WEARING A LONG robe and a silver plastic crown, Cameron Burg was dancing on a Swiss mountaintop with a pair of DJs and several hundred ecstatic electronica fans. Behind him, bubble-cars were disgorging men in leather jackets and women in face paint. It was mid-September and Caprices, a dance-music festival in Crans-Montana, had just kicked off after a five-month delay. It had been cancelled by covid-19, along with the rest of Europe’s electronica festivals, and fans were suffering withdrawal. “After a while you miss the PLUR,” said Mr Burg, using a ravers’ shorthand for peace, love, unity and respect.

Chalets and restaurants in Crans-Montana count on Caprices, which usually draws 6,000 festival-goers in April, to fill the gap between the end of the ski season and the start of the golf and mountain-biking ones. When the festival was postponed, local businesses reworked it to satisfy health authorities, limiting it to 1,000 guests divided into three zones. In August they got the go-ahead. They also got more than SFr100,000 ($110,200) in government subsidies and loans.

In Europe, where there is culture, there is government. Orchestras and museums have long relied on state, not private, sponsorship. Theatres and art festivals are often owned or bankrolled by municipalities. Audiovisual ventures benefit from film funds and state broadcasters. Spending on cultural services runs to about 1% of the total government budget in the average EU country. An exact comparison is hard to find, but in America 0.7% of government spending goes to cultural services, recreation and religion; in France and Germany that figure is 2.3%.

Covid-19 hit this cheerful scene like the last act of Götterdämmerung, even before this week’s news of fresh lockdowns on Germany and France. Exhibitions and live events have had to close or restrict admissions. In France output in the culture sector is expected to shrink by 25% in 2020, compared with a drop in overall GDP of 8.7%. Germany expects GDP to fall by 5.8% and cultural output to contract by 13-23%. Governments have responded with emergency spending to keep the arts from collapsing, tying them even closer to the state.

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Take Germany. For years its government has pressed cultural institutions to privatise, with only modest results. Covid has pushed in the opposite direction. In June the federal government announced a €1bn “Restart Culture” programme, including €250m to help private institutions like cinemas and theatres with social distancing, €50m for various arts funds and €20m for dance. On top of that, the culture ministry’s budget for 2021 will rise by €120m, or 6.6%. Germany’s states are helping too: North Rhine-Westphalia has set up an €80m covid-19 culture fund, significantly more than its normal annual culture budget.

France’s interventions are even bigger, some €5bn to the end of 2021. Fully €950m goes to shore up a peculiar French institution: intermittents du spectacle, part-time performers and technicians who are the backbone of many shows, and get government pay when they have no work. Since the cancellation of nearly all live events makes it impossible to amass enough hours to qualify, the government has waived the minimums until August 31st 2021. Billions more are budgeted for loans to cultural establishments and reimbursement for projects that cannot be staged.

In the Netherlands, arts institutions have been cutting staff for decades, while liberal governments have provided tax incentives to go freelance. Almost 50% of Dutch in the culture sector are now self-employed, compared with a third in Germany. When covid-19 hit, that caused problems: whereas the Dutch government guaranteed furloughed workers 80% of their salaries, freelancers got only €1,050 per month. Meanwhile drama companies and orchestras faced bankruptcy, which would leave the cities that own the country’s magnificent concert halls and theatres with no tenants to pay the rent. To fend that off, the centre-left D66 party pushed through two spending packages for the culture sector totalling €700m, nearly doubling the ministry’s budget.

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Not all the responses to the virus have been defensive. When Italy’s centre-left Democratic Party replaced the hard-right Northern League party in government last year, it revived a scheme to liberate the country’s museums from central control. That persuaded Eike Schmidt, the German director of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, to stay on rather than returning to Vienna as he had planned. When the pandemic hit, the museum reopened after a few months by redistributing artworks and visitors to smaller museums in towns throughout Tuscany. Ticket revenues have recovered to within 90% of normal.

Mr Schmidt sees this as an opportunity to spread culture around and shift away from the mega-tourism that has blighted European cities. (“Venice, Florence and Barcelona weren’t constructed as theme parks,” he says.) The virus is forcing other countries to think small, too. Hungary, which under Viktor Orban’s populist rule has become the European country that spends the second-largest share of its budget on culture (2.7%), set up a €14.5m fund for small rock concerts, live-streamed to fans. In the Netherlands, a 30-person audience limit has closed the national theatre in Amsterdam. But avant-garde theatres with lower overheads that are happy to perform to an audience of 30 are soldiering on.

With or without the pandemic, the state’s role in culture was always going to be big in Europe. It is hard to imagine private donors preserving the continent’s spectacular architectural heritage. Symphony orchestras lose money everywhere; America’s corporate sponsorships are partly government subsidies disguised as tax deductions. The Dutch practice of having stage productions tour every midsized town would be impossible without state subsidies for local culture. So would the European landscape of high-art festivals such as those in Avignon, Montreux and Salzburg.

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When those festivals will have live audiences again is anyone’s guess, the more so as Europe is now deep in a second wave of covid-19. Caprices was not a promising sign. Between mid-September and mid-October the number of daily new cases in Valais, the canton including Crans-Montana, rose from a dozen to 275. A regional hospital said it had found a link between ten of those who tested positive: they had attended Caprices.

Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our hub

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Busking for bail-outs”

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