All entries for March 2020

March 25, 2020

Art in the Time of Corona

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Art in the Time of Corona

Empty seats © Maria Barrett

Image © Maria Barrett, 2014

Even before the British government finally closed down public spaces last Friday in response to the global pandemic, many theatres and galleries were doing the responsible thing. The previous Monday, the Society of London Theatres had announced that their theatres would temporarily close, and throughout the week, first one independent theatre then another publicised its closure on social media, postponing, curtailing, and cancelling productions that had taken major investment in time and money and had once been somebody’s dream. A poignant post circulated, showing the ‘ghost light’, said to be left lit on stages all over the country, an evocative symbol of the future return of theatre to our nation.

But we were never without access to art and culture. Offerings were announced on social media: the Royal Opera House is streaming opera and ballet for free; The Globe Theatre has opened up its online catalogue of filmed performances; and in the commercial sector, West End production of The Wind in the Willows starring stars Rufus Hound and Gary Wilmot is available to stream at no cost. It is similar in the visual arts and museums, where art (albeit a largely Western canon) has been globalised; you can now take a virtual tour of the Chateau of Versailles, or of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC; look at some Monet, Cézanne, or Gauguin at the Musée d’Orsay; or take in some Vermeer at the Rijksmuseum, all while preserving not just a safe social distance or complete isolation, but indeed a reduced carbon footprint.

This augmented cultural offer appeared deceptively quickly; certainly a lot faster than it has taken the Prime Minister to present a cogent public health strategy. The larger cultural institutions, with the funds to invest in and experiment with the digital, already had something up their sleeves. Building closures and increasingly limited public movement due to the global pandemic meant lifting paywalls and increasing marketing of existing digital offers, rather than starting from scratch. The online reach and brand recognition of large institutions and the recognisability of their artworks should appeal not only to existing audiences who need their culture fix but can no longer pop out to the gallery, but also to potentially new audiences of the home-schooled and perhaps the newly bored but culturally curious.

This is important to institutions in the context of indefinite closure, as they can continue their remit of public engagement. It might also be asked: when arts venues close and re-open, do their audiences come back? My observation as an erstwhile board member of theatres which have temporarily closed for refurbishment or rebuilding, is, often not. Knowing this risk, some theatres go on tour for the duration, or decant elsewhere, temporarily setting up shop in another space, as the Almeida famously did in 2000, in order to keep their brand alive and their audiences warm. This clearly can’t be done under the current circumstances, making physical closure a long term risk. Being able to engage your audiences and even extend your reach digitally then is a real advantage.

However, it is apparent that it may be an advantage available only to those large cultural institutions that have been well funded or are wealthy enough to have engaged in digital engagement. Smaller theatres and galleries working on smaller margins have not always been able to invest in the same way, and many of the subsidised have struggled to even survive under ‘austerity’ funding. Such organisations don’t necessarily have a back catalogue of digital repertoire they can launch across social media channels or an institutional knowledge of digital creation, and in any case might lack the resource to do this well whilst simultaneously closing down a building and dealing with contracts, cancellations, contingencies, and insurance. Like the weather, a pandemic hits everyone, but the wealthy are always more ready to survive the storm.

Smaller arts organisations are still engaging digitally, of course. But much of what they are doing is less visible, and more local. Many smaller theatres such as Polka Theatre in London and Unity Theatre in Liverpool are using their social channels as a community resource, sharing announcements and information from local government. On the one hand, this is not their usual cultural fare, and may not be enough to keep audiences engaged. More positively though, it might mean that small venues become more relevant to their communities in this time of crisis, and bonds built now will sustain in the future.

But do these small cultural organisations matter? My colleague Heidi Ashton has talked here about the importance of arts and culture both economically and to the sense of who we are. The small scale contributes greatly to this cultural ecosystem, and engages a significant number of the freelancers who, as Ashton points out, are now struggling without government help. Small scale names may be less recognised nationally or internationally, but they often have higher local visibility and importance. Moreover, the small scale often nurtures the start of cultural product life cycles; In the past small scale theatre has nurtured work that has later been commercially exploited like Blood Brothers, or plays have become feature films like Letter to Brezhnev; and of course the small scale can provide a step on the ladder, nurturing writers, cast members and crews who can learn their craft. Importantly for theatre, and for society, the small scale can take formal risks, it can experiment and innovate, and it can offer a dissenting voice.

Without an obvious way to continue to engage its audiences, many small scale venues may struggle to survive. Indeed, we appear to have the first casualty of the Coronavirus shutdown: 30-year-old Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax announced this week it was going into administration. The Arts Council of England (ACE) has reacted to the crisis facing cultural organisations by acting swiftly, communicating in exemplary fashion, and releasing an impressive Emergency Response Package. Even applying to this will be a struggle for smaller organisations without dedicated fundraising and development departments. When distributing funds, ACE needs to note the particular circumstances of smaller organisations, already struggling financially and with fewer staff, and continue to invest in the small scale as well as the big names. ACE needs to keep them afloat in the current crisis and to develop their resilience, including their digital capacity, in the future. If, as seems likely, there is a protracted period of closure for cultural organisations due to the pandemic, it is worrying to wonder how many of our small, local, independent theatres will be able to go back and turn the ghost lights out, and put the flood lights back on again.

March 23, 2020

The challenge facing our creative industries during the COVID–19 crisis

Empty Theatres

It is fair to say that the recent Government advice to delay the spread of Covid-19 has had a profound effect upon many sectors including the cultural and creative industries. There are many reasons why closures in the cultural sectors have hit people so hard and why we need to protect them going forwards.

1. The plight of freelancers

The cultural and creative industries have one of the highest rates of freelance workers of any sector in the UK. These freelancers work across a range of areas. For example, a theatre performer might also work on cruise ships, on television, in film, music or fashion all of which have been halted due to the pandemic. With no permanent contracts and minimal employment rights most of these workers have suddenly found themselves losing their jobs immediately whilst also having future work cancelled.

Being used to periods of unemployment freelancers are adept at using their skills to find alternative work but this is also on a freelance basis and often in hospitality, education or sport and leisure - all of which are similarly affected by the crises.

It is times like these when the precarious nature of freelance working is most starkly evident and harshly felt. Of course, freelance working is not limited to the creative industries. The ONS (office for National Statistics) estimates that around 15% of the total workforce are currently freelance or self-employed.

2. The invisible workers

When a theatre closes it is not just the performers that have lost their livelihood but the many, many jobs and businesses that are connected to the theatre. Within the theatre there are front of house staff, box office staff, cleaners, technicians, carpenters, electricians, wardrobe staff etc. Then there are the businesses surrounding the theatres, corner stores, shops, bars, restaurants, cafés, hotels, car parks. Finally, there are the related businesses providing marketing for theatrical productions, theatrical and musical agents and managers, production companies, promotors, physiotherapists and more. The next time you watch a film look at the credits, almost all the people on the seemingly endless list of jobs and names are freelance workers and with television and film production closing down all of those jobs and incomes have gone.

3. Financial cost

The financial loss to individual freelancers is catastrophic. The reliance upon numerous short-term contracts that are often poorly paid means that there is little chance of substantial savings. With no way to regain employment in the foreseeable future freelancers face the prospect of being unable to pay basic rent and bills. They also cannot afford to buy services of any kind so related businesses suffer. At the community level there is the loss of passing trade and tourism associated with cultural sites such as theatres and a loss of work for locals who work in those sites. The same of course is true for those working in sports venues.

At the National level the creative industries contributes around £101.5 billion to the UK economy and is one of the few sectors that grew during the last recession. The DCMS (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) reported that the sector provided 5.3 million jobs in 2018 and London’s West End theatre generated £133 million in VAT revenue. With almost all cultural and creative sector activities closed there will be a significant loss to the economy.

4. Do the arts matter?

The arts and creative industries provide opportunities to come together, create and learn. They provide vital health care and well-being both physically and mentally. Community arts projects provide classes and sessions for people with dementia and Parkinson’s Disease as well as babies, toddlers and those with differing learning and physical abilities. There are community arts projects that provide opportunities for people of all ages, encouraging and inspiring young talent and developing future artists of all kinds. The power of cultural and creative activities to bring people together has resulted in initiatives such as Cities of Culture of which Coventry will soon be host. It is how we understand and challenge the world around us, it is how we understand and challenge ourselves and others, it is our past, present and future. It is our culture.

As a final thought, I'd like to highlight some of the positive ways in which cultural and creative workers have responded to the crises in addition to the ways in which cultural activities have brought people together at this time.

In Italy we saw opera singers and DJs performing from their balconies, and support and solidarity was expressed through communities singing together from their homes.

Here in the UK freelance workers from the arts are providing online exercise classes that people can join for free, they are streaming live recitals to entertain those in isolation, they have created networks for passing on information as it appears and are providing online music lessons and crafting sessions in addition to taking active roles in the responses of local communities.

The economic contribution of the arts is clear not only from the DCMS figures but also the many, many jobs that surround and support the venues and workers, and the income generated from exports and tourism. They provide entertainment that reproduces but also challenges our perceptions, values and beliefs through games, films, television, theatre, music, dance, museums and galleries. A world without any of these is unimaginable.

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