Creativity under huge constraint: how are other small nations creative sectors coping with Coronavirus?


Over the weekend, we witnessed a fast-changing situation start to take shape after the UK Government announced it was moving into the delay phase of the coronavirus pandemic. As the news sank in on an ill-fated Friday 13th March, the reality of what the impact of a pandemic might be on the creative industries also started to surface.  Venues are emptying, productions are halting, freelancers are worried about how they will pay for the very goods that are absent from empty shelves.

This is the time for leadership. For understanding the immediate needs of the different creative industries who overwhelmingly rely on a freelance workforce operating on project-based delivery. For prioritising what most needs to be done today – but also in coming weeks and months – to safeguard the fragile but blossoming ecosystem that is the creative industries in Wales. And for listening and observing what is being done in other small nations so we can innovate fast and learn from others’ approaches and novel ideas.

This is a dynamic and frankly unprecedented situation. The Centre for Media and Culture in Small Nations at USW, wants to play its part in supporting the creative industries in Wales. As researchers, we feel we can best play part by gathering evidence and over coming days and weeks start to offer some analysis. As of today, we have undertaken a very rapid review of how some leading creative organisations in other nations are currently responding. This is fast work that is very far from exhaustive. We make no claims for being comprehensive. We are taking risks here and being open to the mantra of ‘fail fast and innovate quicker’. 

In theatre, we found a mixed picture across Europe and in the UK itself. Scottish theatres face closure after Holyrood advised cancellation of events with more than 500 people while the launch of the Edinburgh International Festival has been postponed. Currently the Scottish Government does not have the power to instruct organisers to cancel events. In Poland all theatres are closed; in Malta all events are cancelled; in Zurich and Geneva the main theatres have limited crowds to fewer than 1,000; theatre and opera managers meet in Paris today to decide how to react to the ban. Strikingly these tend to be 'national' or 'mainstage' theatres; there's little discussion as yet to be found on community based or smaller independent theatres yet they are often especially vulnerable to changes in revenue streams. In Greece all theatre businesses are closed. There is a great uncertainty as to how smaller independent theatres will cope. The Legislation Act to support employees and businesses whose operation has been temporarily prohibited by COVID-19 emergency measures may be a solution, but it is yet unclear as to what support it will offer, to whom and when.

National Creative and Arts organisations are responding with different degrees of speed reflecting perhaps their levels of resource. Coronavirus is certainly resource-intensive. Creative New Zealand approach coronavirus as a ‘a serious issue because of its impact on health and wellbeing and have engaged with the Audit and Risk Committee of the Arts Council in shaping’ their response. Co-ordination and collaboration between creative organisations clearly needs to be agile but also coherent. Their website reassures applicants for funding that they can continue to apply as normal but that they will review the situation at different milestones – such as notification (i.e. results of application), payment of grant, project start date, etc. This looks like a useful degree of flexibility and on-going review from a significant funder in that small nation. Major changes to events do not seem to be happening shaped presumably by the New Zealand Ministry of Health’s view that the likelihood of a widespread outbreak in New Zealand is low-moderate.

Meanwhile Creative Europe says that they are working to apply maximum flexibility in the implementation of the programme, within the limits of the applicable legal framework. Maintaining good governance while actively increasing flexibility requires some careful pivots.

On Sunday 15 March, Arts Council England issued guidance to its funded organisations and projects. ACE noted that the ‘number one priority for the next three months is to support people who work in the arts, museums and libraries. We want as strong a sector as possible as we come out the other side of this crisis’. This includes refocussing some grant programmes to help compensate individual artists and freelancers for lost earnings; offering advance grant payments to help with cashflow; and suspending funding conditions for National Partner Organisations for at least three months with immediate effect. Last week Irish government introduced social welfare payments for anyone who had lost work for due to the virus. Arts Council Wales plan on issuing information on Tuesday 17 March for those working as artists, freelancers and in publicly funded cultural organisations. 

In the world of games, innovative possibilities for home working and home playing are rapidly being explored. Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters and California office are working from home; Nintendo America is allowing its staff in Washington and California to work at home as is Bungie, the studio behind Destiny 2 based in Bellevue Washington. Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto) have gone further and made home-working mandatory across all its international offices (including Edinburgh).

Discord, a popular gaming conferencing service, has broadened accessibility for socially isolated gamers. In the wake of the coronavirus, streaming platform Discord is temporarily upping the limit on its Go Live service to 50 people at a time. The Go Live feature, which usually supports up to 10 users, is designed to lets gamers stream directly to other people alongside video chat and screen share options. Major conferences have been cancelled including GDC, the San Francisco Game Developers Conference with streaming virtual sessions available from today.

Every crisis seems to offer an opportunity for creative innovation as the Washington-based developers of Foldit this week released a new puzzle called Coronavirus Spike Protein Binder Design giving citizen scientists a chance to collaborate in order to try to discover a cure!

The effects in the world of television seem not to be fully felt as yet meaning there are lots of watching briefs as broadcasters monitor the consequences of coronavirus on their supply chain of productions and on advertisers. This feels more like ‘if than when’ as examples of pulled film productions is surely likely to impact broadcast commissioners (as well as cinema venues) too.

In Iceland, RÚV have cancelled a public debate on immigration. In Scotland, Made Brave have split staff into groups in a bid to stop infection. They have also said on their website they are promoting remote working. STV’s chief executive Simon Pitts reports seeing little impact to the channel, stating “There is no immediate impact on STV’s operations [from coronavirus]. We haven’t seen any cancellations from advertiser clients, and we do have robust contingency plans in place. The majority of our staff can work flexibly – you would be very surprised to hear that these days a TV channel can virtually run itself without people in the control room.”

 In Ireland, Apple TV+ and Skydance Television’s high-profile Foundation has had its production halted too. 

In Wales, S4C have posted a statement that they are focusing on their supply chain that could affect their timetable and reducing travel both in terms of meetings – using Skype as an alternative – and travel abroad for work.

Finally in film, exhibitors are being impacted by major releases being pulled or delayed. In New Zealand, both Amazon’s Lord of the Rings and Warner Brothers' Sweet Tooth have halted production. These moves are likely to weigh heavily on smaller independent cinemas and festivals. Larger organisations such as the Danish Film Institute (closed from 12-27 March) might be able to reimburse audiences their ticket fee but some Irish commentators have suggested consumers can help by being patient awaiting refunds while others suggest forgoing reimbursements or buying gift cards even if they cannot attend as ways of supporting our community venues so they are there when we are back.

Three key observations:

·       Collaboration between larger organisations and funders matters for stable financial environments

·       Larger organisations can take a lead in their sector by gathering intelligence fast using their existing networks and human resources to do so

·       Homeworking is going to become a new normal. With it, an array of social as much as technical challenges will emerge for remaining connected as human beings in a disrupted world.