In a special supplement titled ‘How the arts can survive the coronavirus crisis’, Nick Awde speaks to theatremakers and policymakers from Germany, Sweden and Italy about how the coronavirus is impacting their work, and what is being done to manage the fallout
Despite the looming isolation of Brexit and the cutting of ties with the European Union already in process, the UK’s performing arts sectors continue to be interlinked with those of the EU.
But how have theatremakers across the EU responded to the current crisis, and what have governments and funding bodies done to support the industry as it faces challenges unprecedented in generations?
France has traditionally subscribed to an all-enveloping state subsidy system for culture that operates on every level, region and sector. In 2003, it opened the arts to corporate giving and sponsorship. Despite offering schemes such as ‘intermittent du spectacle’ status, which tops up irregular income for individual artists, in reality it’s a creaking structure and the smaller companies and practitioners have struggled as cuts have appeared.
"We have no doubt that independent companies and freelance workers will be forgotten"
France’s national response to the crisis includes a €22 million relief package introduced by the ministry of culture aimed at the various arts sectors and administered by their national bodies, and it is looking to integrate with other cross-sector schemes. The country is also pushing for a long-term Euro fund to reconstruct the EU’s economy over the next five to 10 years.
Germany made the strongest statement with its unrolling of a €50 billion package aimed at freelance workers and small businesses, including the arts and culture industries (which also covers newspapers – part of a staggering overall €750 billion in aid) – and distributing it within four days of the announcement.
The Berlin Senate is offering €100 million in €5,000 grants to freelance workers and small businesses in the cultural sector. Social security for freelances has been guaranteed for six months including housing, so “everyone can stay in their own home”.
As the country’s minister for culture and media Monika Grütters puts it: “Our democratic society needs its unique and diverse cultural and media landscape in this historical situation, which was unimaginable until recently. The creative courage of creative people can help to overcome the crisis. We should seize every opportunity to create good things for the future. Artists are not only indispensable, but also vital, especially now.”
The Germany Centre of the International Theatre Institute supports foreign artists in Germany by providing information on grants, measures and new emerging structures at: touring-artists.info. It also keeps close connection to other European networks such as IETM, European Festivals Association and Culture Action Europe.
Arts funding in Germany follows the federal system of culture and education by municipalities (cities and regions). Direct national government funding goes only to various institutions and projects of significance to the whole country. It also goes to some independent foundations that are awarded project grants by independent juries, such as the Federal Culture Foundation and the Foundation for Performing Arts.
“The first countermeasures include short-time compensation for contracted artists, support for freelance workers up to €15,000 as a one-off, and the shifting of grants and funding fully or partly to next year,” says Thomas Engel, managing director of the Germany Centre of the International Theatre Institute in Berlin. “The aid package includes the arts sector and has been created by the government and council of federal ministers.
“Within the last 10 to 15 years, many municipal theatres changed their administration model from governmental or municipal accounting to public-private businesses, with much bigger dependency from box office, touring, project funding and sponsorship. Theatres with bigger dependency from box offices – up to 25% from 11 to 13% before – receive no compensation for loss of income during lockdown.”
However, municipal theatres can apply, like private theatres or businesses in general, for support in the shape of tax deferments, loans and subsidies. Freelance workers, on the other hand, have no assets or reserves and the lockdown of live public performances, film and studio work, and even rehearsals means and end to income.
ITI Germany is funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media and the City of Berlin. “Our funding is secured and can be used flexibly during 2020 and 2021,” says Engel.
’Our democratic society needs its unique and diverse cultural and media landscape in this historical situation’
In Sweden, national institutions such as the Royal Dramatic Theatre or Dramaten and the Royal Swedish Opera are funded directly by the state, while the next level of large theatre institutions are funded by their city or region. Smaller theatre companies, many of them without a building of their own, are funded through regions or the Kulturradet (arts council) with support for a year, or by production. Lastly there are the privately funded theatres with very little or no support at all.
“The theatre sector is experiencing its biggest crisis in modern times,” says Henrik Grimback, a theatremaker based in Malmo who works in Sweden and Denmark. “Representatives from the film and theatre union took to the media in mid-March demanding help for the culture sector where a large part of the workers are freelance and jump from one project to the next. Now, when the possibilities for freelance work is almost zero, the unemployment rate in the sector has skyrocketed.”
What next? Henrik Grimback’s view from Sweden
“My guess is as good as any. A tendency that worries me is that the longer the theatres are closed, the more productions will be postponed. That will create a balloon of shows that will all have to be staged when the theatres reopen. When that happens, the job opportunities for artists who starved their way through the crisis will not show up until 2023 or 2024, because the productions meant to play in 2020 and 2021 will eat up the slots and the audiences.
“I’m lucky to have theatres who have commissioned work and hope to stage shows in August and mid September, although the prospects are still gloomy. I am also getting paid for theatre work that has been cancelled, so I am lucky, even if a good portion of the work I should have done has disappeared.
“As alternative strategies, like my colleagues, I have taken to the internet. Although I am becoming allergic to actors monologuing into webcams, I am happy to see so much theatre being streamed to audiences that experience what they otherwise never could have had seen because of geographical distance.
I am making some of my own work available for free in collaboration with the theatres they were staged at. One example is Joey Chestnut – A Culinary Tale of a Folk Hero from 2013, which is available at: bit.ly/HenrikGrimbackJoeyChestnut
The ministry of culture has launched an aid package worth SEK 500 million intended to go to the practitioners and theatres not supported by the state. Theatres that are supported will see their annual grant moved up so that they can cover some of the damage from loss of box office.
“However, the private commercial theatres that are neither supported by the arts council, state or cities will not be eligible for the aid package,” says Grimback. “They will have the hardest time surviving and it’s likely many of them will disappear.”
On top of direct aid for the culture sector, there are more general aid packages including the state covering 45% for salaried workers, so companies can furlough them. Social security has been opened up to those who were not eligible and so can benefit from it sooner than they normally would.
The traditional divisions in funding risk becoming greater, says Grimback. “At the end of March, more than a thousand theatre artists in Stockholm signed a petition criticising the city’s aid plan. The concern is that a fair portion of the budget for cultural activities and projects for the coming year will go to finance the revenue problem of the larger theatres that cannot currently stage anything.
“The result, of course, is that smaller groups or companies will not be able to survive because the larger organisations are eating away at the budget that normally feeds them.”
In Italy, the European country so far hit the hardest by Covid-19, the funding model rests on a complex interplay of public funding and private income including sponsorship, public ministry of culture and/or regional government and local municipalities.
"The theatre sector is experiencing its biggest crisis in modern times"
“The impact is catastrophic since there are far more freelance workers than permanent workers,” says Gianpiero Alighiero Borgia, artistic director of Teatro dei Borgia in Barletta, who also works in Croatia and the UK. “New aid measures mean that freelance workers will be subsided at €600 per month, and people with permanent jobs are subsided with 80% of their salaries for a nine-week period.”
These measures aren’t specific to the sector but have been launched by the government as part of a general welfare package, which is likely to be prolonged and increased. “But we can already see two big issues,” says Borgia. “Nobody has actually seen any money yet due to bureaucracy, and our theatres, which were the first places to be closed, will be the last to open.
“Since February 23, all the theatres closed and the summer festivals were postponed or cancelled. While restaurants, tourism, football and cinema are financially more relevant and doable in maintaining some form of social distance, we are the Cinderella of the crowd business and we will be the last to open.”
Meanwhile the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities is planning an aid package, the details of which are still not known. “What the regional and local funds are doing is also vague and they’re putting out a lot of Facebook and Twitter posts. I tried showing them to my bank manager. It didn’t work. So we have no doubt that independent companies and freelance workers will be forgotten. Covid-19 doesn’t seem important enough for that.
“We also need to know the specific ministry and regional interventions. At the moment all they have done is extend project and application deadlines. Rumours say the central government is going to confirm annual support independently from any evaluation of income. Let’s hope it will be enough.”
So will the aid, if it comes, be enough to help the sector survive beyond the crisis period? “It’s impossible to say. Like I say, in Italy, theatre is the poor relation, very different from opera, for example. Additionally, we do not have real trade unions or representation, so we are going to have to be really inventive. But I think we will survive this.”
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