In the weeks leading up to the lockdown, with worrying news drifting in from overseas, it became increasingly and horribly clear that arts venues across the UK would have to close for an indeterminate amount of time. DCMS and the Arts Council were slow to lead from the centre and arts organisations, from the biggest London venues to the smallest rural festivals, were left to make short notice decisions in an information vacuum, looking towards each other for advice and support.
One by one, starting with the huge 5,000-seater Royal Albert Hall, they made the decision to cancel their programmes for the three months from April to July. The West End went dark and whole departments of staff were furloughed. This sudden and complete shutdown meant the end of employment for thousands of artists (most of whom work on a freelance basis). Their future gigs were cleared from the diary with no prospect of work in sight.
At the end of March, the Arts Council announced their Emergency Response Package, which received 5000 applications in the first three weeks. The package looked at redistributing funding with the aim of supporting as many arts organisations as possible and with a mandate on those organisations to pass some of that funding onto artists. Whilst this was cautiously welcomed, it was acknowledged the funding was insufficient to prevent the wholesale slide into dire financial straits of a sector already forced to rely on fair weather commercial outlets and a shrinking pool of corporate sponsorship following ten years of reduced government funding.
Sure enough, as the prospect of a culture lockdown stretches towards the autumn, organisations as august as the Old Vic and the Royal Albert Hall have warned that they may not make it to the other side. Regional hubs such as the Nuffield Southampton Theatre have called in administrators. The Arts Council have already committed most of their financial resource to propping up the sector, and it may soon be forced to choose between the survival of one major national venue over another. When and if arts venues do reopen, they will need to focus on commercial hits rather than pushing forwards the frontiers of arts and creativity (and nurturing the talent of tomorrow).
The arts are nothing if not innovative. Even as the fear of covid-19 mounted day by day, we were able to enjoy a plethora of live streams: sweet string quartets coordinated from leafy gardens miles apart; a version of the Dying Swan rechoreographed to be hopeful and introduced in uniquely suave style by Birmingham Royal Ballet Director Carlos Acosta; and a mass mailout of art kits for vulnerable people coordinated by the Southbank Centre. But artists do not get paid for livestreams. The approach is not commercial enough to command any revenue stream, or at least such a model has yet to be developed. In normal times this work is closely copyrighted. But these are not normal times, and the hope is that the unprecedented digital access may help maintain audience interest until live theatre can build revenues again. But artists and performers fear a devaluation of their work such that, post-lockdown, it may be difficult for them to command a salary sufficient for survival. In other words, we might come to expect to view their work online for free.
These are two of the major issues that need to be considered urgently by the DCMS renewal taskforce, announced yesterday by Oliver Dowden. The initiative is a welcome sign in the absence of, well, any other sign that the perilousness of the arts is being recognised centrally. The very existence of the taskforce means we can start to at least think about what that recovery might look like. But will it be soon enough? The arts are on a precipice and the taskforce will need to act quickly to provide reassurance, not least for financial backers, that there is a short term future in whatever socially distanced way that might be. Coming up with a socially distanced but financially viable model for theatre could challenge the most creative brain. It is reassuring, therefore, that one of the three drivers behind the task force is Artistic Director of the English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo. She is well known for bold innovation grounded in financial sense and cultural inclusiveness. Ms Rojo has been teaching a free lockdown ballet class on YouTube every day for professional dancers and in her time at the English National Ballet she has led the way in bringing ballet into the twenty-first century. Her achievements range from promoting female choreographers and introducing pioneering dance therapy groups for people with Parkinson’s to finding ingenious approaches to bring dance to wider audiences, including overseeing the first appearance of a ballet company at Glastonbury. She has provided ENB with a much needed creative and commercial boost but in setting out to save the nation’s creative industries she faces her greatest challenge yet.
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