Counting the costs and opportunities for culture: DCT Abu Dhabi and UNESCO to set up a joint study

The big news at Culture Summit Abu Dhabi – which, to be fair, isn’t really a forum for dispensing big news – was the announcement of a joint study by UNESCO and DCT Abu Dhabi on the global impact of the pandemic on the cultural and creative industries.

The project was referenced by Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, in her opening remarks at Culture Summit. “To act in response to the crisis, we first need to understand it, to measure it,” she said. “This is an essential step, a first step, because in many respects the scope of the crisis makes it difficult to quantify.”

She followed an impressively impassioned and articulate opener from Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman of DCT Abu Dhabi – “for any nation and society to blossom, it is imperative that art and culture are front of mind of its policy- and decision makers”.

His intro didn’t actually mention the UNESCO-DCT study, contrary to the official quote included in the press release, but at least that release did include a smidgeon more information about the exercise. Apparently he would have said “as part of our ongoing efforts to promote, support and invest in the cultural and creative industries, not just here in Abu Dhabi, but globally, we are proud to be partnering with UNESCO to launch a new global study aiming to assess the impact of COVID-19 on this sector and the social and economic consequences of these impacts on a global level”.

And that’s as much detail as we have. There’s no information about who exactly will be conducting the study, its terms of reference, its precise goals, or its schedule. Let’s hope that this is not just window dressing for Culture Summit, a three-day event which involved more than 100 speakers, panellists and other participants from fields such as design, heritage, media, public policy, and technology.

Some of the event’s partners would seem a logical addition to the study, in fact – they include Google, UNCTAD and Economist Events, all of whom would seem to be useful resources for information-gathering and tools to understand the data.

2021 has already been declared the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development by the UN General Assembly, with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) the lead body for implementation “in consultation with UNESCO and other relevant UN entities”.

And UNESCO itself has been doing a lot of work on how the cultural and creative sectors might emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. In particular it launched a series of open-format virtual debates in April 2020 under the label ResiliArt; more than a thousand artists and cultural professionals from 110 countries around the world have shared their stories and offered recommendations via around 240 of these online meetings.

The results are summarised in a neat little guide available as a free download under the title Culture in Crisis: Policy guide for a resilient creative sector.

There’s a lot of sensible comment and conclusions in this document. It’s particularly acute on the way the crisis has revealed and exacerbated existing weaknesses in the world of arts and culture, especially the lack of economic and social protections for those at the heart of the cultural and creative industries; and the way it has accelerated  the digital transformation of society in general, raising real questions about the financial viability and the technical knowledge base of cultural enterprises while online multinationals have consolidated their position of dominance in the new economy.

The conclusions won’t always feel palatable – “faced with the globalisation of markets and the digital shift, the cultural and creative industries are left with no choice but to adapt by developing new skills, practices and business models”. But it’s not all bad: “the crisis has also provided the opportunity for experimentation, some of it altogether novel. Public reaction to these new ways of participating in culture and the financial flows they have generated are a strong indication that these new practices will probably continue post-COVID-19”.

The report also includes some eminently sensible and practical recommendations for policy makers. These aren’t complicated and they aren’t even numerous. There are just 15, organised under three headings:

Direct support for artists and cultural professionals

  • Social benefits
  • Commissioning and purchase of works
  • Compensation for loss of income
  • Skills development

Support for sectors of the cultural and creative industries

  • Accelerated payment of aid and subsidies
  • Temporary relief from regulatory obligations
  • Compensation for business interruption losses
  • Relief from taxes and social charges
  • Stimulating demand
  • Preferential loans
  • Strengthening infrastructure and facilities

Strengthening the competitiveness of the cultural and creative industries

  • Participatory needs assessments and feasibility studies
  • Adapting business models
  • Promoting national content
  • Tax incentives for foreign investment

If the new UNESCO-DCT Abu Dhabi study is designed to produce some data about impacts and opportunities, we’d hope that the meat would include some modelling to demonstrate the economic and social value of the 15 recommendations. We’ll let you know as soon as we know more.

The Culture Summit 2021 programme runs to 10 March, and attendance is free and open to the public; the presentations are available online as well as streamed, but we don’t know how long for. Information and registration here.

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