COVID-19 has laid bare how cultural policy systems function in countries around the world and raises question of their effectiveness, their inclusivity and the economic and social value of culture in Europe. While the Compendium of Cultural Policies & Trends monitors the financial measures and reopening measures being taken, asking how these measures relate to existing cultural policy systems, is an equally important task. What are the (research) questions we should be asking and how can we ensure the presence and value of culture in society as a whole?
For the fifth interview of our series, we spoke to the Compendium’s expert author Audronė Rimkutė, assistant professor at the Institute of Social Sciences and Applied Informatics at Vilnius University in Lithuania. During the corona lockdown, many cultural institutes and artists transferred their craft to the digital space. We interviewed Rimkutė about a funding programme launched by the Lithuanian government as a response to the COVID-19 crises for the “digitisation of cultural products and services and their adaptation to a digital environment”. What lessons can be learned from this funding measure for cultural digitisation?
Could you tell us a bit more about the aims of the measure for digitisation of cultural products and services? How would you evaluate its success?
In April of 2020 the Lithuanian government launched this new funding programme, that has to be implemented by the Lithuanian Council for Culture until the end of 2020. The budget of the programme is EUR 10 million and it funds four kinds of activities: 1. adaptation of cultural products and services to the digital environment; 2. development of new cultural products and / or services adapted to the changed circumstances of cultural consumption during and after the quarantine period; 3. activities ensuring employment of artists; 4. cooperation with other organisations, ensuring activities of artists and / or access to their services.
All kinds of cultural and arts organisations, regardless of their legal entity, could apply for funding. In total, the Lithuanian Council for Culture received 909 applications that were classified into 14 domains: architecture, circus, art, design, ethnic culture, photography, cultural heritage, literature, amateur arts, music, dance, interdisciplinary art, inter-domain art, and theatre. According to the experts’ recommendations and Council’s decision, funding was allocated for 512 projects. The largest group of funded projects (113) consisted of inter-domain art projects, belonging to museums, libraries, cultural and arts centres. The second largest group was music projects (78), the third cultural heritage (58), and the fourth literature (49). The remaining 214 projects belong to the field of theatre (46), art (31), ethnic culture (25), amateur arts (23), interdisciplinary arts (20), dance (18), photography (16), design (14), architecture (12) and circus (9).
Regarding digitisation activities carried out by the funded projects, the two largest groups consist of electronic publishing (89 projects) and virtual expositions (88 projects). Other popular activities are development of databases (41), mobile applications (22) and digital archives (20). In literature and music, publishing activities are the most popular and they are quite traditional. They entail for instance the publishing of new audio and electronic books, CD and DVD, video recording and publishing of concerts, video clips , etc. Cultural heritage, inter-domain art and visual arts on the other hand dominate in projects aimed at the creation of virtual expositions and mobile applications. Databases will be developed in almost all fields of culture except ethnic culture and the circus. Archiving activities and development of digital archives will be undertaken within the visual arts, literature, and theatre.
All projects funded by the programme have to be completed before the end of 2020. If successful, the programme could enhance the visibility of participating cultural organisations and increase accessibility and diversity of cultural products and services. Participating organisations could also attract new audiences and develop new collaborative networks.
In the Lithuanian country profile we read that the field of culture focuses on the digitisation and archiving of the assets of libraries, museums and tangible cultural heritage. Do you think the pandemic has opened up possibilities for broadening the idea of digital cultural policy to include other fields?
I think that we will only be able to see this after the completion of the aforementioned programme, when all projects have been implemented and their impact evaluated. But at the moment, I do not think that a large-scale digitisation is reasonable in those fields of culture where “live experience” is the most important factor of consumption. Digital archives of recorded theatre performances and concerts are attractive for those people who already like these arts and may have seen these performances “live”. I doubt, whether they will attract a new audience. Digital archives of performing arts may also be of interest to art history researchers, professionals and students looking for inspiration or new ideas. But this is only a supplementing function, it will never become an alternative to live performance, because performing arts are about participation and exchange.
The situation is different in the fields of literature and music publishing, as these arts are easily adaptable to a digital environment. The creation of digital products, their databases and stores can contribute to the development of literature and music industries, expand the diversity of genres and forms, and generate income for authors and performers. These initiatives however are already lucrative and do not need much help from the state budget.
What is, in your opinion, to be drawn from the experience of digitisation during the pandemic for future cultural development?
I think, we must not forget that digitisation is not only about culture, but also about the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector. Thus, whenever we speak of support for the digitisation of cultural products, we must remember that it is also the support for ICT enterprises. In Lithuania, wages in this sector are twice as high as in the field of culture. This means that the services of this sector are very expensive for cultural organisations and will take away a significant part of the received funding. How useful all undertaken digitisation initiatives will be for culture specifically, we cannot assess until the project is completed. However, I think that it will be very difficult for small cultural enterprises to compete with the big players of digital space that may have better digital solutions and marketing tools. Thus, digitisation can create a better supply of cultural content and enhance its diversity on the internet in the short term, but it may not generate much income for small cultural enterprises.
Audronė Rimkutė is an associate professor for arts policy and philosophy at the Institute of Social Sciences and Applied Informatics at Vilnius University. She has published many articles and papers on topics ranging from cultural and creative industries to the democracy in cultural politics and has worked as an expert and consultant in various organisations. Her current research focuses on autonomy of the art and cultural organisations and their relation to political institutions.
This interview is part of a series that examines the different dimensions of the role of artists, policy makers and the effects of COVID-19 on arts and culture in Europe. All interviews can be found here.