Covid-19 and the global cultural and creative sector. Two years of constant learning – new foundations for a new world

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Covid-19 and the global cultural and creative sector. Two years of constant learning – new foundations for a new world

Dream, 2021, rehearsal photo. An Audience of the Future project. The Royal Shakespeare Company in collaboration with Manchester International Festival, Marshmallow Laser Feast and Philharmonia Orchestra.
© RSC DREAM, February 2021, photo Stuart Martin

By Anthony Sargent


This report is a follow up to Covid-19 and the global cultural and creative sector – what have we learned so far? published in October 2021. As the report author Anthony Sargent says:

Where I left the story last year, I outlined what felt the most important learnings for the Cultural and Creative Sector from all the experience of the pandemic’s first year. Many of the discoveries during that period pointed to new, better ways of working, of doing things and of living, but not all the more recent changes have been so positive. This study aims to account for those changes and to look afresh into the future.

We are co-publishing this report alongside our own ongoing Covid-19 research, including the initial 2021 report. We hope that it acts not only as a definitive global account of what happened, when and where, but also as a call to action to rebuild a fairer and more sustainable cultural sector.

Download the report to read the findings in full. This report is available in an alternative format – please email

Please note that this report was updated in September 2022.

Executive Summary

The breadth and depth of the damage caused by COVID-19 reflects some attributes specific to the virus and the pandemic it caused. It is truly global in a way that not even the two World Wars were global. The recurrent, asynchronous waves of the disease washing around the planet, the resourcefulness of the new variants they have spawned, COVID-19’s insidiously invisible asymptomatic forms and Long Covid effects, those have together all exacerbated the effects of the virus.

My original study last autumn, inspired by all the attempts to analyse the multiple impacts of Covid-19 on the Cultural and Creative Sector, aimed to start deriving from that mountain of retrospective evidence some forward-looking, more positive messages, of lessons and learnings from the pandemic that would benefit both the sector and the governments and agencies that invest in its work.

Unless some escape variant of Covid-19 reignites the journey of the past two years, it does seem reasonable now to view the pandemic in most parts of the developed world as nearing its end – though as I write this paragraph that is far from being the situation in China. But in many places live culture is returning (albeit with some residual restrictions and hesitancies) as our towns and cities start limping back to life. International travel, while still confusingly regulated, is becoming possible again. Most of the time we can now read the whole of people’s faces as they talk rather than speaking to a masked void, and we no longer feel the need to stand glacially distant during those conversations. The UK Government has declared a national move to unregulated “Living with Covid”, though given the steep rise in spring 2022 infection rates it is often being characterised instead as ‘Living with No Restrictions’. Much of the world is starting to look more as we remember it from the pre-Covid era, beginning to feel like a geological era very distant from the post-Covid world.

But looking around us, for all the elements of familiarity there are also changes. We walk past shuttered shops and bars and theatres that we know are unlikely ever to reopen. Services that used to be provided quickly and efficiently are randomly slow and disorganised, reflecting staffing fallout from the pandemic. Around the world public spending cuts reflect the ways government finances as a whole are having to be hastily rebuilt after the multiple economic shocks of Covid-19. Social invitations are often caveated with anxious questions about vaccination status. In many places traffic flows are still sufficiently reduced for it to be possible to hear birdsong, despite the quarter of a million stray cats in the UK said to reflect people being unable to visit vets during lockdowns to have their cats neutered.

Looking around the world’s Cultural and Creative Sector as a whole we see the results of the unprecedented explosion of online, virtual, digital and hybrid culture which we have become steadily more experienced at navigating during the last two years. We can see how artists and organisations have quickly gained both far more comfort and confidence in working in the digital world and also finding much greater expressive breadth in the ways it can be used. Some of these new online offerings, which greatly expand access to the arts for many communities previously excluded, will not outlast the pandemic, but it is clear that artists have found creative windows into a new future they have no intention of allowing to close, encouraged by the way technological and cost challenges have fallen away in what have fast become new mass markets.

We are also seeing evolving changes in the relationship between cultural institutions and their audiences and communities. After a lifetime of accumulating experience in communicating with their communities, the past two years have posed completely fresh challenges for cultural producers and presenters. Suddenly there was no upcoming programme to communicate, nor any authoritative sense of when programming would resume or cultural buildings would re-open. For some organisations that represented an existential crisis, but others were inspired to rethink the whole nature of their relationships with their communities, looking for fresh ways those relationships could be given real depth beyond the crisply transactional approaches of earlier times.

Some of the most far-reaching international lessons and learnings from these two years have been in the kinds of approach to leadership and business strategy that have proved most effective in navigating the crisis. That has been true equally for cultural organisations big and small, where the informal agility and organisational versatility of small organisations often made riding the tumultuous waves of the pandemic easier than it proved for bigger institutions, structurally siloed and uncomfortable with trackless uncertainty and discontinuity. It has become ever clearer that the old-style command-and-control leadership approaches are hopelessly ill-suited to times of rapid, volatile and unpredictable change. These have been years when the Cynefin categorisation of situations as clear, complicated, complex or chaotic has seemed more relevant than ever, and the sudden explosion of mutual-help networks crossing all normal boundaries of geography, artform, scale and profit/non-profit status gave leaders an enormously valuable new way of sharing their experiences and together surmounting the challenges of the pandemic.

The situation with management is more complex. In the case of leadership, at least in the Cultural and Creative Sector there has been little evidence of any gravitational pull back toward the old-school approaches derailed by the onset of Covid-19. However that balance in issues of management is more finely nuanced, with the lure of returning to ‘business as usual’ seeming stronger than in the case of leadership. It has been particularly instructive in writing this study to listen attentively to the young voices at the Salzburg Global Seminar , who in these issues – as so many – sound like the authentic voices of a new, uncompromisingly radical future.

For the sector as a whole the pandemic shone a fiercely revealing light on the whole issue of work – what it is, how and where we do it, and how we are contracted and remunerated. Now we realise that a third of the sector’s global workforce are not full-time institutional employees but instead work in a range of freelance, contract and self-employed modes, the sector can no longer evade the professional and moral responsibility to embrace those essential workers in more supportive and engaged ways. In truth, it should not have needed the disturbing rise in mental health issues and cases of burnout stress and feelings of exclusion for us to recognise the challenges the sector needs to address with its workplace cultures and practices. And we do not have far to look for some of the answers. Throughout the pandemic, kindness and a rekindled sense of community became inspiringly recurrent aspects of pandemic life, with the very word kindness experiencing a sudden rebirth and the Be Kind Movement seeking to develop empathetic emotional intelligence in young people as part of their preparation for adult life.

During the pandemic lockdowns many people’s normal workplaces were shuttered overnight with no opportunity for planning or preparation, and we began the unprecedented worldwide experiment in working from home, or ‘living in work’ as it often became characterised, like the overnight explosion in online culture when live culture was suddenly extinguished. The gradual opening up of societies around the world is now leading to a complex debate about the balance of advantages between regimented attendance in communal workplaces and the pragmatic flexibility of working from home – or indeed anywhere else, Working from Away it is now sometimes called. As in the case of online culture, we are transitioning from the absolutist experience of the last two years into a complex journey toward a more nuanced hybrid world, which could offer us enormous benefits if we manage the transition and the destination successfully.

From the start, one of the clearest global lessons of the pandemic has been how uneven was governments’ comprehension of the Cultural and Creative Sector around the world. That pointed to the urgent need to help governments understand the sector fully and deeply enough to be able to support it in realistic ways, so as to harvest the many different fruits which a thriving cultural sector pays back to society. Several studies have now started to explore which nations’ governments best understood and responded to the challenges of the pandemic for the Cultural and Creative Sector, from which there will be important lessons to learn for the future. One of them will certainly be the need for the sector to create effective informational advocacy programmes addressed to policy makers and political stakeholders, helping them better understand the structure and dynamic of the sector’s complex trans-national ecology, and based on that understanding develop investment and support programmes more likely to have certain, positive and resource-efficient results.

In the early days before the pandemic’s seriousness was widely understood there was a general expectation that Covid-19 would prove an intense but short-run shock and ‘business as usual’ would quickly return as after a bad dream. It was only when the severity and scale of the crisis became clearer, profoundly changing the ways people worked and lived, that some of those changes started to look like better versions of life before Covid-19, and the appealing idea of a ‘New Normal’ starting winning currency, broadening out into New Normals. Now, the dilemma of where to return to the status quo ante and where we should instead develop new, better normals learned from the past two years is finely balanced. There are some days and situations which seem excitingly full of learning and fresh opportunities. On others we are slithering miserably back to some of the worst behaviours and work practices of pre-Covid times.

We are now at a critical fork in that road. We know from innumerable experiences of the Covid-19 years that we can do so many things better, some in evolved improved ways, others in wholly transformed ways. We know that the lessons and learnings of the past two years could allow us to live better lives, professionally and personally. The choice is now ours, and it is not an institutional choice. It is a choice each one of us needs to make individually. Every one of us carries our own element of the shared responsibility to absorb the positive learnings from the wild world of Covid-19 into our lives. Thrilling doors have been opened into the possibility of a different way of being, a state of permanently unleashed creativity where it becomes the new normal always to be thinking what could we do better. We are at a defining moment of long-term choice like the woodland traveller in Robert Frost’s The Road not Taken , but for us as individuals and as a society the right choice is clearer than it was for Frost.

Download the report at the top of the page to read the findings in full. This report is available in an alternative format - please email

Published: 2022
Resource type: Research