“During this lockdown period audiences have become more used to participating…[and] to actually getting involved. There has been more collective action.”

That was the assessment of Es Devlin, a London-based artist and stage designer, on how the COVID-19 pandemic may have forever changed the way audiences engage with culture. Devlin’s remarks came during a virtual Town Hall of the World Economic Forum's Arts and Culture Global Solidarity Network on 28 May, focused around the theme what can we do now that we could not do before.

Launched in March, the Arts and Culture Global Solidarity Network connects artists, cultural institutions and the broader cultural ecosystem to share lessons learned for navigating the coronavirus crisis as a sector - and to come together in shaping the narratives of the world we want to live in post-COVID-19. As most arts and culture policy is national and not necessarily conversant with neighbouring countries, information flow has been key. To date, more than 100 mission-aligned cultural institutions from across the globe have joined the network.

Today, as countries around the world begin to ease lockdown restrictions, museums and cultural institutions must once again adapt to a new reality. One of the first to reopen was the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing, which welcomed back the public on 21 May after nearly four months closure.

Philip Tinari, Director of the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, commented on the challenges of reopening and bridging the virtual and physical divides: “It's not necessarily about putting a whole exhibition online, but thinking about how we can use technologies to install pieces in real time and real space across the world without necessarily going there physically."

With the shuttering of museums, theatres and venues, the ways in which audiences now think about cultural spaces has been transformed. “We have been given so much access online to spaces that otherwise might be prohibitive to enter… we already have shifted our consciousness about accessibility,” remarked Carol Becker, Dean of the Columbia University School for the Arts in New York.

The change of perspective leaves museums and cultural ecosystems at a pivotal stage in becoming more inclusive and accessible to wider audiences. Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries, London noted that while now “is a moment where we all think about how to reopen institutions” it is also crucial to ask “how we can actually bring our institutions into society”. Baronness Deborah Bull of King’s College London added to this as well: “Inclusivity doesn’t only mean getting people in. It also means getting the art out, to where people are."

Against this backdrop, cultural institutions must bring the audience to the forefront in reimagining collective experiences. “It is a renewal of the vows, a revival of the contract between audience and performer… where the audience has their role to play as protagonists and participants,” Devlin said. By seeing physical distancing measures as a creative opportunity rather than a constraint, collective experiences can take an entirely new shape: “Let's dive into this with imagination, rather than just necessity."

As digital technologies also take a more prominent role in cultural experiences, creating unique moments for audience engagement is possible. “How can we think about the capacity of what we’re doing in Zoom but at a bigger, more creative scale?” asked Amar Bakshi, Founder and Creative Director of Shared Studios, which brings diverse communities together in immersive portals to engage with one another as if in the same room.

More than ever before, artists, cultural institutions and civil society are forging new connections and turning to one another for support. It has become clear that to preserve our culture sector – the engine that has shaped our imagination and the narratives of our lives – we must nurture a sense of solidarity.

As photographer Platon of The People’s Studio in New York remarked: “This is a time when we are all humbled because we realize our previous successes weren’t as relevant as we thought. What we're left with is our compassion for each other and our capacity to tell stories… perhaps it's as artists and cultural leaders that we can be fundamentally useful to correct the challenges that young kids face in the future.”