the cultural sector in a state of emergency

First published in Bulgarian on April 27th 2020
Milena Berbenkova
Dr. Petya Koleva

As of March 13th, 2020, Bulgaria is in a state of emergency because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As of March 8th, 2020, all group cultural events have been banned until May 13 or later.

At the end of March, we interviewed eleven representatives of the independent cultural sector in both the arts and cultural tourism. We explored how the state of emergency is affecting their activities and income, and how they are coping with the new challenge. A summary of the interviews is presented here, and a list of interviewees is presented below.

State of emergency for cultural activity in Bulgaria and worldwide

Understandably, all interviewees stated that they have had to postpone planned activities such as performances, guided tours, and touring. Some had already canceled commitments beyond the state of emergency period - in the months of the second half of the year.

Currently, events with direct interaction are impossible to conduct and expectations for live events in the months afterwards are pessimistic. Yet, important aspects of social life are accompanied by cultural services, which form a main source of economic activity and income for theater actors and artists combining art with educational activities. Under the condition of social isolation, family festivities with accompanying cultural activities are also cancelled. For one of the interviewees, these celebrations normally represent 7 – 8 engagements per month, and generate a considerable part of their monthly income. An additional obstacle for artists working with children is the closure of schools and kindergartens. Examples include organizations, such as the educational theater "Zabavna Nauka" (Fun Science), which provide educational performances in schools; and artists who teach English and additional subjects to kids, through puppet theater and improvisation, such as Alice Turner.

The negative effect of stagnation in other cultural and creative industries that hire independent artists is significant as well. These include audio-visual content producers, casting agencies and any business linked to the creation of and sound production for film, advertisement, etc. All are currently running in reduced capacity.

Limitations and opportunities

Many artists are turning to the digital environment during this period. Ideas such as an online platform for connecting cultural content with audiences, known from the strategy "Shared Vision" in 2017, are returning to the common consciousnessi. Some artists are looking for an opportunity to start an activity that they have been considering for a long time but had not had the chance to undertake before. For others, it is a new direction that seemed impossible until now.

The cultural walks around Sofia, offered by Viktor Topalov from Bohemska Sofia (Bohemian Sofia), are an example of a new experiment. The walks are intrinsically related to a physical tour of the city, and are hardly as engaging in the digital space. However, the virtual walks that take place through photos and city maps presented by Victor have proven appealing enough to digital audiences. While they are attracting larger audiences than the physical walks would have, the revenue is low.

Remuneration for creators and copyright protection are challenges that artists often meet when distributing content in a digital environment. Konstantin Kuchev, a musician who regularly conducts virtual concerts for children, used social media to share that his online audience, often surpassing 100 people, does not donate: "In reality, two or three of those 150 donate."ii "Malle-Malle" Puppet Theater has produced 15 cultural products in video format and they have exceeded 1,500 views on Facebook alone. Yet, there is low donation activity. "Bohemska Sofia" already has had more than 4 virtual walks joined by 50-60 people each with donations from about 13% of that audience.

The global stage reflects this reality. While many "stars" manage to attract their fans to pay to watch them online for charityiii, when it comes to paying the artists themselves, the facts are less optimistic. In a Vox article, artists state that participating in online festivals is currently earning less revenue than the touring they have delayediv. In addition, the platforms currently used by artists: Facebook livestream, Instagram, TikTok were not designed to generate revenue from the stream itself, which makes it difficult for artists to attract a paying audience. Musicians using Twitch - a sales-oriented streaming platform, share similar observations in an article by The Vergev. Even in Twitch, revenue represents only a small fraction of what creators would have gained from live performances, however, they hope that things will change with timevi.

Another challenge for artists is the need for a new tech-based skillset, as well as access to high quality technology to showcase their art online. Representatives of the independent scene are often not able to connect with their colleagues, or hire high-quality video production equipment while working in isolation. Many of those specialized in live arts, are aware of their limitations in dealing with video content and the need for new skills in video directing, visual narration and storyline development.

For artists who rely on audience reaction during a show, and on teamwork with colleagues on the performance, moving from stage to digital space is equivalent to creating a new type of cultural content:

  • Interaction: If, for example, in a puppet show, the actors have relied on the reaction of the children in the audience to decide upon the next step their character would make, it is currently difficult for them to achieve this via a digital broadcast. Standup comedians also look for clues from the audience if certain bit is working while mediated communication has eliminated the cues of immediate laughter feedback.
  • Collective works: For theater productions and other stage forms, the challenges include real time teamwork in one space. Gergana Dimitrova, founder of "36 Monkeys", says that initially they had considered having one of their performances presented via live stream. However, this became impossible when government measures prohibited the work in cultural spaces (not only with audiences). All stages suitable for the performance became suddenly inaccessible, and the presentation of online theater performances in real time was impossible as it would require the use of a performance space with all its associated facilities.
  • Creative language depends not only on the specific space or team, but also on the transmission channel. For example, in improvisational theater, sometimes the digital space is utilized to realize performances or group trainings. This necessitates a new approach since the physical aspect of improvisation and object work are hardly possible when the actors are separated from each other and are perceived in a two-dimensional "view". The means of expression brings speech and facial expressions to the forefront, at the expense of the use of the whole body and its capabilities.

New content

In addition to live stream, many artists turn to the creation of diverse content and use short YouTube videos or share recordings of previous performances. It is important to state that repurposed materials are just a temporary solution and should not be considered a standard for online production, as their quality is often low and unsuitable for online experiences. As an interim solution, their main role is to maintain contact with the audiences.

Digital space and the forced transformation of audiences into online users are preconditions for reaching more people than a live show. Almost every artist recognizes this rare opportunity to present themselves to a new audience. The freedom from proximal restraints also expands their reach to an audience anywhere on the globe, as long as electricity and internet are available. The standard categories of 'city' versus 'country', or 'national' versus 'global' public are less relevant than considerations such as time zones and language barriers. Understanding the different types of digital culture users becomes crucialvii.

The need to create new types of content for the virtual space is not only a challenge, but also an opportunity for creators to find means for expression that might not have been of interest to them under usual circumstances. Some artists find greater opportunities for cooperation with colleagues from other countries. This statement is very valid for improvisational theater artists and stand-up comedians. Their communities are actively working to promote the art forms via international open mics and jams, opening new portals to each other in the new environment.

New Future

Inevitably, cultural policies that have failed to realistically anticipate the needs of the creative sector in the digital age, come into focus. A new opportunity has opened up to rethink policies towards the independent cultural sector and the free scene.

In Bulgaria, shortly after the ban on the cultural organizations activities was announced, representatives of the independent sector united in their search for a solution to the crisis and to propose measures to the government. They developed proposals for short- and long-term measures in the independent cultural sectorviii and initiated meetings with the Minister of Culture, Boil Banov.

The Bulgarian Ministry of Culture currently distinguishes two types of support:

  • State and municipal cultural institutes will receive subsidy for the salaries and benefits of all workers for the duration of the state of emergency, and up to 6 months after its end.
  • Independent artists will be able to choose between applying for funding of 3 minimum pay salaries (specific conditions apply) or obtaining an interest-free loan of BGN 1500 per month, which they can return to the state in a 10-year periodix. No information is provided with regard to the urgent request for mounting a long-term social fund for the independent scene.

At the municipal level, there are three guidelines for work in the cultural sector undertaken by the Sofia Municipality:

  • Flexibility for the implementation of projects: beneficiaries of the Culture Program and Calendar of Cultural Events have the opportunity to postpone events or switch to an online format;
  • "Solidarity in Culture" Program to support online creative projects of independent artists in Sofia in May and June 2020;
  • Support for municipal theatersx.

Plovdiv Municipality also has proposed measures for the cultural sector:

  • Support for online projects implemented until July 31st, 2020 by Plovdiv artistsxi.
  • The creation of a Crisis Fund for the support of independent artists in Plovdiv, which will provide grants to artists, is under discussionxii.

At the European level, various advocacy groups, such as Culture Action Europe and European Writers' Council, offer guidance to assist the cultural sector in the crisis and its aftermath. The proposed measures aim at flexibility in reporting the running projects supported by Creative Europe and other programs, as well as financial measures specifically targeted at the cultural sectorxiii. Subsequently, the UN's Culture 2030 Goal movement joined the advocacy groups, with an overall call to include the cultural sector as an intrinsic part of the future of the UN communityxiv.

The intentions of EU institutions have been discussed in a number of meetings such as one between Maria Gabriel, the EC Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth and Ministers of Culture from the EU Member States.

In an interview from 21 April 2020, Sabine Verheyen, Chair of the Committee on Culture and Education of the European Parliament, shared some of the proposed actionsxv.

  • Measures providing remuneration for artists and cultural actors for works offered in the digital space;
  • Creating new platforms for the dissemination of cultural content;
  • Maintaining the level of European funding in the cultural sector. Although culture and cultural policies are the responsibility of the national governments of the Member States of the European Union, when it comes to culture as an economic factor, it must be supported by the European Parliament;
  • Need for flexibility in the measures proposed to support entrepreneurs and small businesses so that artists and cultural actors can be involved. The cultural and creative sectors have to be included in structural development funds.

A common horizon?

While attention and support for the cultural sector focuses intently on the needs of creators, organizations, and institutions, there is a lack of understanding of audiences' attitudes. There is a need for analysis of the new situation where many audiences have been transformed overnight into 'online users' of cultural content (other than music and movies).

  • How do people respond to the changing environment of cultural offerings? What are their interests and needs?
  • To what extent does the transition to a virtual environment democratize the access to culture?
  • What factors determine whether people will benefit from the proposals or whether they will pay for them?

The answers to these questions, combined with the fear that the public will need time to return to an active social life and participate in cultural events, will play a crucial role in the future of the cultural sector.

What will be the new definition of a unique cultural experience?

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Gergana Dimitrova - director, screenwriter, founder of "36 Monkeys", an independent creative organization

Petya Boyukova - set designer, freelance creator and lecturer at the National Academy of Art

Victoria Draganova - curator and founder of "Swimming Pool", organizer of exhibitions, artistic residences, trainings. Initiator of the guide "Sofia Art Map", a map of the places of art and culture in Sofia.

Vesela Deyanova - engaged in humanitarian work and founder of "Meeting Points", who hold meetings for the purpose of intercultural dialogue and transformation. She has experience in working with migrants, creating tourist routes, a format for intercultural "Meal to Share" meetings and other projects.

Rada Ezekieva - cultural manager working in various projects and festivals with Vox Populi, Sofia Film Fest, Sofia International Literary Festival, others.

Petromil Denev - actor and director for puppet theater, street artist, association puppet theater "Malle-malle"

Kole Kitanov - Puppet Theater Actor, Street Artist, association puppet theater "Malle-malle"

Krasimir Kirchev - Puppet Theater Actor, Street Musician, association puppet theater "Malle-malle" and "Zabavna Nauka"

Donald McNair - stand-up comedian, actor, works also in improvisation theater and dubbing

Alice Turner - Improvisational Theater, Arts Education White Rabbit School of English

Victor Topalov - organizer of cultural tourist walks in Sofia: "Bohemska Sofia" and "Semeina Sofia" (Family Sofia)

i "Споделена визия", Стр. 18, София, 2016 г., последно достъпен на 24.04.2020 г.
ii Цитат от публичен пост на Константин Кучев във Facebook от 14.04.2020, последно достъпен на 17.04.2020.
iii Smith, M "Boston's Musicians Are Finding Creative Ways To Support Their Community During The Coronavirus Crisis", WGBH, последно достъпен на 24.04.2020 г.
iv "These efforts, though, aren't generating the same amount of money for an artist as they'd make on tour.", Frank, A "How "quarantine concerts" are keeping live music alive as venues remain closed", Vox, последно достъпен на 24.04.2020 г.
v Deahl, D "Tours are Canceled, So Musicians are Turning to Twitch", The Verge, последно достъпен на 24.04.2020 г.
vi "For now, the musicians say Twitch is only recouping a fraction of lost funds, but they believe it will become more sustainable.", пак там.
vii "Публика за събития посветени на науката - 5 акцента", Интеркултура Консулт, последно посетено на 24.04.2020 г.
viii "Солидарен социален кризисен фонд за лица на свободна практика с професии в сферата на изкуството и културата" Документ от работна група на Независимия културен сектор от 06.04.2020 г.
ix БНР "Банов: Три минимални работни заплати за артистите в свободния сектор" 09.04.2020 г., последно посетено на 21.04.2020 г.
x Ефремова, А, Столица.БГ: "Малина Едрева:"Секторът на културата е един от най-засегнатите в момента и ние ще го подкрепим""
Последно посетено на 21.04.2020 г.
xi Сайт на община Пловдив, "Община Пловдив ще финансира онлайн проекти на пловдивски творци по Културния календар", последно посетен на 23.04.2020 г.община-пловдив-ще-финансира-онлайн-пр/
xii Сайт на община Пловдив, "От днес стартира обществено обсъждане по Кризисния фонд за подкрепа на независими артисти в Пловдив", последно посетен на 23.04.2020 г.от-днес-стартира-обществено-обсъждан/
xiii Culture Action Europe, Effect of Covid-19 on Creative Europe and the European CCS, публикувано на 23.03.2020 г., последно посетено на 22.04.2020 г.
xiv Culture2030Goal campaign (2020), "Ensuring Culture Fulfills its Potential in Responding to the Covid-19 Pandemic", публикувано в Барселона, Бразавил, Брюксел, Буенос Айрес, Монтреал, Париж и Хага, на 20 април 2020, от Culture Action Europe, последно посетен на 22.04.2020 г.
xv Интервю със Сабин Ферхайен (Sabine Verhayen), председател на комитета за култура и образование към Европейския парламент на 21 април 2020г. Излъчено във Facebook Livestream, последно посетено на 21.04.2020 г.