Facing oblivion

Simon Tait reports on the dire prospects for the arts in a time of Covid

Because the arts sector is so easy with hyperbole its cries for help tend to be taken with large helpings of salt by politicians, but this time it’s serious.

By 2019 the creative industries – music, theatre, digital gaming, architecture, film, TV, publishing, museums – had become the most progressive in the UK economy, surpassing even financial services and worth £111.7bn a year to the economy. But in June the think tank Oxford Economics said the arts were “on the brink of devastation” and set to lose £74bn by the end of the year, so profound have the effects of Covid-19 been.

Commissioned by the Creative Industries Federation (CIF), the report, The Projected Economic Impact of Covid-19 on the UK Creative Industries, boiled that down to £1.4bn a week, and a total of 400,000 jobs – or one in five – gone despite the Jobs Retention Scheme.

In June, Adrian Vinken of the Theatre Royal Plymouth, who had just laid off 110 of his people, was writing in the Daily Mail: “The entire performing arts industry is now facing oblivion. This is not only a human and economic disaster – it is a cultural catastrophe”. Even Dame Judi Dench said she thought theatres would not reopen in her lifetime. In July, the Southbank Centre said it was £21m in debt and couldn’t reopen before April 2021, if then. The Royal Albert Hall, which gets no subsidy but was nevertheless referred to by the culture secretary Oliver Dowden as one of our crown jewels, said it might never reopen.

Planning is almost impossible. To go by the rules the government has set for performing arts venues – two-metre distancing – theatres are doomed. The rule means that they can only operate at 25% capacity; in the best of times, a theatre needs to fill 75%-80% of its seats to break even. Some theatres, like the Nuffield in Southampton and the Leicester Haymarket, have already succumbed, and now with the loss of the winter panto – usually a reliable banker – others are teetering.

Though theatres, museums and concert halls are reopening, and live music is being played despite the counter-intuitive maths and the latest coronavirus spike, it’s largely through reliance on reserves and determination. Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre near Tower Bridge in London has reopened with a series of Alan Bennett Talking Heads monologues to 25% houses, and the National opened its Olivier in October, reconfigured in the round to allow almost half capacity. The major museums have reopened but with sometimes tortuous distancing routes through galleries, that mean they have about 30% the footfall they had before March. All this has been achieved with furloughed staff, many of whom will be made redundant by the end of October. And 75% of theatre workers are freelance and ineligible for help.

Traditional arts funding has been a thing of the past for some time. Subsidy, national and local, has gone down by 33% since 2010; business sponsorship has all but disappeared, scared off by the witch hunts that have harried the arts-loving fossil fuel and pharma industries; philanthropy, once the Tories’ answer to subsidy, has shrunk to a shadow of what it offered a year ago; and the charitable trusts and foundations that were such a bulwark have suffered from the onslaught of newly needy causes and the effects on their income of serial market collapses.

If the arts are taking a beating from Covid, it seems they have few friends in high places. At the end of July, as the National Theatre was handing out 400 redundancy notices, the film and theatre director Sam Mendes reportedly rang Boris Johnson to ask for theatres to be reopened and got the usual non-committal response of “as soon as we safely can”. But at the end of the call Johnson didn’t hang up properly, and the unmistakable voice of Dominic Cummings could be heard exclaiming: “The last people we’re going to allow back to work is those f—–g dancers!”

Nevertheless, after relentless lobbying in June the government appointed a Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal, Neil Mendoza (now Lord Mendoza, whose brief appears to be long term planning); six weeks later Rishi Sunak announced a £1.57bn Culture Recovery Programme – not under Mendoza but a board chaired by a management consultant, Damon Buffini, with the new commissioner merely a member. Many say the largest ever arts grant will be nowhere near enough.

The share-out was announced in early October. Arts Council England (ACE), which has already handed out £160m in rescue grants, will distribute £622m, £500m of it to theatres, music venues and museums, and the big organisations will get theirs in long term, low interest loans.

But this bonanza is only designed to get the arts back to a pre-Covid position. The damage has been so profound that nothing but a radical rethink of arts funding – needed long before Covid struck – will rescue the cultural economy. Of the 406,000 jobs Oxford Economics predict will go, 287,000 are freelance and may never be got back.

Reports like the Fabian Society’s Cultured Communities: The crisis in local funding for arts and culture want a politically explosive plan that rationalises and has most arts funding devolved to local authorities, with ACE taking on an advisory role.

It is, says Caroline Norbury of the CIF, time to understand the values of the arts and creativity in different ways, and for radical thinking to ensure that not only are they preserved but free and encouraged to develop. “It is time to both imagine and engineer our future” she says. “We will need our creative industries to do that. They are too important to ignore.”

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