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Cities, Culture, and COVID-19
The impact of COVID-19 on the cultural sector across the world has been enormous, and cities were quick to respond.
24.04.2020

The speed and toll of both the pandemic and the lockdown have had an enormous human impact - on our communities, families, mental health and spirit. In a matter of months, we have seen new levels of suffering and uncertainty. We are witnessing the impact on our public health systems, schools, social services, mental health, industries and sectors. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are being felt everywhere.

Courtesy of City of Austin
Courtesy of City of Austin

For the culture sector it has put acute pressure on a fragile ecosystem. What promised to be an exciting year for culture turned out to be a year of cancellations and, at best, postponements of festivals, carnivals, exhibitions and performances across the world. Public spaces and cultural infrastructure, from our museums and libraries, to art galleries, theatres and music venues, closed overnight.

While it is too early for an accurate assessment of the full impact of COVID-19 on the culture sector, early reports are emerging. In the United States alone, Americans for the Arts estimates the economic impact on the arts and culture sector to be at $4.5 billion. UNESCO estimates that on 20 April, 90% of countries with World Heritage Sites have closed or partially closed their sites to the public.

Despite the unprecedented scale of the challenge, cities and national governments around the globe have moved quickly to coordinate emergency packages and measures to support the culture sector. These include support in the shape of financial relief; advocacy and lobbying for the culture sector and creative workers; communications, advice and information campaigns; and digital platforms for arts and culture. For example, Helsinki established a fund for people and organisations affected by the closure of culture and leisure events to encourage new forms of engagement; Lisbon exempted cultural institutions in their portfolio from paying rent until 30 June; Zurich offered emergency aid for artists and cultural practitioners; and a number of cities including Barcelona, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, Nanjing, Sao Paulo, and Warsaw, have created free online cultural platforms, encouraging citizens to enjoy culture from home.

At the World Cities Culture Forum, we continue to provide a strong and informative platform for our cities to exchange advice and share knowledge. Through weekly webinars, pooling valuable information, and collating resources we are supporting cities plan and respond to the crisis. Our cities are at different stages and have key insights to share about their experiences. While the first phase has been focused on response measures, the next stage is as critical. It will be marked by a different set of challenges about the role of the culture sector in city recovery and ways of supporting the culture sector after lockdowns are lifted.

Whether its spontaneous singing from balconies, Zoom orchestras, or digital art lessons, it is evident that culture plays and will continue to play an integral role in responding to, emerging and recovering from this crisis. The unprecedented issues that the world is facing require an unprecedented response, with new levels of global cooperation.

Now, more than ever, is a crucial time for cities across the world to cooperate and collaborate, and to play a leading role in strengthening global cooperation. How can we work together to re-emerge from this crisis? We will explore this theme through our upcoming news postings.