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"The promise of the empty room" is a nice initiative, but ignores the new normal of the culture consumer

Last week, the film house emailed if I wanted to renew my friends pass. Until now, I have answered such calls without hesitation. I didn't have to return money for bought tickets, let subscriptions continue and donated to art institutions that were on the verge of collapse. But for the first time, I hesitated. Last year, I would have managed just fine without a film house.

Monday night at home has become 'Monday night, movie night'. I pick a movie via Netflix, NPO-plus, Picl, Pathé home or the Lumieres app, buy a bag of M&Ms at the supermarket and settle on the sofa. No bike ride through the rain, irritatingly whispering people around me and pre-movies I don't want. And if I need to go to the loo, I just put the film on hold.

For a blockbuster, a large bioscreen is definitely a plus, but for an arthouse film, screen size doesn't matter nine times out of ten. And for a 'communal viewing experience' - which is supposed to be a lure for cinema attendance - I am certainly not looking forward to it.

Ambivalent feelings about fine initiative

The e-mail from the film house turned out to be an eye-opener, because unnoticed I have started to think very differently about visiting culture in the past year. I understand that cultural institutions and culture makers are impatiently waiting for all the misery to be over so that they can start again in full swing, but I wonder if the same applies to me as a culture visitor. See the example of the film house above.

The beautiful initiative "The Promise of the Empty Room" reinforced my ambivalent feelings. It even made me a little sad. As you probably know, programmer Lieven Cooiman of the Amersfoort theatre Flint asked comedian Jan Beuving to write a column about the theatre halls that have been empty for quite some time. It resulted in a fine piece of prose, in which Beuving describes the promise of the empty auditorium. As long as the halls are empty, the promise only grows. And soon, when corona is history and the theatre doors reopen, the promise will become a reality. All's well that ends well.

The initiative was supported by nearly 400 cultural sector stakeholders. The column also appeared as a beautifully designed video.

This very video made me feel sad. It is so hard to go along with the optimism that Simone Kleinsma, Peter Pannekoek, Hans van Manen and Jaap van Zweden (just to name a few) exude in it. Just as the happy-end of a dramatic film can sometimes come across as implausible. I would like to share the optimism, but I can't manage it.

First of all, there is a practical reason for this. The new normal might be very different from the old normal. That sounds like a dead giveaway and perhaps it is, but clichés surprise when you first experience them or let them get to you.

I am not a virologist - speaking of clichés - but understand that even if everyone is vaccinated, there is a good chance that we will still have to deal with restrictive measures for a very long time, with all the practical consequences that entails. For instance, because we still have no idea how long vaccines work, and a quick test before a theatre visit doesn't seem popular either. So the idea of full theatres should be put out of our minds for now. Step by step, more visitors will be welcome. But for now, the halls will remain rotting teeth (lots of empty seats) with a tooth here and there.

Linked to this: even if it is medically sound again, how long will it take before the fear of our health is out of our system again and we take our seats unconcerned in a full theatre hall? I find it hard to imagine that at the moment. Corona has become part of our collective consciousness and the memory of it will - I fear - only slowly wear off.

Gap between culture creator and consumer

Apart from this medical stuff, there is something else, which brings me back to my example of the movie house. "The promise of the empty theater" assumes that everyone is eager to attend a screening or other cultural expression again. Is that really the case?

The culture consumer does not exist, people determine their own behaviour and we should mostly keep it that way. So let me start with myself and list some personal examples. The movie house has become redundant for me, unfortunately. The same applies - I'm afraid - to going to a lot of classical concerts -, another pro-corona hobby. For the past year, I have been more than fine with Spotify and headphones. Why should I attend any more concerts? For the special shared live experience? Is that really such an added value, or is that a myth we all perpetuate so that visitors keep coming to concert halls?

During the countless hours in corona time when I listened to classical music, I never for a moment longed for the Concertgebouw, Vredenburg or the Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ. I basked in the cosy peace and warmth of my living room. It made my wallet happy. No coughing fellow listeners within range. Only our dog sometimes caused a disturbance, but then I would stop the music, give the sheepdog his kibble and continue listening, intensely enjoying.

I would make an exception for opera: plenty of opportunities to visit it online, but then I often felt I was missing something. Set, clothing, grand drama: on my Ipad, it all came off less well. But whether tickets of 100+ euros outweigh a less crushing opera experience remains to be seen.

Cows storming into the meadow

Enough about my personal preferences, let me try to broaden the view a bit. Pop concerts and festivals need not fear diminished interest. Young people are less stuck in the past, their appetite for entertainment is high, they will storm the Ziggodome, PinkPop and Lowlands like cows that are allowed out again for the first time after winter.

Outdoor festivals also face less of a covid effect because people simply feel safer outside than inside. See also right now the massive influx into nature reserves. The same goes for transit locations like museums, where the fear of corona was less anyway.

But what about theatre performances, for instance, which are already a problem child in terms of public interest? I am 57 and was regularly among the youngest audience members at the last plays I attended. Seniors are and will be the hardest hit by the corona crisis. Are they eager to go to the theatre again soon? I sincerely hope so, but fear and would understand their reluctance. Even emptier auditoriums: the new normal of the theatre.

A two-part challenge

Of course, there is much more to say and fantasise about culture-after-corona. Can (modern) dance performances rely on their few in number but loyal audiences? Is cabaret still so popular that it does not suffer from a post-corona dip at all? This personal orientation has already become longer than intended, so feel free to leave your own thoughts on it. Take your time: cultural performances will not be at the forefront of future relaxations.

Meanwhile, I can't get rid of the thought that the corona period creates/has created a gap between cultural institutions and cultural creators on the one hand and cultural consumers on the other. People will not be eager (in large numbers) to go to packed halls again. Many 'old' culture visitors can be considered lost. The cultural sector faces a twofold challenge: to limit this loss as much as possible and to look for new audiences even more than usual.

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Onno Weggemans

At CulturePress, I combine my passion for culture with my love of writing. I have a broad cultural interest and target a wide audience. I like to choose a personal angle and like to experiment occasionally in terms of form.View Author posts

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