How have arts leaders helped the sector transform post-Covid?

We sat down with Head of Perrett Laver’s Arts Practice in the UK, Milly Smith, to discuss challenges facing the sector following the pandemic, how organisations are encouraging audiences to return to venues, and what lies ahead for the arts sector.

What is one of the most significant ways in which the arts sector has adapted or changed its course, following the pandemic?

The pandemic demonstrated the adaptability and agility of the art sector. All arts and cultural institutions had to operate remotely, if that wasn’t already set up, and find ways to continue engaging with their audiences. With every lockdown, the way organisations overcame the challenges of staying in line with social distancing guidance – sometimes by closing their doors entirely – was admirable.

Digital has become one of the most significant way the arts has evolved. The creative sector is constantly coming up with new ideas to move forward and stay relevant, and the pandemic only heightened that urge. Digitalisation was unsurprisingly spoken about a lot during the pandemic. Many cultural organisations were behind the curve from a digital perspective. Organisations had to rethink what digital content they were putting in that space as it became the only way to connect with their audiences at that time.

Which leaders stand out to you as sector examples, both during and after the pandemic?

Every single organisation has had such a tough time through the pandemic, and just getting through it has been impressive. The leaders that were even more impressive were those that were going above and beyond their own situation to help others. For example, Firstsite won the Art Fund Museum of the Year in 2021, and director Sally Shaw spearheaded community work during the pandemic. They delivered art packs, championed free school meals for children, and gave their time to their community and still continue to do so. Another great example is Kwame Kwei-Armah, the Artistic Director of the Young Vic, who spoke frequently during the pandemic, not just talking about needing more support for the sector but also pushing theatres to change following the Black Lives Matters movement, something he has been driving himself for a long time before the movement. There are others, but these particularly stood out for their work not just in their own organisation but for the whole sector.

Much of art and performance is now accessible in the digital realm. Do you keep this in mind when you seek to appoint leaders of cultural institutions?

We absolutely do. It has become a really important part of every role in the arts. You can’t just have one person driving digital, but rather a holistic approach where all leaders have some digital knowledge and capability. But whilst it is really important, sector leaders are also saying that nothing beats seeing a play in the flesh. Nothing beats seeing a live performance, and nothing can replace that feeling of seeing something with your own eyes for the first time. But digital enables us to do really interesting, immersive things. For exhibitions and performances, these elements can sit alongside live events to reach wider audiences. In that respect, digital is a really powerful asset for leaders in the sector.

Would you say the arts sector is doing enough to foster the next generation of talent?

The first point I will make is that there is always more that can be done. But I think importantly, there is an appetite for change. Arts organisations, on the whole, are great proponents of community work. For example, taking an art exhibition out into the community is a great way to generate interest amongst the younger generation. Art can touch people in many different ways through education to health and wellbeing, but it also can spark potential career paths. People within the sector have spoken a lot about reaching out to communities which haven’t had much exposure to arts and cultural organisations before.

There have been really some really great stories where individuals have been inspired to take up an apprenticeship or work at an organisation that has engaged in community outreach. Organisations are doing a much better job with apprenticeship schemes and youth trustee boards, and that is where we at Perrett Laver come in. We are always keeping an eye out for up-and-coming talents. We are always challenging our clients to be open minded about people taking that next step up in the arts. Right now, we have been working really hard to address issues such as diversity and inclusivity in the boardroom. Our Governance Apprenticeship Programme, for example, aims to provide people with the opportunity to shadow boards for a year and learn what it is like to be a board member. The hope is that these experiences inspire them to go on and become a trustee, and this is one way we can help inspire the next generation of talent.

Now that museums, galleries and theatres are open again, have you noticed a renewed interest in and appreciation for the arts, and the people that lead in the sector?

We all missed culture during the pandemic, in whatever form that took, so we absolutely saw a renewed interest afterwards. However, we can still see some hesitation with those who are nervous to be back in large venues and mixing with other people. It may take time to feel comfortable sitting next to people in theatres again. Arts galleries were able to control the amount of people coming through their doors, and many have stuck to this approach with timed slots and entrances.

Yet there is still a question for the performing arts about people coming back to theatres and other live performances. As a rule, organisations have had to work very hard to bring people back into their galleries and museums and theatres. As we touched upon, these venues must continue thinking up interesting and new ways to reach different people, to build audiences and revitalise interest in the arts.

As the arts sector gets back on its feet after the pandemic, would you say that issues such as diversity and inclusion remain priorities for arts leaders?

Diversity and inclusion is a priority and should remain to be. During the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter only sparked change in the sector (and beyond) that should have happened a long time ago. Diversity and inclusion must be thought of holistically and as a true representation and reflection of the communities that arts organisations serve. Most organisations are not truly representative yet, there have been some great pushes for change, but there is still a long way to go. Representation is important because individuals are not going to come if they don’t see themselves on stage, or they don’t see themselves through the art or the artists or even the staff who are checking their tickets and showing them to the to their seats. The same goes internally as well. You’re not going to work somewhere if you don’t see people like yourself in the workforce. Leaders must set an example; it is up to them to create a holistically inclusive culture. In everything an organisation does, these principles need to be lived and breathed so it becomes second nature.

What are some of the challenges facing the arts sector in the next 12 months e.g. possible recession? How can the sector respond?

There are many challenges the art sector will face in the next 12 months. Organisations have got themselves through the pandemic and have become much more adaptable and quicker at responding to situations but there is a long road of recovery ahead. Financial sustainability is going to be the single biggest challenge for arts organisations as many took a significant hit during the pandemic. The government did give additional support of course, but public funding even before Covid-19 was decreasing, which means more than ever the arts is going to have to be more commercial and more self-sufficient. We have spoken about audiences not coming back in the same way post-pandemic, it is safe to say that the arts is categorically not the same as it was before the pandemic and now must work even harder to be relevant 21st century organisations that people want to engage with.

With the announcement of the NPO funding round looming, it is hard not to reflect on some of the goals set by Arts Council England in their strategy Let’s Create, which demand arts organisations to be inclusive and representative as well as to be a driving force in addressing the climate emergency. These are ongoing issues that will continue for the sector for the next 12 months and beyond. I imagine with all of these challenges, the sector will respond as it did throughout the pandemic, with persistence, energy and creativity.