A time to reimagine and reinvent

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Mary Fitzgerald
Mary Fitzgerald

Journalist and analyst specialising in the Euro-Mediterranean region with a particular focus on Libya, Trustee of Friends of Europe and 2013 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Photo of This article is a part of our EYL Working Group on Arts and Culture series.
This article is a part of our EYL Working Group on Arts and Culture series.

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Show more information on This article is a part of our EYL Working Group on Arts and Culture series.

The European Young Leaders (EYL) Working Group on Arts and Culture was established to share and brainstorm ideas for collaborating on pan-European projects related to arts and culture. It draws on the wide range of artists, musicians, writers and cultural practitioners in our EYL network.

Brexit, the rise of populism and the pandemic have threatened a sense of ‘European-ness’ among the citizens of Europe. The Working Group places a particular importance on how arts and culture – a core European industry contributing to 4.4% of European GDP – can be used as tools to help build that spirit while relaunching economies. The EU’s motto is: united in diversity. Our job will be to promote that diversity while responding to common challenges.

This series of articles complements the Working Group’s three meetings this year. The Working Group aims to produce a policy briefing in the autumn of 2021 to be brought to the attention of high-level policymakers at the European and national level. We hope to hand over the recommendations to EYLs, EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel and French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Clément Beaune, ahead of France taking over the EU rotating presidency in 2021.

Is this what hope looks like? In March Barcelona played host to Europe’s biggest indoor event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Images of the rock concert – attended by 5,000 mask-wearing fans who had been tested beforehand – were not only a reminder of what we have missed over the past year but also a timely nudge for us to imagine what might be possible again soon. It was “a small but important step toward normality”, said Ventura Barba, one of the organisers. Last week medical researchers said there was “no sign” the concert had caused contagion. “In summary, a live music concert in a covered enclosure with the correct measures and ventilation is a safe activity,” declared one doctor.

Europe has been knocked sideways by the pandemic, and every member state has experienced the fallout in its own way. It has been a long year of uncertainty for everyone, but few have been hit harder than those in the cultural and creative sector.

According to a study commissioned by authors and creators’ rights organisations and presented to the European Commission in January, only the aviation industry has suffered more as a result of shutdowns that brought much of the world we knew to a standstill. “Europe’s creative sector has never known such economic devastation in the past, and its profound after-effects will be felt throughout the coming decade,” the report noted.

It outlined how revenues in the sector – which includes TV, cinema, radio, music, publishing, video games and the performing and visual arts – plummeted by 31.2% last year compared with 2019. Europe’s cultural and creative sector was hit even harder than tourism, which lost 27% of its income.

It is not enough to focus only on the economic recovery of the cultural and creative sector

The impact of last year’s early closures of cinemas, theatres, music venues and museums, and the cancellation of summer festivals sent the sector reeling. In some EU member states, such venues remain shuttered. Discontent over continuing closures in France prompted protesters to occupy scores of national theatres before the government recently announced a summer reopening.

The pandemic has highlighted many structural issues within a sector that is a powerhouse of the European economy and a cornerstone of Europe’s idea of itself. In particular, it has demonstrated the extremely precarious position of the many freelancers or temporary workers who drive much of European creativity.

Some countries are thinking about how to address such vulnerabilities, both now and in the future. Ireland is considering a basic income scheme for artists and other cultural professionals. An EU-driven effort, bringing member states together to improve the working conditions of those within the sector, would send a powerful message of European cooperation and solidarity, and help encourage the idea that culture transcends borders.

Last September the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the cultural recovery of Europe. Key to the resolution – which was supported by an overwhelming majority of MEPs – was the understanding that it is not enough to focus only on the economic recovery of the cultural and creative sector, given how much it informs – and is informed by – so many other areas of our lives. This is where the conversation on cultural recovery should start.

This is a time for not only imagining what is possible together but acting on it

COVID-19 may have pummelled the sector but in every crisis, there is an opportunity. This is an historic chance to reimagine and reinvent the future of culture in Europe. An opportunity to create a cultural ecosystem that is anchored in better working conditions and safeguards against the precariousness that left so many exposed when the pandemic swept across the continent.

Our European Young Leaders (EYL) Working Group on Arts and Culture emerged from the sense of urgency of this current moment, not only in terms of the immediate needs of the cultural and creative sector but also the question of what its future looks like. The Working Group draws on artists, musicians, composers, filmmakers, writers, fashion designers and cultural managers from across Europe, all of whom belong to the EYL network.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Europe has witnessed how so many individuals, groups and organisations have experimented with ways of adapting to stark new realities. Joint actions, movements and initiatives have shown the power of increased sectoral unity. Our Working Group is part of that. EU institutions and member state governments have a key role to play to ensure the cultural and creative sector emerges from this crisis stronger and more resilient than before, so too do the individuals and organisations that make European culture and creativity such a rich asset. This is a time for not only imagining what is possible together but acting on it.

Mary Fitzgerald is a founding member of the EYL Working Group on Arts and Culture.

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