coronavirus, cultural life as well as social life has ground to a virtual halt. Since the beginning of this week, Pro Helvetia’s staff members have been working from home, while cultural events and projects are being postponed or cancelled all around the world. Cultural practitioners and institutions in Switzerland and elsewhere are bearing the brunt of this situation.

The cultural sector is an impressive, organically grown and interconnected global market. But it is also a highly vulnerable network of countless players who are each dependent on numerous external factors. It is a system in which a large number of people are working with a high level of commitment and a low level of security, especially in economic terms. A system of which society tends to see and celebrate the attractive side only, with its virtuoso, subversive, extravagant and gratifying aspects.

But the Covid-19 crisis has revealed the fragility of the cultural sector with unprecedented clarity. It offers a stark view of the precarious financial situation in which so many cultural practitioners live. A situation that has not been caused, but rather exposed and exacerbated by the corona crisis. Our cultural policy and grant system now face a twofold challenge: to find means and ways of alleviating the immediate and often existential hardship that so many people in the arts scene now have to bear through no fault of their own, and to consider what consequences this crisis will have for us and our system and to draw the appropriate conclusions.

As society is affected by this crisis at all levels – political, economic, cultural, public and private –, it is vital to view things from an all-inclusive perspective and with a spirit of solidarity. So we do not want to give the impression that the concerns of the cultural sector matter more to us than the basic and justified concerns of society as a whole.

As the Swiss Arts Council, however, it is part of our responsibility to speak out on the relationship between society, politics and culture. Because culture is an essential part of social life and – as is increasingly becoming clear – also of our economy. Moreover, it is one of the pillars of democracy. That is why it needs a voice that is heard by the public and it needs public support. In my role as Director of Pro Helvetia, which has for weeks been confronted intensively and from close-up by the consequences of Covid-19 on cultural practitioners and the arts scene as a whole, I would therefore like to reach out to the cultural scene and to the public in general with the following message:

On 12 March 2020, the Federal Office of Culture (BAG/OFC) and the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia organised a hearing with representatives of selected cultural associations. On 13 March, the Federal Council decided on numerous measures to mitigate the economic impact of coronavirus. These measures cover all sectors and therefore the cultural sector, too. On 20 March, the Federal Council approved a package of measures (prepared among others by the Federal Office of Culture and Pro Helvetia) that provide financial means to alleviate cases of hardship in the cultural scene. This enables the provision of both emergency funding and the payment of compensation for cancellations at a later date. Responsibility for the implementation of these measures lies with the cantons and with Suisseculture sociale. This is a first step.

The Confederation has issued a media release on the specific measures aimed at the cultural sector. We have also installed an info hub on our website prohelvetia.ch, where we collect and publish new information on an ongoing basis.

We are unable to estimate the extent of financial loss or the personal and structural consequences in the cultural world. Nobody can tell at this stage when cultural events will again start to be held. It is not just about loss of revenue from ticket sales. There may well be liability claims resulting from the cancellations. All the independent practitioners, the musicians, actors and dancers who all depend on performing for their living are affected, as are the cafés and shops in the institutions. Numerous art educators and guides in museums are self-employed and are now without income. Every single day, we receive emails and calls from practitioners who do not know how they are going to afford the rent for the coming month, how to organise their childcare, what they are entitled to claim or what other rights they have. No-one knows how cinemas, clubs, concert organisers, bookshops and publishers can fill the financial void created by their loss of income. Ultimately, the outcome of this crisis will show whether the economic imbalance to the disadvantage of the cultural market that this pandemic has revealed can be redressed by putting culture on an equal footing with other sectors of the economy.

Nobody knows what long-term impact the crisis will have on the cultural scenes worldwide. Whether the understanding of cultural gatherings will be reconsidered and possibly expanded with new forms of cultural outreach or, in view of the drastic restrictions in basic democratic rights during this pandemic, will indeed have to be reconsidered. The crisis will show – at private and public level, in Switzerland and all other affected countries – what cultural values we as a society are prepared to uphold and to what extent ethical values can be reconciled with legal and financial claims. When the crisis has been overcome and the world has returned to its business-as-usual mode, the crisis itself will become a source of artistic inspiration and lead to texts, films, plays and songs dedicated to the topic. Values will have to be reassessed and renegotiated, as will ideas regarding community and the economy, education and democracy, national interests and international collaboration. The arts will make their contribution to this discourse. Until then, however, a very simple principle applies:

To survive the crisis, those in need require support immediately. The very term “support” has gained a new dimension for the Swiss Arts Council over the past few weeks. We are listening, we are looking very carefully, and we are taking our responsibility seriously.

We wish you all, wherever you may be, the best of health, courage and a good dose of optimism for the coming weeks. We will, in a joint effort, overcome this crisis.

Philippe Bischof, Director of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia