Thursday 28 May 2020

The Covid-19 Crisis, or, What Should the Arts Sector Do?

Over the last ten days or so the scale of the crisis facing the Arts has at last started to be brought before the public. The Globe, the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, a group of major organisations, and now the Southbank Centre have spelled out in stark terms the financial doom staring the sector in the face as it is forced to spend through its reserves just to survive. The Financial Times provided a good overview yesterday. Already venues have failed in LeicesterSouthampton and in Southport. If major organisations like these are facing collapse, consider how much worse the situation will be further down the food chain where organisations have little or nothing in reserve. Yes the Arts Council is doing its best with emergency grants to organisations outside the national portfolio (my twitter timeline in recent days has had plenty of groups issuing thanks) and now with emergency grants to freelancers (a group ill-served by government support mechanisms in general during this crisis and whose support at the moment is scheduled to be cut off completely at the end of May). But it is horribly clear that the crisis in its scale and likely duration dwarfs what support the government has so far offered.

Yet the Secretary of State Oliver Dowden and his Department have been slow to respond and reluctant to acknowledge just how deep the crisis is. As a regular audience member very worried about the fate of venues and art forms that are a huge part of my life I have had little sense that the government is particularly engaged by the crisis. Only on 20th May did Dowden, rather oddly sent out to lead that day's press conference, address the situation in a prominent public forum. Unfortunately all that he announced as far as the arts was concerned was a "renewal task force". Some criticised the membership. While not being wholly convinced on that point, the much more serious problem was the proposed focus of the task force which was "to develop creative drive the return of sectors." The only mention of finance offered no sense of the scale of the crisis facing the sector: "the Taskforce will look to see how creative new approaches could help sectors thrive in future, building on existing channels of government support...".

The task force also appeared part of a rather muddled broader consultative structure. At the same time eight working groups were created, and a new Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal appointed. Again the emphasis for this appointment was to come up with "innovative ideas for its [the sector's] renewal" and the only mention of money was that he would "initiate an ambitious philanthropic focus on arts and culture" which again hardly acknowledged the scale of the crisis and was at best opaque as to what it actually means in terms of financial aid. Nor did Dowden give a timeline for when these bodies are to report, although it is perfectly clear that the crisis in the sector is highly urgent.

The government's response is plainly inadequate. But my main reason for writing this blog is my concern that the arts sector itself is not getting its response right either. Regular readers will know that I go to a play, opera or concert pretty much weekly. I have missed that terribly during lockdown - though I know perfectly well how lucky I've been in so many other respects. Contrary to some commentary on social media and twitter I thought the arts sector in this country pre-covid was pretty marvellous (the most remarkable counter argument continues to be this piece with its fantasy that empty London theatres would become spaces for "strange new hybrid art forms" - I rather think other uses would claim them first). I am increasingly concerned that great swathes of organisations and performance spaces where I'm a regular could disappear in this crisis, and that the concerted effort needed to offer even a chance of saving them is not happening.

As things stand there is an irregular drip feed of crisis stories and tweets which, I suspect, are getting swamped in the larger barrage of covid-19 related news. What follows are a series of suggestions for how I think the sector needs to approach the situation.

First, organisations need to stop issuing individual press releases/statements, and unite to make every release one which demonstrates the crisis as country and genre wide - any close observer knows all too well that this is the case, but I don't think this is cutting through to the wider public. In particular London organisations need to take a lead in bringing regional organisations centre stage in every release to avoid the London-centric charge. The latter is unfair, but it's there and has to be reckoned with rather than ignored. All statements should not play the government game of focusing on innovative ways of re-opening but should make clear that all such discussions are essentially irrelevant while the financial crisis is unresolved.

Secondly, the government avoids detail at present. The sector should take the opposite approach. I would suggest a series of case studies, again it is critical to prioritise regional ones here, showing how the costs simply wouldn't work on various likely re-opening models, and making absolutely explicit the further effect if reserves are already spent just to survive while closed. I would take some of the big regional players and really hammer home the contribution these make to their local economies (imagine the Chichester summer economy for example if the Festival ceased).

Thirdly, the sector needs to bring to the fore all the fantastic work it does outside of actual performance - in schools, in prisons and so forth - which again will disappear or have to be rebuilt from scratch if widespread organisational failure occurs.

Fourthly, the government avoids timetables - thus reducing the sense of crisis. Again the sector should take the opposite approach, and make them explicit. They could usefully start by applying pressure in relation to the task force/working groups/commissioner.

All these suggestions will be difficult for at least two reasons: because so many staff in the sector are furloughed, and the remainder are already under huge pressure, and because, I suspect, there will be fear of stridency just giving government the excuse to do nothing (another reason to put the regional crisis centre stage - harder for government to ignore than London, again unfair though that is). But I am personally very doubtful that what seems the current approach of piecemeal articles, loyally serving on working groups, and lobbying behind the scenes are going to be enough with this government.

And one last thought. The sector also needs to think seriously about how it can mobilise us, the audiences. Clearly many have donated ticket money from cancelled performances and made later donations where they could. That's heartening. But the sector hasn't asked me (and I'm on a ton of mailing lists) to do anything beyond watch digital content or make donations, though the Old Vic has now proposed the first digital content that will have to be paid for up front. I'm ready to write letters, sign petitions, publicise (to my small number of twitter followers or via this blog) a campaign - but there is, as yet, no sign of any such concerted effort. I think that's a mistake.

The performing arts are a huge part of my life. I find it grim personally to think of venues and Festivals I've been going to for years disappearing as a result of this crisis. But the country as a whole will be impoverished if this happens in a variety of ways. It is absolutely clear to me that the crisis is urgent. I don't in any way claim to have all the answers but I am convinced that the current approach is not sufficient to this crisis. We must act now before the trickle of failed venues becomes an avalanche.

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