As part of its remit, the Centre for Culture, Sport and Events (CCSE) is committed to hosting conferences, symposia and seminars which promote knowledge generation and exchange, providing a platform for scrutiny, discussion and debate of the issues that frame and influence the sectors of culture, art, sport and events locally, nationally and internationally. These events afford valuable sharing and networking opportunities for scholars and policy/community stakeholders alike. They are an opportunity to both reflect on what already and to look to the future. CCSE had planned for its annual symposium to take place at UWS’s Paisley Campus in May 2020. However, with the onset of the COVID19 crisis and the subsequent restrictions placed on all “co-present” activity, we were required to reconsider our approach. We are – as we discovered – in a fortunate position. Our University can provide access to a suite of digital broadcasting options; YouTube, Twitter etc, and we have colleagues with the expertise to help us to exploit these facilities inhouse too.   

Thus, we began planning our live stream virtual event: Festivals, Events & COVID19; Navigating a Global Pandemic. The impetus for organising and hosting this event was to provide an opportunity to hear from speakers active at various critical intersections of the art/sport/culture/festival and event nexus. We invited academics, alongside policy and practitioner stakeholders, to share their experiences of COVID19 to date and, to explore the implications of the pandemic for their sectoral interests in the longer term. We brought together a fantastic line up of local, national and international speakers to discuss three topics: 

  • Cultural festivals: performing at a distance 
  • COVID-19 and the future of sport events 
  • Creative responses and new event formats

The challenges that the culture, sport and events sectors are facing were foregrounded in the contributions of our speakers. Tackling the colossal effect in the economic sphere, including the inherent precarity of the sector overall and the strain placed on artists, producers, sponsors, broadcasters and others in the supply chain were central issues. The abrupt cancellation of all summer season events across Scotland has pitched event organisers into something of an existential crisis. The schedule of live events nationally for 2020 has been severely curtailed and the current prognosis for 2021 is for a ‘very cautious return’ requiring events to be remodelled to accommodate our post-COVID reality. The Edinburgh Festivals alone generate over £300 million for the Scottish economy. The direct effect on artists and producers reverberates down the supply chain as those delivering support services are also impacted. This pattern is repeated across the country, and internationally. 

It is a real concern that many – freelancers, performers, agents and athletes – will find it extremely difficult to survive in the sector until 2021; many arts practitioners, for example, rely heavily on annual events as an arts marketplace and showcase for their creative work. While the sector is still booking for next year, the risk that increased ticket prices will exclude some audience members is very real. Moreover, this does not yet consider the burden of meeting new government-sanctioned compliance frameworks going forward.  

The severely straitened financial circumstances in which governing bodiesi.e. local authorities find themselves and the period of global economic recession to come will affect the prioritisation of the recovery of the arts sector too. The dimensions of public and private space are also changing in response to the COVID-19 crisis, and this will impact how we experience communal social experiences and what size and type of events we will be able to host in our neighbourhoods, towns and large cities. There are, nevertheless, reasons to look to the future with positivity. For one thing, this period of enforced abstinence serves to demonstrate the extent to which cultural and sporting events function as milestones of individual and community memory/identity making, rites of passage and recurring traditions in our lives.  

Our speakers underlined the role that technology and associated digital platforms – while not always free – can play fulfil as enablers, allowing enhancement and cost saving that could benefit the sector.  If used appropriately  (with care taken over access and data security) such platforms can be harnessed as valuable recovery assets. Digital, downsizing and strategic dispersal may well be vital for successful rebuilding and utilising the crisis to help us find a way towards sustainability in recovery. In addition, much of the sector is well used to dealing with problems creatively, working within tight financial constraints to deliver their work. The pause in activity that has been forced upon us is an opportunity for retrospection and upskilling and, for finding creative ways to reach new audiences. It is a chance to consider adaptations and innovations that will enable recovery/reimagining; to return with better-informed events that are of increased relevance to their target communities and audiences.   

Currently, it is far from clear how the sector will return. Arguably, the government-funded furlough scheme in the UK is shielding the sector from the worst of the impacts of the present situation. The community and participation impacts of the cancellation of some events – we heard about highly specific sporting events in Northern Canada in session II – are significant and, cannot yet be fully understood. Further, festivals and events comprise significant parts of our international reputation which can be lost rapidly but, once gone, is not so easily regained. Thus, while the future might look different, it is nevertheless hugely important – for livelihoods, wellbeing, and social connection – that these sectors do return. 

The humanitarian effort in the sporting and cultural sectors emerged as a common theme across the sessions, people have felt uplifted by the commitment in local communities to re-conceive neighbourhoods, to engage in culture and festivity in different ways. Nevertheless, a desire to support large scale sporting and cultural festivals and events remains. It is clearly apparent that equality, diversity and inclusion should be at the heart of any vision we create. Neighbours and neighbourhoods as connected places located beyond city centres and with social and physical accessibility were foregrounded by speakers as entities that are guarenteed to increase in importance. 

Concluding on a positive note, our speakers and audience contributors felt re-energised by the commitment in local communities to re-imagine their neighbourhoods, to engage in culture and festivity in empathetic, kind, and collaborative ways. The local, and the importance of ‘place’, will be reinforced but a desire to structure part of our lives around around large scale, spectacular sporting and cultural festivals and events still persists. Significant change is inevitable, but we’ve seen that the sector has already demonstrated the resilience on which it must now seek to build.  

Here, and on our social media platforms, we will continue to reflect on the issues raised in the virtual conference and those which crop up in the evolving context of the ‘new normal’. Though there is much uncertainty, it is also the case that the post-COVID19 outcomes for the sector are likely to be far more positive if issues around change, challenge and sustainability have already begun to be interrogated, with as many voices as possible included in the conversations taking place.  

If you would like to view the virtual conference, it can be seen here.