Theatre, arts and culture are under attack. Creatives, artists, institutions and structures which foster theatre, arts and culture are facing down the immediate effects of the Coronovirus pandemic while furloughed, without income or closed to the public. The delicate and fragile fabric of our national culture is unravelling to reveal a bleak future. Or is it?
I struggled with finding the right words to get down a stream of connected thoughts and emotions, brought to the fore by the many voices, ideas and complexities of what the sector is facing. Stick with me gentle reader as I try and make sense of this.
Get your facts right
34 million people visit theatre, twice as many as visit football or sporting events (check this from The Stage in 2013, or this from the Society of London Theatres in 2019, or even this from WhatsOnStage also in 2019.)
Theatre makes this country far more than it receives in subsidy. Its value to London’s economy alone is roughly £5 billion a year, now expand that nationwide and it’s more than double. Restaurants and many kinds of retailers benefit from, and some rely on, our audiences. Theatre adds £2 billion to the capital’s critical tourism sector.
Back in 2015 this was already known, a Centre for Economic and Business Research report released in early 2019 by the Arts Council concluded that the arts and culture sector contributes £2.8bn to the Treasury via taxation, and that the sector’s total contribution to GDP amounted to about £23 billion, including employment and supply chains as well as the £10.8bn direct impact.
There’s much more on the economic impact of theatre, arts, culture and the creative industries here > https://www.thecreativeindustries.co.uk/industries/arts-culture/arts-culture-facts-and-figures/the-economic-contribution-of-the-arts#
Learning, growing, making mistakes and trying again all take place somewhere. Theatre is often the place where much of this happens. As one of the larger employers of freelancers (there’s a valid discussion on that to be had about that for sure), freelancers feed the expertise learned on one project into future activities elsewhere, learning is shared and the sector grows and improves.
That’s why so many organisations are stepping up to support freelancers. Freelancers – be they artists, creatives stage managers or more – are invaluable to the Creative Industries as a whole. We can’t ignore them.
In short, without theatre artists, a vital artery feeding the cultural lifeblood of this country is cut, and the creative industries perhaps irreparably damaged.
Context is everything
Let’s not forget what came before this storm. £400m has been stripped out of annual local authority spending on culture and the arts since 2010. Unsuprisingly Austerity cuts fell hardest on deprived communities in the north of England, which are enduring the highest poverty rates and weakest economies.
And let’s also not forget the stuttering and faltering steps towards a meaningful diversity within the industry. Steps which have still failed, utterly, to deliver anything lasting or meaningful, leaving the hard work to a small batch of organisations – Talawa, Tara, Eclipse, Yellow Earth and others.
Talent is national, not just in concentrated in London or the big cities of this country.
Regional centres of culture matter as much, if not more, than those in London; because it is through them that a national story is told, and a national conversation is had.
During the last decade of austerity we’ve also seen Brexit, an accelerated and divisive rhetoric, often driven by government or politicians, pitting communities against each other.
Is the centrality of theatre, arts, culture and the artists who make this work to a national conversation a hindrance to a project of divide and rule?
I have a feeling it might be.
What is theatre (arts and culture too)?
A man who calls his kinsmen to a feast does not do so to save them from starving. They all have food in their own homes.
When we gather together in the moonlit village ground it is not because of the moon. Every man can see it in his own compound.
We come together because it is good for kinsmen to do so.
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Theatre is a point of congregation, a point of assembly where we willingly open our hearts and minds to different ways of seeing things.
Conversations which reflect matters economic and social find their echo in discussions within the world of theatre, arts and culture.
But ‘theatre’, like ‘art’ or ‘culture’ isn’t just buildings or spaces. It’s people, communities, ideas which find a spark and accelerate things into motion.
- Stella Duffy lays it out brilliantly in her blog.
- David Jubb talks about amending existing structures and making institutions focus on artists and communities and in a follow up blog goes even further, arguing that funding should be geared more towards individual artists and makers.
- Sabrina Mahfouz proposes an Artists Council, funding artists directly from a levy on those who are getting the big bucks.
- Kate Golledge suggests using the journey out of lockdown to reimagine education and the interaction between education and arts, culture and the sciences, bringing children to institutions and rebuilding collaboratively.
And we mustn’t forget the many theatres, arts spaces and cultural institutions across the country who have been, and are, doing just that and more and have been for quite a while, Theatre Clywd, Royal and Derngate (Northampton), Talawa (Croydon and UK wide), Slung Low (Leeds), Royal Exchange (Manchester) and many, many more …
What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it.
If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.”
Change is in the air
We are at an interesting point in time.
Arguably, restless, constant and accelerating change is what’s got us in this mess, eroding social connections, upsetting polities and irretrievably burning up goodwill and social capital.
Austerity, massive economic uncertainty, Brexit, accelerating privatisation of the public realm, increasing inequalities across lines of race, gender and culture and now COVID-19 – all of this and more in just a decade.
It’s no surprise we’re punch drunk.
But if we take a moment to consider it, we’d swiftly realise that the one constant has been a divisive political rhetoric – a game of distraction; ‘watch out for immigrants who’ll take your job’ they said as the economy tanked and they bailed out their friends in finance.
We need to ‘take a moment’
We must step back a little to see who fostered this, who profits from growing divisions. It’s no conincidence that the dramas being played out in the creative industries, do so against a larger drama of political shenanigans that would make even hardened charlatans blush – I’m referring of course to the Westminster bubble / elite figures of Johnson and Cummings.
Steady the ship
The RSA calls for a year of stabilisation, it’s not a bad idea. Perhaps that ‘year of stabilisation’ will allow institutions to engage with artists and communities, as they should. Currently the voices missing from discussions and arguments in favour of support are those of artists, freelancers and communities.
The Arts Council has shown real leadership in navigating through the initial storm, and now planning a way out of the safe harbour into uncharted waters. Without freelance and self-employed artists, there are few ideas, fewer sparks, less power in the cultural engine. As we wend our way towards those uncharted waters we need to have the artists, communities and freelancers on board too.
* * *
Many changes have happened because of the response to the virus, and we shouldn’t lose these.
The post-crisis task is to find ways to amplify and embed the changes and innovations we all agree are most promising, and then work together to tilt our entire system of subsidy and profit towards a sustainable positive change.
We need more
Fresh information and perspectives which enable comunities, artists and social innovators to openly and honestly reflect on the impacts they want to achive
A sense of collective endeavour, of a large and diverse group (can’t stress that enough) willing to give time and energy to support and challenge each other and potentially develop formal collaborations (look at the incredible humans referred to above!).
Connect this group to the architects and guardians of the wider system – buildings and producers – so that they can see first hand what the challenges are, and either change or together develop new strategies, alliances and innovations with these institutions to achieve lasting transformational change.
This is what I hope is coming. It needs to.
We can’t ignore the voices of artists – the very cultural producers who make theatre, art and culture central to our lives.
The new way forward will take time
No theatres that I know of are seriously contemplating re-opening to audiences before the end of 2020. Those that are discussing opening sooner might find that audiences aren’t willing to return to theatres where safe social distance might be hard to manage.
Then there’s the question of what to open with.
Whither diversity in this scenario?
As we all know, adherence with even the most basic calls within the Arts Council’s Creative Case for Diversity seem problematic for many in the Creative Industry. Artists, freelancers and community voices bring much needed perspective to the conversation, ensuring diversity is hard wired.
In a gallows humour way – the cartoon below raised a smile. We all recognise this scenario don’t we? I certainly do.
This is just the beginning
We’ve only just started this journey. More than 70 years of a finely wrought and exquistely woven fabric can’t be rent asunder like this and expect to survive without help.
Yet within that resonstruction and mending of tears there is space to weave in new ideas, new ways of doing things and new ways to connect theatre, arts and culture with communities. We all just need to give ourselves the time to do it calmly, collaboratively and respectfully.
Might burning down the house now might give a gift to those who see theatre, arts and culture as a thorn in their side?
As yet the picture is evolving, sometimes in focus, at others very out of focus. What is certain is that it needs all of us, with good heart, to put ourselves to the task of making the resulting picture a rich, exciting and involving one for freelancers, artists, creatives, communities and institutions.
First, we need to get funding for artists and freelancers left out of the help that’s been shared out so far, because without them, there is no theatre, art or culture. Then, let’s share our journey of exploring what the new world could look like, and together, make it happen.
This stunning essay, an open leter from Paul Maheke, is worth reading. It reminds us why artists are important; in fact, more important than ever.