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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.

July 22, 2014

Midwest to Midville: Repositioning the visual arts in the Midlands

This was a blog I wrote after participating as a co-Chair of a seminar at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham on the 3rd February. Belated, I know, but the seminar centred around a report that has generated a growing debate – on London’s domination of the UK arts sector and national funding regimes, along with the new national policy emphasis on the role of culture in local economy. The report was written by Peter Stark, Christopher Gordon and David Powell, and called ‘Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital: A contribution to the debate on national policy for the arts and culture in England’ (October 2013, see: David Powell was the opening speaker of the day.

Midville programme

The event featured talks and panel debates, including acclaimed curator Matthew Higgs (New York), Birmingham art sector leaders (Jonathan Watkins, Debbie Kermode, Gavin Wade, and others), Birmingham city councilor Steve Trow, British contemporary art veteran Lynda Morris, and of course humble passengers like myself. It was one of those events that in the run up seemed like just another public seminar. Half way through the day I looked around and realized that this upper ‘loft’ gallery of the Ikon contained most of the central figures in the West Midland’s cultural scene, and turned out to be a gathering of some regional significance.

I’ll keep my remarks to the report, as my job was to chair David Powell. My favourite bit (p.38) is the report’s demand, phrased in terms of …what they spent on the Millennium Dome they give back to English regions [i.e. £600m]. Yet, the report is polemical without being polemic, and deliberately not written as protest or an invective animated by cries for justice. It is written as a sober series of observations on the economics of national arts funding as it has evolved since the post-war period, clearly pointing out the contradiction between national policy aims (for distribution and national impact) and a funding system irrationally skewed towards London. For ‘….the ‘centre’ in England makes decisions on 75% of the public’s funds available for the arts – a far higher proportion than in comparator countries’ (p.8: ES). That the capital needs a greater proportion of the funding is not in question, nor denied are the national and regional benefits of a strong capital centre for culture. What is in question is the basic policy rationales and the seemingly irrational assumption that the regions maintain a proportionately small and locally limited cultural infrastructure.

Personally, I like the report – it flags up some basic issues in relation to transparency and the lack of public information on national strategy-making, as well as frustrations that have been echoed since the 1950s. In fact, it is instructive to see how many of these issues emerged in the landmark 1965 White Paper (the only one!) ‘A Policy for the Arts: The First Steps’. Perhaps – at least this is my reading of recent history – the UK government’s wholesale rejection of the European regionalism movement in the 1980s (in part to form a front against the nascent Scottish independence lobby) has meant that the ‘strong city regions’ trend on the European continent did not emerge in Britain, to our detriment. A necessary devolution of the regions was botched in the New Labour period with the attempt to install city mayors, largely rejected by the city electorate themselves, and the quashed Scots independence movement has latterly come back to bite the London political establishment on the bum. Altogether national arts funding strategy is a skewed botch because the political settlement between London and its regions is a botch. One fact masking this reality is that the funding trend since the 1970s has seen Local Authorities fund culture (often via non-cultural budget heads) up to four times the amount of national arts funding itself. As the report is right to point out, as far as culture is concerned, the concepts of equality and equitable distribution of resources is ignored by the 2010 ACE strategy Achieving Great Art for Everyone (most major document since the 1965 White Paper], and was so ignored too by the Treasury Green Book guidance.

For Stark, Gordon and Powell – all of whom are cultural policy critics with a huge wealth of experience – the solution is actually modest. It takes the form of an adjustment to National Lottery funding, in a way that ‘London’s overall share of public funds for the arts would reduce from 65% …to 55% – still seven times the level of funding per head of population in the rest of England.’ This would take the form of a National investment Programme of £600m over the five years of the next parliament. The new fund would create ‘….additional 33% of arts funding per annum over five years: ‘….our proposition would locate new ‘strategic’ resources at regional and sub-regional level in partnership with collective local authority, business and civil society agencies charged with overall regional development. [See their published response to ACE response: p. 5].

With the RDAs gone, the attenuation of already small local public cultural sectors (look at the size of Birmingham’s culture sector in its regional demographic context), and a lack of a critical mass of culturally competent ‘civil society’ operators, I am not sure how far the ‘local’ (let alone regional – what is that?) is able to handle a sudden capacity-building exercise. Like New Labour’s ‘lost billions’, even huge levels of funding has a way of dissolving into the morass of local authority budgetary shortfalls.

If you haven’t done already – read the report (along with ACE’s response, which makes some good points, if predictably avoids the political heart of the problem). See also Stark, Gordon and Powell's follow-up report, published in April.

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