The New Normal? Challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID 19 era

Empty Shop CIC
6 min readJun 8, 2020

By Sarah Wilson-White

A post Covid-19 era.

Let’s take a moment to imagine that (impossible though it may feel now).

We can freely hug our loved ones, gather with strangers indoors, and the smell of alcohol hand gel might have finally left our nostrils.

The new world will smell and look familiar in lots of ways, but we’ll know things have changed forever, and undoubtedly our sense of collective identity - our culture - will reflect that.

Photo by Matt Hardy from Pexels

When tasked with the job of considering the challenges and opportunities facing the cultural sector post-pandemic, my list fell more heavily on the side of opportunity. Ever the optimist, I agree with Fuel’s Kate McGrath that theatre will have an important role to play in the new world ahead. Undoubtedly we are currently in a tough situation and in the next year we’ll see the continued loss of arts organisations, freelance peers and cultural buildings without increased government support, sector collaboration, and public backing. I could write 1,000 words on this very real challenge alone, but many of us know about this personally already with the disappearance of live theatre as creators, enablers, and audience members.

So let’s look further ahead for a while, and consider the following:

A funding do-over

David Jubb has written eloquently about overhauling the funding model in England post pandemic to support more artists and communities nationally to co-create, rather than continuing the support of the larger institutions in receipt of the lion’s share of public money. Though unclear how Arts Council England will operate grants and strategic funds post Covid-19, the pandemic has ignited a fresh demand to rethink our funding priorities, with more funds going direct to artists, either through ACE and/or from already funded organisations thinking outside themselves.

Culture everywhere

Nationally we’ll need stories and creativity more than ever to understand and process the pandemic’s impact. Where that will take place will be different than before, with some arts buildings permanently closed, digital engagement a new sector priority, and it being predicted that remote working will enable more people to live outside of urban centres. We’ll need to reconsider opportunities for performance in our smaller towns and rural communities, and the precarious financial model aside, rural touring has already been explored as offering a viable touring model post-lockdown.

The increase of digital content during lockdown will no doubt impact audience expectations of online opportunities long term. How this model can be monetised is something we’ll need to figure out (let’s see how the Old Vic Theatre does with Lungs) and we’ll hopefully get more creative with making digital experiences rather than mostly streaming recorded stage shows. At Fuel, Uninvited Guests are digitally touring Love Letters at Home internationally, with audiences able to book to experience the intimate interactive performance from the comfort of their home.

Love Letters at Home - Fuel

Take more responsibility

Pausing theatre creation and live performance has forced many in the sector to reconsider their use and responsibility to collaborators, audiences, and communities. In Leeds, Slung Low quickly began managing social care referrals for the local council, and in the Highlands Eden Court’s staff have been redistributed to support the council’s community helpline. At Fuel we’ve recognised the risk facing our freelance peers, and we’re working with many other arts organisations to champion and support self-employed workers in the sector with the establishment of a Freelance Task Force.

These responses highlight the tenacity and flexibility of the sector, and post-Covid 19 we’ll need to continue to listen and grow as we navigate things like new international travel restrictions, funding scarcity, and the mind bending logistics of large gatherings in order to still deliver projects and make performance.

The fear of the unknown

Many have pointed out that the sector could double down on presenting popular titles and well-known names in order for theatres to balance the books quickly post-Covid-19. Enforcing rather than challenging the status quo, this will damage the progress finally being made by some in the sector on representation, inclusion and accessibility. As a producer, it’s a very real threat to Fuel that we may find it harder to source partners able to co-commission and present new experimental works by artists pushing the boundaries of the artform at a time when the finances are even more precarious. Undoubtedly people will want to make the work and support it in other ways, but finding the cash will be a new kind of challenge for producers and venues alike.

Relevance was already a hot topic pre-Covid-19 with the release of Arts Council England’s new strategic goals for 2020–30, and more than ever we’ll be challenged to ensure that we are relevant and authentic to our communities, collaborators and audiences. The pivot of some arts organisations to deepen their community engagement during the pandemic has made artists such as RashDash consider their role in the new funding landscape going forward, and producer Linda Bloomfield articulately argues the value of both ‘art for art’s sake’ and authentic community co-creation in the world post-Covid-19. Both are vital in our ecology now and in the future.

Photo by "My Life Through A Lens" on Unsplash

Finding the money

Underpinning all of this, as often is the case, is the question of how we’ll find the money; how artists will be fairly remunerated, and how audiences will be able access affordable and free cultural experiences in a world of new austerity and economic recession. I don’t know the answer to this question, nor do I know where the money will come from when embarking on a new ambitious project with an artist.

My only guess is that as a sector we’ve managed to survive a recession before, and though harder we’ll be able to do it again using the new ways of working in partnership and collaboration forged during the pandemic.

That might sound like a cop-out but when considering the real and daunting challenges facing the sector post-Covid-19, the main reason I came up with more opportunities is because these are a direct response to the challenges that were already there. It’s taken a global pandemic to shine a light on the precarious finances of the freelancers underpinning the sector, to really assess whether the right people get the funding, and to question why we even exist in the first place. Granted, this period of introspection has been unexpected and enforced, but so too can it be fruitful and formative for our sector going forward into the post-Covid-19 era.

Sarah Wilson-White develops and delivers projects that are driven by the ambition to reach and engage audiences — making creative things happen in all kinds of contexts across the United Kingdom and internationally.

Currently the Senior Producer for Fuel delivering mid-scale productions which tour nationally and internationally Sarah is also Course Associate at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama on the Creative Producing MA/MFA. Previously she was a Producer for Farnham Maltings; and Company Producer for Home Live Art; and Associate Producer for Jammy Voo.

Sarah was a recipient of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Emerging Producers Bursary in 2012; and is an alumnus of the Clore Emerging Leaders Programme.

In addition, Sarah is on the board of trustees of the New Diorama Theatre in London, and Rhum and Clay Theatre Company.

You can follow Sarah on twitter @se_wilson and visit
You can learn more about Fuel by visiting

Commissioned by Empty Shop on behalf of Hartlepool Borough Council as part of the Tees Valley Great Place project.

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Empty Shop CIC

Art // Regeneration // Collaboration. Empty Shop CIC is a not-for-profit arts organisation and practice-based consultancy from the North East of England.