The day before museums began closing in Britain, I saw Aubrey Beardsley at the Tate and Titian at the National Gallery. It was a strange experience, the power of the art undercut by the unsettling feeling that something deadly could be among us. “Don’t come too close to me,” I found myself thinking, or: “I can’t believe you’re coughing in public.” I wondered if it was wrong of me to even be there. With the words “global health emergency” ringing in my ears, I resolved not to leave the house again for pleasure. Soon, there was no choice anyway.
Those thoughts have resurfaced now that lockdown is easing and arts institutions face enormous pressure to reopen – and keep visitors safe. “The virus has produced a great deal of anxiety,” says Gabriel Scally, honorary professor of public health at the University of Bristol. “Coming out of lockdown, there are bound to be people whose psychological problems – OCD or agoraphobia – will be exacerbated by this. We need to make sure people can enter venues with confidence.”
With no genre untouched by Covid-19, what does the future of the arts look like? What will be returning? What modifications might be needed to venues? And to our behaviour? Are the days of moshing with sweaty strangers in grotty basements over?
To answer those questions, I decided to be guided purely by the science. Along with Scally, I spoke to Daisy Fancourt, associate professor of psychobiology and epidemiology at University College London; Shaun Fitzgerald, a fellow at Cambridge University and the Royal Academy of Engineering; and Anders Johansson, senior lecturer in systems engineering at the University of Bristol. All stress that their predictions are not written in stone.
Actors, dancers and comedians could find themselves experiencing a different kind of lockdown. Fancourt mentions film sets in the US, where entire casts and crews are agreeing to isolate for two weeks before a shoot. “We might have companies of people locking themselves away over a period,” she says. “Alternatively, if we’re able to exist in a state of semi-lockdown, with some social interaction permitted, theatres may be able to adapt their models.
“Instead of having multiple different shows with different companies coming in and out, we might end up with scenarios like the Royal Shakespeare Company, where you have companies of actors who stay and do shows as a collective in one place. So the number of social interactions among the company is limited and it’s easier to track and trace if an infection does occur.”
Go with the flow
“Everyone talks about distancing,” says Johansson, “but what about exposure time?” Using overhead cameras, he has studied how people move around airports. “It’s not only how close you get, but for how long. So any venue where people move about is preferable, as long as you manage the flows.”
The implications are wide-ranging. Could immersive theatre, where small groups move from one spot to another, become one of the safest art forms? Will we see galleries opening but with rules on how we move around them? “You don’t want anything overly prescriptive,” says Johansson. “But subtle changes – such as one-way systems and limiting visitor numbers – might work. I am more sceptical about venues where this isn’t possible – cinemas and theatres, where people sit down for extended periods.”
The great outdoors
“One thing we know,” says Fancourt, “is that if you spend 15 minutes in close contact with someone, there’s a high risk of transmission. But that’s lower outdoors, partly because there are fewer surfaces to touch and more circulating air.”
Scally believes this is the perfect time to focus on outdoor or semi-outdoor events where a “concentrated plume of droplets” is less likely to hit you. “Up until the 1950s, we had outdoor schools in England as part of our provision for children in recuperation for illnesses such as tuberculosis. There is a real opportunity this summer for venues to put on more outdoor activities aimed at young people. Also, so many parties and weddings have been cancelled – making use of things like their marquees could help sustain the arts.”
Shut your mouth
Hecklers and euphoric crowds beware. “Your actions can influence the amount of virus you spread,” says Fitzgerald. “If you’re shouting, that’s greater than talking, which will be greater than not talking. And if you’re shouting, heavier droplets are likely to propagate further.”
The implication, then, is that poetry readings or classical concerts might be safer than raucous comedy. This is not great news for Fitzgerald who is a professional trumpet-player with the group Prime Brass. “Does playing a brass instrument spread the virus?” he says. “That’s a good question, and I’m not sure it’s been looked at. For now, we can’t go back to the full glory of 1,000 people standing very close to each other. It’s not allowed and would be highly inappropriate.”
The bad news for budding comics and punk bands on the sweaty basement circuit is that venue quality is going to matter a lot more than mayhem and atmosphere – foremost, how well ventilated it is. “The most important thing,” says Fitzgerald, “is to get plentiful amounts of fresh air into a space replacing the old air.”
He cites the case of a meal at a restaurant in China believed to have been the scene of multiple infections: “The ventilation rate was one litre of fresh air per second per person, whereas the regulations for a typical office in the UK are 10 litres. That restaurant had no vents open. The only air they got was under the door. So if you’re in a basement three levels down, I would be very concerned.”
Scally, meanwhile, thinks the need to have an audience spread out could mean middling indie bands doing what was previously impossible: selling out enormodomes, which currently stand empty. However, such spacing, he concedes, “won’t help the atmosphere”.
How small is too small?
Although some venues have ripped out seats, this option will not be financially viable to many. Fancourt foresees more pop-up events: “Performing to very small numbers of people but in a much lower-cost way.” Ultimately, size will depend on how well we are combating the virus. “That should guide how many people you can have gathering together,” says Fitzgerald.
Can we redesign loos and bars?
Spending a penny was of great concern to the scientists. “Funding,” says Scally, “should be made available to enable venues to install automatic doors, motion-activated taps and dispensers for hand sanitiser.” Fitzgerald agrees: “In the US, they’ve provided paper sheets to cover loo seats for 25 years. That would reduce the risk of contact.”
Communal areas, such as bars, were also a worry. Fitzgerald thinks venues that think creatively and technologically will be at an advantage. “You could order from your phone in advance and the drinks could be spread out at tables waiting for you at the interval. Maybe we should have been doing that anyway.”
Let’s go nightclubbing in New Zealand!
Some cultural activities will struggle to return at all. “Choral singing is unlikely to make a big comeback,” says Scally. “A choir wouldn’t really be a choir if they all had to stand two metres apart.”
Nightclubs, or at least legal ones, also look unfeasible. “Not until there’s a vaccine,” says Fancourt, “or we get to a situation like New Zealand where they’ve basically eradicated the virus. We know it spreads quickly in large groups where there’s close contact, particularly indoors where there’s surface transmission as well.”
I remember what Johansson said about flows. Could we all dance in a certain direction? “I see where you’re coming from,” he says, “but because of the density of people, I would be quite sceptical.” Scally points to the nightclubber in South Korea who caused a spike in cases after visiting three clubs in one night. “Concerts or clubs that involve close contact won’t be possible for a while. New Zealand is opening up because they were determined to eradicate it. But it looks like we’re in for a long tail to this.”
No return – but that could be a good thing
“Our focus shouldn’t be on getting back to normal,” says Fancourt, “but on finding a way to adapt. This depends hugely on the financial side – where do arts organisations get the support to do this work, given the rug has been pulled out from under them?”
Perhaps we shouldn’t try to go back to how things were anyway. “Maybe,” says Fitzgerald. “I enjoy not being crammed up against people trying to get a drink and then the bell goes just as I place my order. This is an opportunity to think differently.”
Much of Fancourt’s research focuses on the impact the arts have on physical and mental health. She cites the second world war as a time of global crisis in which the arts, rather than being sidelined, were seen as vital. “They were fundamental to people’s mental health and to community spirit. Right now, in terms of social cohesion, camaraderie and morale, they’re more important than ever.”
“It’s not just about entertaining people,” adds Scally. “We should let the arts be part of the healing process.”