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.

In my previous blog post I put forward some suggestions as to how I thought the sector might respond to the crisis, to raise public awareness and build public support. Since then there have been some position efforts. UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatre, and Sam Mendes, both put forward concrete proposals as to how the government might assist the sector which did not simply involve a bailout (though I thought Mendes's idea of getting money from the streaming services was fantasy). A specific plan for the West End was put forward by SOLT and others working with Nickie Aiken MP for the Cities of London and Westminster (though I have seen no further report on it since the launch at the beginning of June). Leading conductors Sir Mark Elder and Sir Simon Rattle spoke out on the effect of the crisis on orchestras. But the sector's public voice remains intermittent and fragmented, and, I suspect, too often not reaching beyond the bubble. If I were Elder and Rattle I would have sought to publish the letter somewhere other than The Guardian. A more promising sign was the open letter from UK Theatre/Society of London Theatre signed by 158 parliamentarians and published on Thursday (though I find it surprising that that letter isn't the first thing visible on both their websites and a Google search doesn't suggest it garnered much press attention). It is to the credit of the Shadow Secretary of State for DCMS Jo Stevens that she is continuing to press Dowden for answers (most recently in a letter on Wednesday) and to persistently highlight the dire situation in the sector via her Twitter account. But I have grave doubts whether either these fragmented public efforts, or the private lobbying that is surely going on, is going to be sufficient with this government.

Maybe I'll be proved wrong and Dowden's "almost done" deal will emerge in the coming week. But given the government's record in areas where it has made much more concrete promises during this crisis I frankly have no confidence that this will be the case. The arts sector needs a plan B to break out of the bubble. It also needs to think further about its money raising approach. So, again, I offer a couple of suggestions.

First, the campaigning suggestion. One thing I hadn't been aware of before this crisis, because it's not an art form I ever attend, is how critical pantomime season is to many theatres. How about all the regional theatres who put on a pantomime getting together and starting a campaign with that as the central theme? Explain to the local press what the impact of no pantomime will have on venue finances, talk about how many people attend, how it spills out into the wider economy. Perhaps they should talk it up as a British institution, an argument I don't much care for, but seems the sort of thing that might cut through with the current government.

Secondly, the fundraising suggestion. Rather than just ask for donations alongside streamed performances (or just generally), I'm surprised that more venues haven't considered the possibility of auctions (the only one I've seen so far was from the Donmar for armour worn by Tom Hiddleston in their Coriolanus). Surely there must be other props from successful shows that venues could try this with, or signed posters and playtexts, or leading performers offering readings, or other unique gifts along those lines. A family member also wondered whether there might not be mileage in selling programmes for seasons that would have taken place (personally I'd have paid for an Edinburgh International Festival programme for the year of covid). I assume, again, that a major problem for the sector must be that most if not all the fundraising staff are furloughed. But I can't help feeling that efforts along these lines, in these desperate times, have got to be worth a try - and might do as much to help keep audiences connected as the archival streaming.

Two weeks ago I was already gloomy about the future of my beloved arts. Now I feel both close to despair and increasingly angry. The government is essentially silent. The sector, at least in public, still lacks a consistent collective voice. It is perfectly clear that venues cannot sustain the situation much longer, the situation for freelancers is less visible but arguably worse (Update: it was good to see a BBC report highlighting the desperate plight of individuals after I published this). Recent fine initiatives - the BBC/Wigmore Hall lunchtime concerts and, on Saturday evening, the Royal Opera's live broadcast from their stage - have been moving reminders of what we are in danger of losing. It is time for people to act before it really is too late. The biggest responsibility rests with Dowden and the DCMS. At the moment they are conspicuously failing to meet it.

Postscript: I was in the final stages of editing this post yesterday when, checking Oliver Dowden's Twitter feed, I saw that he had taken the time to contact Google about a missing image of Churchill from one of their pages. That he has time to concern himself with that but not to say anything about the closures and cancellations of the last few days speaks volumes.

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