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The boarded-up Elgin and Winter Garden Theater stands in Toronto on April 23, 2020.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

What’s next?

That’s the question on the mind of every pianist, ballet dancer and film director in the world. The pandemic not only separated artists from their audiences – no concerts, no plays, no art shows – but also from production and creation. No dance rehearsals, no band practices, no movie shoots.

Artists have leapt online with a plethora of virtual efforts, from living-room monologues to digital picture galleries. And now, they’re anxiously planning to reopen, but nobody is quite sure what that might look like or how the arts will change postpandemic.

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When will audiences return to live events and cultural institutions? And with limits on crowd sizes, how can anybody budget for a venue they can only fill to one-third capacity? Maybe digital alternatives will replace the live arts, but will people pay for the virtual experiences they’re currently enjoying for free? As arts leaders debate these questions, a picture is emerging in which the micro and the local are as likely to succeed as the grandiose and the institutional, and the virtual will flesh out the actual. The economics, however, remain murky.

As the pandemic closings took hold, it was the million-dollar shortfalls and dramatic layoffs at big organizations that grabbed attention. That might explain why the recovery would seem to favour the string quartet over the symphony. A neighbourhood theatre troupe unburdened by a permanent venue and happy to perform outdoors is better prepared for what comes next than the Stratford Festival, which depends on large audiences willing to travel long distances to get there. The municipal art gallery that never charged admission anyway doesn’t have to figure out how it’s going to survive without the international blockbusters that sustain provincial museums. The light and the nimble seem best suited to the moment.

The first question for both big and small, commercial and non-profit, is whether audiences will return to physical venues as lockdowns lift. A recent survey by Nanos Research for the National Arts Centre and the arts advocacy group Business/Arts found about a quarter of arts lovers are ready to return to indoor cultural activities immediately. Another third want to wait an average of five months, and the rest aren’t sure. Not surprisingly, more people – about 40 per cent – would return to lower-risk outdoor events right away. Similarly, an April survey for Music Canada showed marked reluctance among music lovers to return immediately to bars, small concerts, large concerts or music festivals, with no one category scoring a “yes” from more than 16 per cent of respondents.

Everybody is preparing to make patrons feel comfortable – contactless payments, sanitized spaces, distanced lineups. It’s all very sensible, but nobody has figured out how cultural business models based on 75- to 80-per-cent capacity can operate at 20 per cent or 30 per cent. (Museums and art galleries, which are already hyper-clean and sometimes rather empty, might have an easier time reassuring the public; the Nanos research did show slightly higher comfort numbers there.)

So if people only return slowly, will the digital offerings that sprung up during the pandemic become permanent, or possibly provide a second income stream for arts groups once live programming resumes? The evidence is mixed. The big incumbents, already experienced in remote transmission to cinemas, do seem to have the advantage. Hundreds of thousands have tuned in to nightly productions from New York’s Metropolitan Opera and weekly films from Stratford. But these are the greats offering you their best for free.

Less grand efforts have sometimes drawn impressive numbers during the lockdown, but it’s not clear audiences are ready to pay. According to the Nanos study, nine in 10 Canadian culture-goers would pay something for online performances, a cheering recognition of artists’ right to compensation. Still, only 13 per cent said they were willing to cough up half of a regular ticket price for an online offering; the rest would pay lesser amounts or didn’t know. Performance groups can’t run shows on a few percentage points of their regular box office receipts.

Even as Tiger King rivets us to the couch, we expect at-home experiences to be cheaper than live ones; we don’t value them in the same way. This isn’t a barrier for large organizations that can use live-streaming to access mass audiences at lower prices. Concert promoter Live Nation is planning to test this with “fanless” rock concerts. But in the past, successful pay-per-view models have involved marquee events and celebrity names, from the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall to the Mayweather-Pacquiao boxing match of 2015.

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Maybe streamed concerts from famed performers will fill in the gap in 2020-21, but the digital can’t replicate sweaty crowds and body-shaking low notes. The Abacus Data polling done for Music Canada found about half of regular concertgoers had streamed a live music event during the lockdown. More than 80 per cent, however, said it couldn’t replace the real thing.

The pandemic has been particularly cruel to the music industry, where artists who have battled since the 2000s to get paid for recordings came to rely on touring to generate income. Fans are listening to more music in lockdown, but those increases are on digital platforms whose payments to musicians are minuscule.

Clearly, the pandemic is reinforcing pre-existing digital trends – the visual art market will continue its move online, and streaming will further erode the distinction between movies and television. But if these trends accelerate, they’re likely to encourage the already unbalanced market in which a handful of bestsellers dominate book publishing and everyone watches the same three shows on Netflix. One of the most pressing cultural issues predates the pandemic: Will big-tech distributors continue to dominate at the expense of local arts and individual artists?

Ottawa has rushed in to help, pledging $500-million in emergency funding for culture and amateur sport. The government also tweaked emergency benefits so artists could still earn small amounts from their work while collecting CERB. But once the benefits dry up, there will be a Darwinian reckoning as artists trying to restart careers encounter floundering producers and cautious audiences. Large organizations with better access to philanthropy and corporate sponsorship might enjoy an advantage here, and there have also been complaints that the federal money rewards incumbents. The Canada Council, for instance, divided its $55-million share proportionately among current grant recipients, with larger recipients getting more money. When One Voice for Arts + Culture, a newly formed advocacy group, surveyed the sector, it was mainly small groups that responded: 20 per cent of them said that, despite the aid, they wouldn’t survive beyond 2020; another 20 per cent said they didn’t know.

And yet, the pandemic has also underlined the resilience of individual artists, and the bond between them and their communities. Imaginative endeavours are everywhere. In Dartmouth, N.S., indie rocker Adam Baldwin offers a Friday night solo set called the Cross-Country Chin Up. Toronto’s Outside the March theatre sells tickets to a personalized performance delivered to you over the phone. Calgary’s Glenbow Museum has asked citizens to contribute pandemic letters and pictures to include in its permanent collection, and the Vancouver Mural Festival has helped get new art on 60 store hoardings. As the world emerges from lockdown, can this enthusiasm for the hyper-local prove a crucial counterweight to the concentration of cultural power the internet has wrought? The pandemic might provide an opportunity to fix an old problem and, once the dust settles, may yet produce a new art.

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