Culture at the Time of the Coronavirus
Among the measures taken in recent days by the authorities in charge of dealing with COVID-19 is the decision to suspend not only educational activities in schools and universities, public meetings and events, but also the activity of museums, cinemas, theaters, and other cultural locations. And also to keep religious ceremonies to a minimum. It is evident that this was a difficult decision, with a large individual and collective impact. It is just as evident that the economic repercussions in many sectors will be considerable, and long-lasting.
The world of culture has reacted very rapidly and compactly, in two directions: on the one hand, operators have recognized the serious consequences that the forced closings will have on the economic sustainability of cultural organizations; on the other, people have made an effort to imagine ways to create substitutes for cultural activities. In addition to the collective encouragement of communication campaigns that proudly defend the entire sector’s capacity to react to the situation, museums, theaters, and cultural operators around the country have done their best to express their vitality with the same level of energy they use to show their desperation for the closed doors and dark and empty halls.
It may seem odd that, when faced with an emergency that is 20 times more lethal than the seasonal flu, affects interest rates on the public debt, modifies the level of pollution in China, and burns wealth on international and domestic markets, the “dwarfs and ballerinas” are launching their cries of pain. What is the specific impact the coronavirus will have in these sectors?
From an economic standpoint, the damage for cultural sectors is direct, indirect, and induced in other areas as well. The direct damage is the lack of proceeds from tickets and from the failure to keep commitments to season ticket holders. The Venice carnival was closed early, the London Bookfair from March 10 to 12 is in question and AGIS - the Italian General Entertainment Association - has estimated that the lost proceeds due to the cancellation of 7,400 shows in the regions affected by the stoppage of activity amounts to 10 million euros. Although the period of quarantine will be limited, the economic and above all financial damage for cultural and creative pipelines will be considerable and widespread. The impact on the working capital of very fragile organizations is very high; even the institutions that receive contributions from third parties cover a significant portion of their current expenses with proceeds from tickets. In addition, the lack of revenues translates in most cases into a lack of sales, not only a postponement. If one date of a singer’s tour is cancelled, it will be difficult to make it up; if one show is missed, it likely won’t be put back on the calendar. We also need to consider the seasonal nature of the activities. For many museums and theaters this is a critical period for educational tourism: if the time window of the start of the semester is lost, it will be difficult for classes to reschedule their visits this year. We must hope that with the cancellation of events, trips, and meetings, Italians have decided not only to spend more time in supermarkets and pharmacies, but also in some bookstores, that they have listened to more music, and seen more films at home (although I’m not optimistic on this point); cultural goods and activities are not very fungible.
The indirect damage regards the lack of proceeds linked to the sale of tickets: these are revenues for cafes and bookshops, for hotels and transport industries in the case of cultural consumption by tourists. In addition to the audience’s spending for complementary products (cloakroom, food, audio guides, souvenirs, etc.), we must add the additional revenues linked to cultural activities (sponsorships, contributions, videos, etc.). For 2018, the Italian Society of Authors and Publishers (SIAE) measured 2.6 billion euros in spending at ticket offices (for cinemas, theaters, concerts, sporting events, shows, and exhibitions), 4.8 billion in overall spending by the public (including complementary products, but excluding travel and lodging costs), 6.8 billion in overall revenues for the organizers. A comparison of the data for this period with the equivalent period in the past years will allow for a very reliable estimate of the immediate cost of the forced closing. The duration and intensity of the repercussions will naturally depend on the evolution of the epidemic, from people’s emotional reaction to the duration of the quarantine.
Finally, the induced damage regards those who collaborate with cultural organizations, the sum of suppliers. In this case as well, it is not only the organizations that will suffer from these consequences, as the incidence of job insecurity and fixed-term contracts in the cultural world is very high, while average salary levels are low. In addition to being fragile organizations, cultural sectors have fragile forms of work. It is one thing to try smart working for a subordinate employee, but quite another not to work at all, and for many, it is not possible to try smart working when one’s work involves live productions in the middle of groups of people.
This is the context of the non-economic dimension of culture at the time of the coronavirus: the visible effort to bring cultural organizations outside of their closed doors and give a strong sign of trust from a crucial segment of civil society. Various initiatives are emerging on social networks these days, from many different kinds of cultural organizations; like others, they are responsibly performing their roles.
 SIAE, Annuario dello spettacolo 2018, p. 18.