By JOE HILL
At a time when all areas of society are struggling, the arts sector is struggling more than most. While many other sectors were supported by the government to open over the Summer, most notably by the Chancellor’s ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, theatres have been prohibited from putting on profitable performances for months. In a cruel twist of fate, just as theatres were beginning to feel confident enough to risk investing in shows again – for example the new productions of RENT in Manchester and The Last Five Years at the Southwark Playhouse – we have now entered into another lockdown for at least four weeks and possibly longer. Seeing creative industries starting to revive themselves almost felt too good to be true – and it was. The arts sector needs more than money; it needs respect and confidence in the word of this government.
Firstly, it’s important to establish that the government hasn't left the arts completely high and dry. In July there was a significant investment of £1.57 billion into cultural, arts and heritage institutions. Additionally, it must be noted that 350,000 recreation and leisure workers have had access to support from the widely-lauded furlough scheme. Also, the Culture Recovery Fund has attempted to assist venues, primarily outside of London, in surviving until they can open their doors again. Obviously, this support has been greatly appreciated, but it frankly isn’t enough. This support, particularly the Culture Recovery Fund, has largely been spurred on by public outcry at the lack of consideration, and ultimately respect, that the arts sector has been afforded. There is a general sense of condescension from the government in their dealings with this sector. People working in the arts are fully aware that a job in a hedge-fund would be more ‘economically viable’ than their chosen profession, but that’s not the point. They are also aware that the government doesn’t have, as Theresa May so memorably told us, a ‘magic money tree’. But what the government should have is the ability to recognise the importance of Britain’s arts sector and a willingness to give it the support it desperately needs.
Sadly, it appears that neither the arts sector, nor the country as a whole, can take the government’s promises as given. For weeks Prime Minister Boris Johnson assured the country that he would continue with a regional approach to lockdown. On this basis, creatives of all kinds – musicians, artists, actors – had started preparing for a return to something approaching normality, or at least the opportunity to do what they loved again (and get paid for it). The psychological stress of pouring months of work into projects, under the false pretence that they will actually be performed, just to have the rug pulled from under you cannot be understated. As with most business sectors, the Christmas season is absolutely essential for the arts – pantomimes in particular bring in large amounts of revenue for their respective venues – many of which are smaller theatres that will most likely slip through the cracks of government support. The lack of transparency in government decision-making has totally undermined trust in their word. Additionally, the insult of these overnight policy reversals has made acquiring insurance for live performances almost impossible, with insurers knowing that the government is willing to completely renege on their promises when the political situation sees fit.
This summer, a year-old advertisement resurfaced and caused outrage among the arts community, and the population at large. It showed a ballerina, called Fatima, putting on her shoes with the ominous words: “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. (She just doesn’t know it yet)”. The reason this sparked a conflagration of social media fury is because it captured the zeitgeist of the government’s attitude to the arts. Fatima may have trained all her life to be a ballet dancer, she may have sacrificed countless opportunities, she may have toiled and cried for a chance at her dream – but the government has decided that her dream is not valid, not worthy of support – so get coding. It is worth noting that the advertisement was just one of many promoting the cyber industry. The government promoting free courses in upcoming sectors isn’t a bad thing – but aiming specifically at industries that they have decided are irrelevant is insulting and scary. It’s scary because the people in power, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, are now in a position to rule on peoples’ futures. There is a widespread and understandable worry that creatives, the torchbearers of our cultural generation, will be sacrificed at the altar of cold-hard economics. There is no easy way to quantify cultural value, no way to tabulate the joy of a community choir, no way to codify the confidence that performance and self-expression can bring. That doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. That said, it must also be remembered that the arts contribute massively not only to our culture, but also to our economy. In 2018, creative industries contributed £111 billion to the UK economy. However, without more government support, the arts won’t be able to spring back into action like other businesses have.
The government should recognise this and give the arts the support – both in terms of finances and respect – that the sector desperately needs. This summer, we were promised a ‘world-beating’ Test and Trace system. We haven’t got it. The UK also couldn’t be said to have world-beating politicians. What we, as the UK, do have is a truly world-beating arts sector. The government needs to recognise this and preserve one of our most valuable assets.