For an industry that was certainly short of breath, the UK’s exhausted cultural, arts and heritage institutions heaved a sigh of relief at midnight on Sunday night. The industry has been decimated by the pandemic, but the government has finally made space at its HM Treasury Intensive Care Unit and supplied the sector with a much-needed ventilator and a fighting chance. But is it too little, too late?
The £1.57 billion investment was welcomed by cultural leaders and it will provide some relief to Britain’s museums, galleries, theatres, independent cinemas, heritage sites and music venues with emergency grants and loans. Oliver Dowden, a tortoise rather than a hare when dealing with the biggest crisis ever faced by the sector, has attempted a Houdini act in trying to make the crisis disappear. It does almost seem magical – described by Vicky Featherstone of the Royal Court as ‘an extraordinary amount of money’ – especially as arts campaigners were led to belief the Treasury was unwilling to provide significant support. In reality, it is testament to heavy lifting from the sector itself and from the smallest government department who have fought a courageous battle with other areas of government for both money and time.
Whatever the provenance, however, the survival of the sector is not assured. Some questions need answering, and quickly:
Firstly, what happens to those institutions who have already closed their doors for good and laid off their staff – the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, the Haymarket in Leicester – regional theatres that are vital in bringing arts and cultural economy to audiences outside of London. They are asking whether their future would have been different if these measures were unveiled a month ago. Will there be a chance of resurrection? The sad truth is, probably not.
Secondly, how will funding decisions be rolled out, how quickly can these decisions be made and what are the criteria? The rescue package is seven times the size of the emergency £160 million funding handed out by Arts Council England (ACE) at the start of the crisis. It will also be ACE’s role to assist in dividing this new and even bigger sum, who must ensure it does not get engulfed by only the big organisations and hotspot regions. But even if ACE works at maximum pace, the money will come too late for some organisations that have already gone into administration, and if the first sum did not arrive fast enough for some, what will prevent the same happening again? The government has already been criticised for their haphazard awarding of emergency funding in other areas, will this happen in the arts where some smaller and regional hubs simply cannot compete with the big national institutions when it comes to fundraising expertise and capacity?
And finally, the looming question mark still hangs above those freelance artists – not to mention the hundreds of thousands of highly-specialised technicians and front-of-house staff – who have no income until the arts world is finally able to draw back its curtains to a live audience. The arts are resourced and nourished from the grassroots upwards (which is why panto, that great theatrical gateway for children, is so important). Freelancers are at the root of this, but what do they have to survive on, and can they take the risk to continue?
The show must go on. A clear plan for the future of theatres needs to be unveiled. Innovative ways of thinking that have been shown already in the football and hospitality sectors are what would help arts and artists the most. Even if theatres were only to open at 25 per cent capacity, as they have in some European countries, this would provide the much-needed income and morale boost throughout the sector. More than this, the sector needs a timetable, a clear path to return to a functioning arts sector. Without this no arts organisation or professional can begin to plan or commit. It is with great hope, that this is what we see next: the theatres and concert halls opening their doors once again.
The Whitehouse team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.