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Anxious about reopening your culture space? ACRI brings you some expert opinions, strategies and practices to ensure a safe and smooth process.

Our masks on, our fingers crossed, and our hopes up, many of us are tiptoeing back into our professional routines with the first phase of unlocking. As things unfold over the next crucial month, we’ll know if and how viable the next phases of unlocking will be. Although performance and public event spaces might open up only in July or later, many events professionals and space owners will be resuming work. They have a mammoth task of setting up new processes and being ready in time for secure re-openings.

We spoke to heads of culture organisations in Mumbai about their hopes, anxieties and plans for their respective organisations in the near future.

Dr Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director General, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), which is in South Mumbai, says that though they haven’t received any directives from the state government so far, they hope to reopen the museum immediately after the monsoons. CSMVS intends to open nimbly, and haven’t planned any new shows at the moment. What it will do instead is bring out older, unseen artefacts from their collection.

Cultural organisations may take this cue of repurposing existing cultural assets, both tangible and intangible, in creative ways rather than creating new ones immediately, to ease back into business. Museums, like all other public organisations, must think of new ways to function and thrive. Dr Mukherjee says, “Two things are extremely important for Indian museums: creating new business models, and thinking about how this crisis will reshape visitor experience in the future.” That said, state support is not only desirable but necessary for all such organisations. “It would be wise for the government to create a care fund for cultural institutes like us. All non-government institutes are suffering due to the nationwide lockdown,” he adds.

Anuradha Parikh, Founder and Artistic Director at G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, doesn’t see the popular cultural space in Midtown Mumbai opening for full programming, any time before January 2021. But if things improve by October, they may open with the season’s offerings. G5A wants to open the facilities of the Warehouse in a phased manner. She says, “PORT, our cafe, will be opening for delivery and physical distanced seating from July 01, 2020; The Black Box (theatre) will be available for private and small events beginning July 01, 2020, and the main season programmes, would start from January 2021 or sooner as the conditions permit; The Study and Terrace - other spaces within the Warehouse - would be available for small programmes and events post monsoon i.e. 1 October onwards.”

In addition to hygiene and sanitisation protocols, Parikh believes that vigilance, resourcefulness and flexibility will help performing arts spaces like G5A resume programming effectively. For heads, organisers and managers of such spaces, she has some useful advice. She says, “We will all have to be very creative in repurposing our spaces till such time that we are able to make things happen the way you we want them to be. We will all have to be more flexible with your our planning and calendar so that we are prepared for a quick response to the changing and unpredictable circumstances now. We have to be even more cognisant of efficiency in use of materials, wastage, the environment and earth, and the community.”

Parmesh Shahani, Head, Godrej India Culture Lab, too, does not have any live programming plans until the end of 2020. The Culture Lab at Vikhroli - Mumbai, which is a catalyst and eclectic hosting space for lectures, performances, and conferences, will operate entirely digitally.

Shahani thinks it would be best if all culture space operators took it one quarter at a time. With reference to digital programmes that many have now adopted, he says, “Think of value – what value are you providing your different stakeholders at this time? There is webinar fatigue already. If you’re planning another one, is it really about something meaningful, or are you doing it because everyone else is? Find needs that aren’t being met and see how you can serve those. See how you can use your platform to help or amplify voices from the frontline – there are amazing efforts being made by those in culture – either fundraising for those who need resources the most, or platforming marginal voices and curating around them at this crucial juncture. It is vital that we use this moment to create a better normal, not just a new normal.”

Meanwhile in Bangalore, The Collective of Spaces for Arts & Culture, has devised a list of standards and operating procedures that can be adapted by spaces across the country, in accordance with government regulations. In a recent webinar organised by the Bangalore Chapter of ACRI, the B-SAFE (Bengaluru - Spaces for Arts, Films & Events) initiative was presented by Arundhati Nag, Founder, Ranga Shankara and V Ravichandar, Hon. Director, Bangalore International Centre. In a sharing session on 11 June, the Collective outlined some of the thinking they have done amongst themselves, which spaces across the country could consider adopting.

Whatever your chosen date of reopening, the ‘better normal’ would have to be more stringent and much safer, for in Mukherjee’s words, “One thing is certain that the present disease will stay with us like many other existing diseases. People and diseases have always lived together. It is a fact that viruses and bacteria inhabit our bodies, just as we inhabit cities. The crisis has compelled us to re-imagine museums and other cultural spaces in a post-COVID-19 world. The future of cultural organisations largely depends on policy makers and strategists because they are drivers of innovation.”

A better, safer normal

In addition to Dr Mukherjee’s list of important collaborators and guides, there is another set of people who will continue to be instrumental in making reopened cultural spaces hygienic, habitable and hospitable – healthcare professionals. The culture, events and entertainment sector being the most vulnerable, would have to work in tandem with doctors to help plan and execute safety protocols. Dr. Anish Nelson, Emergency Physician, Dr Mehta’s Hospitals, Chennai, comes to ACRI’s aid and enlists some DOs and DON’Ts for both organisers and visitors.

For organisers:

1. Avoid crowds: Always make it a small event with controllable numbers. Cap it at 20-50 people, no more. Check with local authorities for permission, if required.

2. Avoid close contact: Distancing is a must – a minimum of one meter and a recommended two meters in between seats to be maintained at all times. Remember, anyone can be an asymptomatic carrier.

3. Compulsory masks: Masks should be mandatory for all people attending, preferably N95 masks, but regular cloth masks would also work.

4. Age restrictions: People above the age of 55 and those with comorbidities are advised to avoid attending gatherings. Remember to get signed waivers, if they insist.

5. Keep it short: Avoid events that are of longer duration. Ensure online access to live/recorded performances giving people a choice to virtual attendance and remind them that alternatives exist.

6. Temperature checks: Have temperature checks for every entrant.

7. Sanitiser access: Make hand sanitising stations – preferably foot-operated ones – available at the door and at every few metres.

8. Limit/Avoid closed door events: Organising events in closed spaces is discouraged at this point. Open-air venues preferred with cordoned off spaces to avoid walk-ins.

9. Ventilation: If the event is in a closed space, avoid use of air conditioners. Choose larger venues, better cross ventilation, bigger windows, and an air purifier where possible.

10. Easy doors: Have easy-to-open doors at the venue with a preference that are foot operable or have an alert doorman in protective wear to assist visitors.

10. Post-event sanitisation: Clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces such as tables, door handles, seats, buttons, keypads, toilets, during and post the sessions.

11. Waste disposal: Pay special attention to the safe disposal of waste and keep enough waste disposal bins available at the venue.

12. Choose digitisation: Digitise everything that can be digitised – payments, ads, announcements, menus, etc.

13. Crowd control: Avoid and watch for bottle necks causing crowding. Enforce strict spacing in areas like food counters, etc.

14. Medical assistance: Have a medic on hand in case of emergencies, and a tie up with a hospital to immediately receive the patient.

15. Audience details: Try to limit entry to events on an invitation-only basis. Note all their contact details and addresses in case contact tracing is required later.

Advice for visitors

1. Avoid close contact: Social/physical distancing of 2m and above is always preferred. Please keep your distance from someone not following safety precautions.

2. Wear your mask right: Wear masks over the nose and mouth at all times. One can use gloves or sanitise one's hands frequently, all the while being mindful to not touch one’s face.

3. Make sanitising a habit: Keep a hand sanitiser handy at all times and use it frequently. Make a habit of using it before and after touching common items and potentially contaminated surfaces. Use sanitisers with 60% or more alcohol content and/or follow the 20-second rule if using soap and water.

4. Be mindful of what you touch: Touch as few things as possible, especially common places to lean on and sit such as railings, chairs, benches, elevator buttons, door handles, taps, support bars, menus, keypads, etc. Use gloves or disposable paper towels/tissues to touch common objects where possible. Pay special attention to children who will be less mindful and encourage them to use hand sanitisers often. Choose the dominant hand to touch your own body, and the non-dominant hand for common surfaces and objects.

5. Take heed of spacing arrangements: Keep an eye out for tables and seating arrangements being spaced safely, and if people are following safe distancing.

6. Minimise time/use of public toilets: Avoid public toilet use unless urgent; use the facilities at home before venturing out.

7. Choose online payments: Where possible, use UPI and other modalities for payments. Avoid direct paper money transactions.

8. Come prepared: Carry your own water, snacks, tissues, and sanitisers when heading out.

As someone fighting the pandemic on the frontlines Dr. Nelson’s advice, however, does not come without a caveat. “But my honest advice for both, organisers and visitors, is that don't encourage outside gatherings yet. We are still in the middle of a pandemic which hasn’t peaked. The worst is yet to come,” he signs off ruefully.


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