“Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.” This short instruction from James Joyce’s Ulysses could be used to describe the mindset of our entire nation today. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been absolute, forcing us into what feels like an eternal present, constantly imagining the future. And that present is tiring.
Last year I described myself (not immodestly) as having the best job in Ireland. I had the glorious task of presiding over the opening of the new Museum of Literature Ireland – a much needed, public-facing home for Irish writing, supported by the impeccable parentage of UCD and the National Library of Ireland. We opened to a joyous public reaction, much international attention, and even managed to host a Royal visit from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in our first six months. The museum quickly became a home for literary, social and business events, debates and interviews. Our education programme was reaching school kids in the most hard-to-reach communities, our cafe was a destination in and of itself, and the songbirds had started returning to our newly landscaped gardens. Idyllic – we were exhausted, but over the moon. Then, Covid-19 happened.
Like many directors and business leaders, myself and my teams strategy was necessarily fast and focused: protect our business and financially remodel, protect our staff and company culture (as important a part of the museum as our exhibitions), accelerate our digital and learning programmes to meet audience needs in the wake of school closures (our online learning programmes were widely used by teachers and parents within days of the school closures), and use the time to develop initiatives and approaches that we will carry with us out of the pandemic.
So far, so ‘new-normal.’ But as we move through the dystopian novel of the Coronavirus pandemic, a new problem emerges. Or rather, an old problem becomes more apposite. How do we innovate when the need to firefight is so great? How can we be creative in a global pandemic?
To answer that question, ask the artists. Many have rightly pointed out that it is difficult to be productive during a time like this. I know how they feel. But this moment might be more valuable than we think. In a recent Guardian article, the great Anne Enright summed it up: “Honestly, there is a lot to be said for tooling about all day, looking up recipes and not making them, not bothering to paint the living room and failing to write a novel… Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you.”
Any artist will speak with seriousness about how essential this ‘fallow’ stage is – the composer James MacMillan once beautifully described it as the “umbilical” period before a new piece of music was finally composed. New ideas don’t necessarily happen when you have your foot on the gas – but they’re more likely to happen when you take your foot off. For many businesses right now, it feels like both: a stasis and a frantic reaction all at once.
In the midst of this, the daily demand of keeping a business afloat often feels like some kind of horrible parallel dimension. Our social and economic landscape is changing every week, or even every day – we are reforecasting, rethinking our business models constantly. But it is worth remembering that this is the challenge to creativity we always face in business – while we react to the urgent and important issues we face, it can be difficult to take the time (which might sound ironic) to be fallow, to be idle, and to see our problems in a clearer light.
Of course, as the cliché goes, necessity is the mother of invention. We are entering an enormous global recession and, in any recession, new forms of business develop and old ones fall away. But unlike the last recession (far too close for comfort), this one is not based on credit collapse. Some businesses will unexpectedly thrive, some are creating new means of maintaining liquidity and staffing that will enable them to stay in the game.
There is no getting away from the devastating effect of the pandemic across all sectors of life and, in my own field, the arts and culture are being decimated. Performance arts will, more than any other, take some time to recover, and those artists are amongst the most adversely affected by the financial fallout of the pandemic. The very events that bring us together – music, comedy, cinema, theatre, debate and conversation – which we collectively enjoy and experience together, will be the furthest from our reach. The greatest irony is that it is precisely this community within our society that will ultimately play the greatest role in helping us heal.
The business challenges for the arts are complex – many independent museums and cultural institutions not directly funded by the State depend on a combination of admissions revenue, corporate and private support and ancillary spend in our museum shops and cafés. While our most important work focuses on meeting the needs of our domestic audiences, that model depends on an international tourist audience that has literally vanished overnight. Asked by a friend to describe the projected effect to museums recently, I said “it’s like retail losing Christmas.” The task is no longer to reforecast, but to remodel from the ground up. But that is a creative task, and as always full of potential as well as challenge.
Our cultural institutions will play a huge role in the national recovery that lies ahead. Our large, open spaces are easily managed within social-distancing restrictions, and we will collectively offer open, welcoming, quiet, inspiring spaces for people to gradually feel themselves once more. It is no surprise that in Italy, museums and libraries are opening within two weeks of lockdown measures being eased. They contribute massively not only to our society’s sense of itself, but also to our collective mental health.
Another key role our cultural institutions play, less visibly, is providing employment for artists through performances, commissions, bursaries, consultancy and speaking engagements. The risk of a “second bankruptcy” for some industries – reopening and not being able to financially support the new reality – applies equally to the arts. Programming budgets will be decimated, audiences limited. But through creative and innovative approaches to programming, we can contribute in some way to supporting the roles and livelihoods of our artists. The Abbey Theatre’s ‘Dear Ireland’ series was an exemplar in this regard.
On a corporate level, this presents an opportunity for social responsibility programmes to support – even modestly – the arts community by helping institutions present work once more to the public, either on or offline. It will be slow to start off but, as with all businesses, we can get back to a semblance of where we were and, in time, better and stronger.
“Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past.” I joked recently that it would make a good headline for a pension fund graph. We are only ever moving forward, for good or ill. But what will we leave in the past, and what will be bring with us into the future? That question requires creative answers, spaces to think, and time to imagine.