Thursday 18 June 2020

The Arts and Covid-19, or, Notes from an Inadequate Press Conference

The crisis in the arts sector continued to gather pace yesterday. We've already this week seen further reporting on the desperate situation facing freelancers and the establishment of a campaign to draw attention to this. On Wednesday Cameron Mackintosh became the latest figure to announce that performances will not resume until 2021 - in this case of four West End musicals (Mary Poppins, Les Miserables, Hamilton and The Phantom of the Opera). In consequence a redundancy consultation process has commenced for staff employed on those productions. Earlier in the day the Creative Industries Federation released a report commissioned from Oxford Economics predicting a £74bn drop in revenue in consequence of covid-19 and 400,000 job losses. The RSC announced it would have to go into "drastic hibernation" without "urgent support" and the latest in what has become a string of open letters from the industry was published. The signatories to this letter provide a further worrying sign. For the first time senior arts executives were prominent among those who signed. This is a critical group who have been cautious so far in their public statements. Much like the statements being issued and decisions taken at the end of last week this suggests to me that nothing concrete is coming out of whatever private discussions are going on.

So it was an interesting day for the government to decide to send Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport out to lead the daily briefing. One might have expected that he would have something of substance to say about the issues outlined in the previous paragraph. But it was not to be. Most of what Dowden had to say in relation to the areas for which his ministry is responsible was concerned with the restarting of sports fixtures (most notably football). This was in keeping with the content of his twitter feed in recent days where he responded to Michael Vaughan, former England cricket captain, asking about the resumption of that game, and celebrated the return of football but had absolutely nothing to say to the many tweets and reports of desperation and anxiety from the arts sector (as noted below this changed after the press conference).

Monday 15 June 2020

The Arts and Covid-19, or, We Must Act Now

Two weeks ago I blogged on the crisis facing the arts sector. In the last few days it feels very much as if a tipping point has been reached as closures and cancellations gather pace and elements of the sector have begun to address the government's failures more directly. Ticket holders for the National Theatre's Christmas revival of Small Island were contacted with the news that the show has been cancelled. The Wales Millennium Centre, announcing closure until January at the earliest, declared "the situation is extremely serious and needs Government intervention and advice urgently." The Chester Storyhouse issued a statement noting "over two thirds of the country's theatres currently expect to be out of business by Christmas" and urged "the government to give guidance now about opening theatres" pointing out that "No business...can plan an opening in this vacuum." Both Scottish Opera and Welsh National Opera have now cancelled their autumn seasons. The Birmingham Hippodrome has announced a period of redundancy consultation. If major venues like the National Theatre and the Wales Millennium Centre are in this position imagine what is happening lower down the food chain.

The government's response, inadequate through this crisis, meanwhile reached new depths. You'll recall that the last time we saw the minister, Oliver Dowden, he was announcing task forces. Since then there has been no word on what the task forces are doing, or when they can be expected to report (somebody in the press should be doing an FoI request for the minutes of their meetings). About the only sighting of Dowden was an interview with the Evening Standard a few days ago in which he claimed "I am not going to stand by and see our world-leading position in the arts and culture destroyed" and the reporter claimed, presumably on the basis of what Dowden said to him, that "the deal is almost done" with the Treasury. Perhaps needless to say no further announcement has yet followed, and, in what felt to me like the ultimate insult, as the announcements of prolonged closures and cancellations came out on Friday the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was retweeting the Cabinet Office's announcement that the government would not seek an extension to the Brexit transition period.