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The AC Digs Into: How Can Culture Be Part of the Post COVID Economic Recovery?

May 27, 2020

Governments attempting to rebuild in the wake of COVID-19’s economic devastation would be unwise to dismiss the arts and culture sector as an inessential burden. Even setting aside its incalculable sociocultural benefits, the sector has long since proven its worth as an economic engine, fueling the U.S. economy with over $875 billion—around 4.5% of the national GDP—each year. As a post-COVID market force, it could be powerful enough to significantly contribute to the rebuilding of local neighborhoods and the global economy—but only if we, as a society, provide it the support it needs to survive these uncertain times.

This concept was explored by a panel of experts in a recent Antiquities Coalition webinar, titled “How Can Culture Be Part of the Post COVID Economic Recovery?” The May 27 event, moderated by Antiquities Coalition Founder and Chair Deborah Lehr, featured the thoughts of Cultural Heritage Finance Alliance Founder and President Bonnie Burnham, Smithsonian Institution Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large Dr. Richard Kurin, and Heritage Strategies International President Donovan Rypkema.

Key takeaways included:

  • Culture Has More than a Dollar Value:  Much of the positive impact that the arts and culture sector has on our society is priceless, especially in the era of COVID-19. “When people face crises, that’s when they pray the hardest… when people face crises, it’s when they think about their families and their bonds to others in the most meaningful way,” Kurin said. “And so, culture is not something added onto things, but goes to the very core of how we survive and recover from them.”
  • Investing in Culture Financially Benefits Local Communities:  While the price of museum admission is generally nowhere near the cost that said institutions invest in each visitor, funding for the arts and culture sector has a significant multiplier effect on local economies. Despite the focus that local communities often place on mass tourism, heritage tourists have been found to out-stay and out-spend other kinds of tourists. This difference may become even more pronounced as tourism patterns change due to COVID-19.
  • Market Mechanisms Can Support Culture:  “[T]he resources that are available for heritage preservation and for cultural institutions are inadequate,” Burnham said. “Particularly in America, but now across the world, philanthropy supports government in supporting culture and making these vital industries work.” According to Burnham, the public sector needs to be willing to start bringing private finance into arts and culture—perhaps in the form of “cultural bonds,” as suggested by Lehr—and the private sector needs the public sector to guarantee a return on investment in order to trust that it is insulated from risk.
  • Culture Would Benefit from More Coordinated Efforts:  The lack of regulations on the arts and culture sector in the U.S. may have helped foster a great deal of cultural creativity, but, at the same time, it has made it difficult for institutions to coordinate a way to overcome a crisis of this pandemic’s magnitude. Lehr offered that such a recovery policy could be arranged if the U.S. instituted a Department of Culture (or even an Undersecretary of Culture). Burnham, too, suggested that the U.S. could use stronger advocates for culture in government, while also adding that foundations devoted specifically to supporting cultural institutions would greatly aid the cause.
  • The Way We Talk About Funding Culture Needs to Change:  According to Rypkema, “We need to think of heritage conservation as part our environmental activities, as part of our economic development activities, as part of our job training activities, as part of our tax generation activities, [and] as part of our education activities.” Furthermore, if we are to provide fact-based justifications for funding arts and culture, Rypkema notes that we must not only “get over” our inherent resistance toward discussing the economic value of arts and culture, but also undertake “robust, defensible, hard studies” that produce “demonstrable, quantifiable evidence” of the positive impacts of arts and culture, including the positive economic impacts.


To learn more about how COVID-19 is changing the arts and culture sector as we know it, see our recent blog post, “How Will COVID-19 Impact Cultural Racketeering?