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).

When Dowden did finally get to discussing the arts sector he focused, as he has persistently tried to do, on the question of reopening. To my astonishment he announced (& confirmed it later) that he was, to quote his tweet, "convening medical and arts experts to work through these [specific and practical obstacles to the return of live performances] for theatre, choirs and performers." Back on the 20th May (four weeks ago) when Dowden announced his task forces, about which he has given us little information since, their focus was "to develop creative drive the return of sectors." Lord Lloyd Webber was reported as having written to the government about the approach taken in South Korea to resuming theatre performances back on the 14th May. Has it really taken four weeks to establish what the specific and practical obstacles to reopening in the sector are? Was it not possible to identify appropriate experts to participate in task force discussions from the outset?

I had hoped that questions might push Dowden to actually respond to the economic crisis facing the arts sector, and in particular on the support plan the Evening Standard stated in its interview with him last week was "almost done". But most questions focused on other areas, and when, as for example with Robert Peston, they did raise the scale of likely job losses in the arts the question was sufficiently long and unfocused that Dowden was under no pressure to respond to that specific point. I caught one single vague mention of discussions across the government about support which came after placing the initial burden on the sector to help itself, and that was it. I fear this is at least partially a consequence of the inability of the arts to get their situation firmly into the view of political journalists. In short it was hard to take any other conclusion from the briefing than that, notwithstanding his warm words in the Standard interview, despite the immense contribution the arts make to our economy and society the government is at best indifferent to and at worse actively disregarding the crisis in the sector.

Interestingly, as I was writing this, Dowden has popped up on Twitter with a couple of tweets relating to the arts. The first, already quoted, reiterated the enquiry into practical solutions to the problems for reopening occasioned by social distancing. But the second rather struck me as the response of someone who has been stung. This declared: "I know how essential our theatres, our musicians and the performing arts are to our cultural ecosystem. Culture is Britain's calling card. I am in no doubt the best thing we can do is push for its renewal & recovery." I'm interested, given how little he said in the briefing on the arts, that he tweeted this. They're fine words. But I'm afraid they continue to miss or at least avoid the point - the sector is rapidly approaching the point where it has no resources to renew and recover with. As an aside it is worth contrasting the British government's current position with the Irish government who on Tuesday announced a 25m euro aid package, and quite a number of other countries have put substantive support measures in place.

In short the already bleak situation facing my beloved performing arts got even bleaker yesterday. In one sense it's good news that the sector is shouting more loudly. But there is, I'm afraid, little sign the government, or even the non arts press, is really hearing those shouts. Even the arts press is not as vocal as I would expect - My survey of the online arts coverage of our major newspapers on Tuesday evening suggested that readers could easily browse without becoming aware of the looming disaster. What's On Stage, reporting on Wednesday's daily briefing gave their piece the innocuous headline "Culture secretary offers further remarks on the future of the performing arts", and spent most of it summarising his remarks, only mentioning the economic crisis briefly towards the end.

Oddly, The Guardian ended their coverage of the day on a more positive note claiming "a fresh bailout for theatres could be on the cards." The idea there has been a bailout already is very questionable - arts organisations have had access to the same furlough scheme as other sectors, plus a tranche of emergency funding from the Arts Council which was found by drawing down from their reserves and from national lottery project grant funds - in other words a repurposing of existing funds. A follower on twitter also advises me that some organisations may have had business rates relief. I wish I could buy into The Guardian's optimism but I'm afraid I can't. Dowden's remarks on which this optimism is founded were vague - a couple of mentions of looking at what "other support" the government might provide. That he did not challenge the Evening Standard statement nine days ago that the support package was "almost done" and it has yet to materialise makes it particularly difficult to trust fresh vague remarks. It also struck me as an odd decision to send the Culture Secretary before the press if a deal is in fact close - why not in that circumstance wait until it can be announced and avoid questions and criticisms? However, I do admit that assumes a competent approach to these matters which has rarely been evident with this government.

As it stands the situation for the arts remains desperate. Will widespread closures and job losses be avoided? From where I'm sitting it looks even less promising than it did at the weekend. I hope I will be proved wrong.

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