“No other city beats the cultural vibrancy that London has,” is what Dr. Gus Casely-Hayford, Founding Director of V&A East said in the introduction to our London Conference session on the future of culture in London.
But London’s museums, galleries, performance and cultural spaces are closed once again as part of our second national lockdown, causing yet another financial blow to the institutions that make up the soul and spirit of the city.
For cultural industry workers, the blow is just as great. Jessica Mensah, a member of the Blueprint Collective for the London Borough of Brent highlighted the challenges they faced at the beginning of the first lockdown, including anxieties about needing to change careers, a proposition hinted at by the government not long ago. The uncertainty of receiving any work in the sector has meant that for some, applying for jobs outside the sector might be the only way to sustain income in the meantime.
We also cannot ignore the historic, underlying barriers that exist for people from poorer, and Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds: a challenge further heightened by the pandemic. Progress on representation and diversity within the sector has been disrupted, as workers from these backgrounds have had their internships end early, shutting off one of the few ways to not only access, but also to progress within, the sector.
However the transfer into the digital space during the pandemic has allowed for training sessions, as well as theatre performances and cultural events to be moved online. Creatives have been able to showcase their work virtually and spend more time nurturing their talents. And without a doubt, platforms such as the National Theatre’s free online access to stage plays over the summer and Sadler’s Wells digital stage have made culture more accessible to those who may not have attended these spaces in person.
Nevertheless, the experiences and feelings evoked whilst watching a theatre performance or looking at exhibitions are inarguably less breath–taking in the comfort of your home compared to the live experience.
Ed Vaizey the UK’s longest-serving culture minister (2010-2016) called for a hybrid between the digital and in-person experience of cultural institutions. The opportunity to widen audiences can allow for greater engagement with local and international communities that may not have otherwise been exposed to London’s cultural offer. But we need to acknowledge that this digital revolution, though a short term solution (and only permitted where funds allow), should be met with caution. In the long run, it could undermine live performance and the social nature of culture, or exclude some audiences, while including others.
Moreover as we look ahead to a post-coronavirus world, one challenge foreseen by Gus, is imagining what cultural engagement, digital or offline, might mean in the future. As we become more aware of not only who’s creating culture but also the culture that is chosen to be put on display, so does the need for cultural institutions to look inwards and face the historical complexities that have made them what they are today.