With theatremaking effectively halted for several months, many creatives are finding themselves out of pocket. Fergus Morgan speaks to people who have set up online campaigns to help cash-strapped artists pay the bills
As theatres shut their doors, productions close, tours are cancelled and festivals are postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, freelance artists – directors, designers, writers and more – are finding themselves in precarious financial positions, with bills to pay but no work and no income.
Across the country, independent, localised initiatives are being set up to offer assistance to people that find themselves in such situations. From Birmingham to Brighton, Liverpool to London, philanthropic projects are being established – crowdfunded campaigns aiming to collect donations and pass the proceeds on to those that need them.
One was set up by performance artist Bryony Kimmings. She saw a tweet from poet Lemn Sissay asking for ideas on how to help support poets suddenly deprived of their income, and decided to do something for theatremakers in a similar position.
“I wanted to help,” she says. “I had maybe £500 lying around and I wanted to give it to someone. That could pay their rent – or half their rent. But then I thought: ‘That’s not enough, because that’s just one person.’ So I tweeted to see if anyone wanted to do the same and lots of people did.”
She tweeted: “Yo! Established Artists. Those who know what life is like at the beginning of your career. I am asking you to DM me if you can contribute between £200-£500 next week to be given to artists who are having gigs cancelled and have large payments due end of March they won’t make.”
‘It’s just like a mate calling you up and asking for £500, and you giving it to them’ – theatremaker Bryony Kimmings
That was on March 14. Three days and more than 200 retweets later, using the hashtag #GigAid, Kimmings raised more than £20,000. Her idea was simple. Established artists wanting to give money got in touch with her. Emerging artists who needed it did the same. She put two individuals together and let them sort out the rest.
“It’s just a gift,” she says. “It’s not a GoFundMe, it’s not organised through a venue. It’s just one person giving another person a gift. It’s not taxable, it’s not Gift Aid-able. It’s just like a mate calling you up and asking for £500, and you giving it to them.”
The #GigAid drive was so successful that Kimmings had to put a call-out on Twitter for help administrating the initiative. Performance artist Brian Lobel and comedian Jen Brister came to her aid. They worked to match up donors and recipients via a huge spreadsheet until March 17, when Kimmings put the project on hold.
“We couldn’t keep going, because I’ve got work and writing to get on with, but I do want to go again in April,” she says. “I’m going to see what happens over the next few weeks with the government, and if I need to do it again, for longer, then I will.”
She adds that if anyone wants to copy her, anywhere in the world, in any industry, then she can share what she has learned. “I’ve put a little pack together now, just a PDF,” she explains. “If you want it, just get in touch. Just tweet me.”
Kimmings’ example has inspired others around the country. Crowdfunded projects have been set up in Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Hull, Newcastle and elsewhere, aiming to raise money to support local artists in straightened times.
“I know that if this had happened to me a few years ago, it would have meant serious problems,” says writer Luke Barnes, whose campaign to support Liverpool-based artists has raised more than £4,000. “So I wanted to help. And it’s not loads – it’s a few hundred quid – but if you can help make a tiny difference then it’s worth doing, right?”
‘It’s quite a scary thing to ask for money when you’re not used to it. So there are no applications. If you need it, you can have it’ – writer Luke Barnes
Barnes’ campaign originally aimed to raise £2,000, to be split into 10 £200 hardship funds and distributed “on a first-come, first-served basis” with “no questions asked”.
That, he says, was important. “It’s quite a scary thing to ask for money when you’re not used to it,” he says. “So there are no applications. If you need it, you can have it. When it’s gone, it’s gone. And if you’re lying, then you’re taking money out of other people’s pockets and you’re a knob, and that’s on you.”
Barnes now raised more than double his original target. He’s upped the limit on his GoFundMe.com page from £2,000 to £1 billion – “We’re aiming high,” he says – and his model has been widely copied across the country.
In Hull, gig-theatre company Middle Child has set up a similar scheme that has raised more than £1,500.
‘The creative sector struggles at the best of times. We’re hoping that this is an opportunity for the people of Hull to show those artists how much they are valued’ – Paul Smith, artistic director of Middle Child
“We’re in a really privileged position as an national portfolio organisation, and to a certain degree we’re protected,” says the company’s artistic director Paul Smith. “So we thought we would use our platform and our voice to help others as best as we can. We have lots of friends and people we work with that have had days of non-stop cancellations, so we wanted to build a reserve that is there for them if they need it.”
He continues: “In a city like Hull, stuff like this is so important. The creative sector struggles at the best of times, but the last few years have been extraordinary here. We’re hoping that this is an opportunity for the people of Hull to show those artists how much they are valued, and how much they appreciate the work they’ve been doing in the city.”
In London, producer Frazer Brown has established Last Year’s Rent, another GoFundMe campaign, the proceeds from which he has promised to match from his own pocket. The money will be gifted in £1,000 chunks, with the aim of paying people’s rent for them. Instead of looking to established artists or the local community, though, he is seeking support from show investors.
“I’m contacting CEOs and people I know on Wall Street,” he says. “People who will be fine for six months. Some producers would have spent £5,000, if not £50,000, on a show in the next six months anyway, so I’ve asked them to just pop £500 in. By doing that they’ll have paid for somebody’s peace of mind for a month.”
He adds: “People need a roof over their head more than anything. And if the government isn’t stepping up to rectify that immediately, then we are going to see a huge impact on individuals. I was going to fund a show in October, so I have the money and I’ll double anything that is donated.”
‘It’s amazing to go on Twitter, which has become a terrible cesspool of negativity in recent years, and feel part of a positive movement again’ – Gary Raymond, editor of Wales Arts Review
For Gary Raymond, editor of the website Wales Arts Review, whose Crowdfunder campaign to support struggling Welsh artists has raised more than £2,000 using Barnes’ model, the success of such projects offers a ray of light at a difficult time.
“It is inspiring, it really is,” he says. “It’s amazing to go on Twitter, which has become a terrible cesspool of negativity in recent years, and feel part of a positive movement again. Yesterday, crowdfunder.co.uk got in touch and said it would waive its fees as well, so every penny that’s donated will be going to people who need it. There are plenty of people like myself, who won’t be going to the pub for the next month, and can afford to chuck £10 towards this.”