Living within limits
Apocryphally former Chinese foreign minister Zhou Enlai, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, noted that it was ‘too early to say’. Likewise we have no real idea of what the world will look like in the aftermath of Covid-19.
All societies effected by the lockdown will be aware of the limitations placed upon them. Individual citizens are confined or isolated to their homes, limited to the time and space they may exercise, the distance they keep from one another and places to which they may travel. It has exposed the limitations of a market economy, which has come to a sudden halt as people are limited to what they can buy and sell. Whilst many are prevented from going to work, others noted as ‘key workers’ health care, transport and food retail do so placing themselves in harms way.
Organisations which merrily traded, often with little cash in reserve face immediate bankruptcy; brash captains of industry beg for assistance from a state many hitherto distrusted. States themselves, as last resort, now finance the wages of great swathes of the workforce.
But there are limitations to what the state can do. Weakened by previous financial crisis in 2008, where banks and corporation were bailed out and citizens consigned to 10 years of declining public services, governments are anticipating an economic depression not seen for nearly a century .
In the time of Covid 19 virus, human life in the present has taken precedence over the economy and society of the future.
From the wreckage created by the virus, what will emerge? Many have seen this as an opportunity to reshape humanity to better co-exist with the natural environment; to correct income and social inequality, whether it be access to food, green space, medical treatment or society’s concept of a key worker (no longer will the notion of “stacking shelves in Tescos” be seen as epithet for a poor job).
If nothing else, it should make us question the limits of the economy and society we have built for ourselves. The economist Kate Raworth has long been a favourite of Happy Museum. Her Doughnut Economics published in 2017 pictures a future economy nested in a safe and just space for humanity, situated between a social foundation and ecological ceiling. Raworth has been asked to advise the city of Amsterdam as it plots the future economy it wants to emerge in the aftermath of Coronavirus.
What are the implications for a policy towards museums and cultural organisations. Tristram Hunt in an article in the Art Newspaper appealed for significant state help for large UK instititions. noted the limitations of the prevalent a neo-liberal arts model. The commercialisation of public culture in the Anglo-American landscape over the past two decades has now exposed many national collections to all the vagaries of the free market. The New York Met has announced it is forecasting a $100m loss
For the last 20 years global cultural institutions have expanded exponentially. Western ‘Legacy institutions’ built new branches overseas and new extensions at home. Blockbuster exhibitions elicited huge visitor numbers, corporations lined up to associate themselves with the glow of culture in our major cities.
British cultural institutions may not be as immediately vulnerable as those in the United States. I’m regularly informed by friends there of redundancies and closures. However, 10 years of Austerity and an emphasis of greater commercialism, far from creating a dynamic hybrid model has meant that the sector has been so bent on commercial growth to survive that it has become too big for the State to save.
About ten years ago I was involved with the organisation Mission Models Money, which was concerned about the financial innovation and sustainability within cultural organisations. In 2009 it commissioned a report by entitled Capital Matters which noted that Majority of cultural organisations were over committed and undercapitalised.
What would happen if we applied the doughnut modelling to the external funding and internal behaviour of cultural institutions?
Firstly, we should think less about growth and more about caring for what we’ve got; we should ‘fix the roof when the sun shines’. Far too many organisations have little or no cash reserves. Funders have been happy to accept that lack of reserves should be no hindrance to continued project funding. Indeed, in my organisation (Derby Museums) has been turned down for support for a project from a charitable Trust because we had ‘money in the bank!’ In this time of crisis, this will be the difference between whether they can be saved or go to the wall.
Secondly, organisations should seek to be regenerative. This means paying greater attention to a circular economy of resources; locally sourced and produced. The Preston Council Model of the re-localisation of procurement prioritising local suppliers is a great example of this. Committing to local suppliers should be matched by use of renewable resources and a commitment to carbon neutrality. Moreover, organisations should include the footprint of visitors in their carbon ‘balance sheet.’ This is ambitious (even a sustainability minded organisation such as The National Trust does not do this), but otherwise is merely ‘outsourcing’ the problem created.
Finally, organisations should think more about how they redistribute economic and social capital. This should be inspired by the desire to build relationships rather than rely on transactions mobilising local human capital. There should be emphasis on diverse leadership both in terms of people and behaviours, flatter management systems where the income gap between the top and bottom of an organisation is narrowed. The intellectual framework of an institution need not rely on a traditional Enlightenment inspired knowledge, but assemble a diverse range of cultural viewpoints – look at the success of bi-cultural or even tri-cultural models of governance of museums in Aotearoa New Zealand.
The limitation of our economic model have been laid bare by the virus. It is taste of what could be further imposed on humanity via a climate emergency. Yet limits could help us frame a new future for our cultural organisations to help us live more fairly together and in concert with the natural world.
Founder, Happy Museum Project and Executive Director Derby Museums