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‘We will become humbler and can improvise better’

IbyIMD+ Published 19 August 2021 in Leadership • 10 min read

Leaders from theaters, galleries and museums share the lessons learned from dealing with the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19. They tell how they mobilized digital innovation to keep the arts alive.

Cultural leaders faced an existential threat to their institutions during the COVID-19 crisis. They had to adapt quickly, making innovative use of digital technology, to surmount enormous difficulties. In two previous articles, they shared with us their experiences, the good and the bad, of leading in turbulent times.

In this third and final article, I asked them what lessons they had learned during the pandemic that they could use going forward. To ensure confidentiality, all quotes are anonymized.  

As might be expected from this group of leaders of theaters, galleries and museums, they have all found creative possibilities in the darkness that could bring about significant change for their organizations, as long as the learning does not fade too quickly. These possibilities are by no means specific to cultural organizations – they are potentially widely applicable – and they fall into five broad areas. 

 1. Greater focus  

 Non-profit cultural organizations typically have multiple bottom lines – a range of different metrics for success. As a consequence, they can often find themselves stretched in different directions, chasing funding or oblique opportunities at the expense of a more singular concentration on core purpose. The demands of the pandemic have forced leaders to focus on “core mission and values and hone down activities to the things that are critical and important”. One said: “We have prioritized like never before” and have made “efficiencies that can be re-invested back into our core purpose – to serve the public”. 

The pandemic seems to have had a cleansing effect: “Much of the baggage of leadership has of necessity been cast aside, the bureaucracy and the meetings, as the big issues of survival, colleagues’ state of mind and financial priorities have taken all our energies and time for month after month. We intend to recover and stay focused on those big issues.” 

One heritage leader spoke of fundamental review, noting that that his organization had begun “to cost too much to run; it was bureaucratic and over-governed, full of complexity and slow to react. The pandemic has forced a full-scale review of costs and we have reduced staff levels by more than 40%. The restructuring and role changes that I thought would take years are nearly complete. Ways of working changed overnight; the challenge is to hold on to new-found agility.” 

A museum director expressed succinctly what I suspect many leaders feel in more normal times: “Previously, we were hyperactive – ‘think big, do more’. We always talked about doing less but never did. This forced us to do less, think further ahead and for once we have had enough time to do this.” 

There are 3,212 panes of glass in the domed ceiling of The British Museum’s Great Court, and no two are the same. They can be viewed in a 360-degree view virtual tour, and visitors can explore The Museum of the World, an interactive map showcasing two million years’ worth of treasures.

The National Gallery in London offers virtual tours allowing an exploration of the world’s greatest collections of paintings, via desktop, phone or VR headset.

The American Smithsonian Institute moved its artworks online, dispensing with the need for permission and allowing virtual audiences to download and share images.

Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle are among the Historic Royal Palaces that can be explored on virtual tours.

Shakespeare’s Globe streams plays live online and offers recorded performances for rent.

The Young Vic, in London, has said that it will livestream all future productions after successful experiments during the pandemic – and viewers will be able to choose which camera angle they watch from.

Teams hosted V&A Academy courses The V&A Academy offers online art courses comprising video lectures, study materials and discussion spaces.

In Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum offers in-depth explorations of the artist’s works and his letters in online exhibitions.

Kew Gardens, in London, is among 50 UK gardens featured in one botanic virtual hub. A fascinating online exhibition on Google Arts & Culture.

Perhaps in search of new markets, early in the pandemic the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, along with others, donated their collections to Animal Crossing, Nintendo’s long-running game which has more than 13 million players who curate their private islands.

“We’ve just come through this terrible thing together that indicated how much we are all connected. I hope that what comes out of this is something that helps to elevate us all. ”
- Michael Stipe

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