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"The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the culture sector to adapt", states the UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone R.

It is no surprise that 2020 has been a very challenging year for the culture sector worldwide. The cultural and creative industries are among the most severely impacted with more than 7 million jobs affected in Europe

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, October 20, 2020

UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone R.
UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, Ernesto Ottone R.

by Alexandra Papaisidorou

EBR: Does the development of online information technologies contribute to the popularization of art and culture in society?

It is no surprise that 2020 has been a very challenging year for the culture sector worldwide. The cultural and creative industries are among the most severely impacted with more than 7 million jobs affected in Europe (Eurostat, May 2020). Between March and June, 90% of countries totally or partially closed their World Heritage Sites, and 95% of the estimated 60,000 museums worldwide shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The extensive closure of heritage sites, the cancellation or postponement of cultural events, and the suspension of cultural production and distribution has already had significant social and economic repercussions on the future of an already vulnerable sector.

While the abrupt and considerable drop in cultural tourism – which makes up for some 40% of world tourism revenues (UNWTO) – has had negative impacts on cultural institutions, like museums, the latter have seen a 200% increase in their online presence by April thanks to the multitude of digital solutions adopted by museums during and after the lockdown.

The Prado Museum in Madrid was one of the first to offer online visits, trainings and webinars with a variety of educational material. By launchinvirtual visits, the museum fully embraced the role that digitalization can play in the future of cultural institutions.

Other illustrations of the power of digitalization for expanding outreach, diversifying audiences and adapting to the constantly evolving demands of audiences have been witnessed across museums worldwide.

Yet, despite a variety of innovative online initiatives, in the culture sector and beyond, we must remember that some 46% of the global population remains offline and that the vast majority of these estimated 3.6 billion people are in developing countries. In addition, the lack of multilingual and diverse digital contents persists, which in turn contributes towards the concentration and homogenization of content within the culture sector and to the loss of cultural diversity.

An interesting initiative can be found within the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in the joint venture of the Culture Secretariat of Mexico City and the Ministry of Culture of the Government of the City of Buenos Aires, both Creative Cities of Design, who agreed to combine their digital information and cultural platforms, in order to offer a wider range of artistic and cultural expressions from both countries. With this agreement, the digital platforms Capital Cultural en Nuestra Casa (Culture capital in our home), from the Government of Mexico City, and Cultura en Casa (Culture at home), from the Government of the City of Buenos Aires are jointly offering a wide and diverse arts programme and performances that are part of the cultural life of both cities.

Libraries, as purveyors of culture, must also innovate and adapt to the current situation, while remaining user-friendly and accessible to all. As for museums and other cultural institutions, this will require a deliberate investment in technology, capacity- and skillsdevelopment, the distribution of diverse online cultural contents, and redesigning  preservation protocols to ensure their sustainability in the future. Many good practices could be multiplied and replicated, such as the Moroccan International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions which offered free e-books, accessible to all, and a book drive-thru set-up in Wonju, a UNESCO Creative City of Literature from the Republic of Korea, which provides access to literature to people without having to leave their cars.

It is important to underline that mobility restrictions as well as the numerous partial or complete closures of cultural institutions such as museums, cinemas, theatres and festivals forced the whole cultural ecosystem to reflect on the sector’s recovery. The main challenge for countries will be to determine novel ways for culture to redefine its value in the pervasive “digital reality”. The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing the culture sector to adapt.

Whilst many of the measures implemented may be temporary, some may lead to long-term structural changes to the ways in which the sector operates and vis-a-vis evolving audiences. Festivals have been severely impacted by the pandemic as the closure of borders and social distancing limitations have forced a large number of cancellations and postponements. Many festivals have adapted by going online with support from platforms
such as YouTube or Facebook and some have launched their own channels, which they aim to keep active beyond the event. Despite the many challenges that the pandemic has posed to the culture sector, cultural event organizers also have an opportunity to experiment with different modalities and to promote flexible hybrid models – online and in person – to leverage the benefits of both.

Online sessions stimulate knowledge sharing, foster access to culture and ensure environmental sustainability; while live sessions contribute to building and maintaining strong social ties. To bring culture closer to its citizens during the lockdown period, Rome, a UNESCO Creative City of Film, launched the project #Cinemadacasa, projecting wellknown film sequences and images on building facades throughout the city. These hybrid and innovative modalities must remain profitable in order to guarantee the livelihoods of culture professionals and to strengthen the creative economy.

EBR: How can culture hybridization be a powerful tool for achieving social unity? Why is it so important to teach ethics and values? And what kind of ethics and values?

Our culture fosters our responses to our environment, our interactions with nature, our world views and our history, among other aspects. No culture is static or impervious to others. This is what constitutes both our common humanity and our cultural diversity. Recognising and respecting our cultural diversity is a prerequisite for social cohesion.

This is why UNESCO, along with its Member States, strives to give particular attention to those cultural practices and expressions that help communities to transcend and address differences notably of gender, belief, ethnicity, and locality. Culture contributes to building peaceful, inclusive societies, by fostering the integration of indigenous peoples, migrants, immigrants and refugees, people of different ages and genders, persons with disabilities and members of marginalized groups.

Very often, it is in this mutual respect and understanding that solutions must be found in order to foster unity and contribute to peaceful conflict resolution. Under the theme of Community centred urban development: a paradigm of inclusive growth, the UNESCO celebration of the World Cities Day 2020 on 30 October next will further highlight communities’ central role in building sustainable societies across different development dimensions, especially in the urban context where different peoples and cultures converge and interact.

By safeguarding and promoting cultural expressions and heritage from all over the world, UNESCO seeks to protect and foster this cultural diversity, especially among the youngest. UNESCO’s standard-setting instruments, including the Culture Conventions and Recommendations, support countries in fulfilling this priority, in line with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and Targets, such as ‘promoting global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity’ (4.7) and ‘safeguarding the world’s cultural and natural heritage’ (11.4).

EBR:What is the best model for representing sustainable development which includes economy, environment, social and culture as its dimensions?

Over the last decade, UNESCO’s advocacy for a culture-based approach to sustainable development has resulted in several United Nations General Assembly Resolutions that acknowledge the role of culture as an enabler of sustainable development. This process culminated in the integration of culture in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in 2015 by the 193 United Nations Member States. Culture has since been recognised by the international community as a transformative resource for more sustainable models, including through the promotion of a sustainable tourism that is considerate of local cultures, values and products, the protection and safeguarding of the world’s cultural and natural heritage, and support for productive activities, decent job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation.

UNESCO’s commitment to ensuring that the transformative power of culture in enabling sustainable development ,is constantly renewed, most recently with the development of the Thematic Indicators for Culture in the 2030 Agenda (Culture|2030 Indicators). In addition, several UNESCO standard-setting instruments in the field of culture such as the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions integrate culture and sustainable development as part of the rights and obligations of State Parties.

These instruments highlight the role of culture, creativity and artistic innovation for development and, in so doing, they advance a human-centred approach that effectively yields sustainable, inclusive and equitable outcomes. This transversal approach addresses development as a process that encompasses the enlargement of human opportunities and freedoms, beyond the benefits of economic growth.

Indeed, sustainable development must be intrinsically comprehensive, interlinking all aspects of our society, with culture as an integral part of its backbone. Composed of 8 UNESCO city networks and programmes from all of the Organization’s fields of expertise, the UNESCO Cities Platform embodies UNESCO’s holistic vision on sustainable development with, which harnesses the transversal role of culture across the economic, social and
environmental dimensions.

EBR: What are your predictions following the pandemic?

Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments have already implemented support schemes for the culture sector, which range from “direct support” by providing emergency relief to those whose livelihoods have been directly impacted, to “indirect support” including tax exemptions, tax deferrals and preferential loans. The pandemic has had an impact on the right of access to culture and the participation and enjoyment of artistic creations by the public. Mobility restrictions and confinement measures have drastically curtailed the fundamental right to take part in cultural life. The direct communication between artists and artworks, and the public, has been severely hampered. People can no longer appreciate artworks in exhibition spaces or experience the sentiment of artists performing on a stage.

Direct and indirect government support is useful in the short term to help the sector to survive the abrupt hardship. However, the protracted consequences of the pandemic and its related side-effects such as the economic and social crisis will have a longer-term negative impact on the culture sector, from cultural events and cultural practices to museum visits, festivals and performances, including the creation and consumption of cultural products. The cultural sector, hand in hand with policy makers, will need to find solutions to minimize the negative effects and transform the latter into opportunities to rethink strategies for the sector and to engage consumers in the longer term.

The impact of the crisis will further weaken the professional, social and economic conditions of artists and culture professionals, particularly individual entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises who often do not have the financial means to respond to a crisis of this magnitude. This is particularly relevant in countries with a large informal economy. Capturing the voices of artists and culture professionals in innovative ways will
be essential.

In this context, UNESCO launched on 15 April 2020 the ResiliArt movement; a series of open-format virtual debates that provide culture professionals and artists with a platform for dialogue and exchange, and bridge civil society and policy makers. As of October 2020, more than 160 ResiliArt debates have been independently organized by artists and partners in over 60 countries, shedding light on the far-reaching impact of the current health crisis on the culture sector. The opinions and recommendations voiced will be shared with the Member States of UNESCO in order to encourage the development of policies and financial mechanisms that support artists, culture professionals and institutions through effective assistance during and beyond the crisis.

Novel approaches must be stimulated and reinforced, and a reflection launched on how this digital shift can provide a new driving force for furthering regional and international cooperation in particular, as well as local initiatives and actions. The exchange of experiences and good practices can open up areas for innovative cooperation mechanisms to safeguard the economic and social fabric of the culture sector and support its recovery in the aftermath of the crisis. This could also provide momentum for shaping cultural policies.

The latest UNESCO e-publication entitled ‘UNESCO Creative Cities’ Response to COVID-19’ features a wide variety of innovative, culture-driven practices including urban policies and local actions, undertaken by Creative Cities around the world over the past months in the context of the current pandemic, enriching the collective reflection and discussions on COVID-19 recovery during and beyond the health crisis.

Current trends point to a deeper fusion between culture, creativity, innovation and technology worldwide, greatly accelerated by the pandemic. Culture is the source of creativity; innovation is the vitality of culture. This further integration will undoubtedly bring about more innovative culture-powered solutions to challenges on our path to a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable society. However, it is important to note that as large platforms begin to dominate the global creative landscape, there is a great risk that the diversity of cultural expressions will be reduced in the long term, resulting in the loss of local cultural content.

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