After the euphoria surrounding the government’s announcement of an emergency funding package for the arts at the beginning of the month, thoughts turned to how it should be spent to best support the creative industries. Here The Stage asks people from across theatre what they would prioritise in distributing the money
I would ensure support goes to commercial and independent organisations that are not usually on the radar of the funding institutions. Right now, these organisations need help to survive. They are an important investment because when this crisis is over, they will not be an ongoing draw on the public purse. We also need a fair distribution across UK nations and regions, not allowing regularly funded cultural behemoths to benefit at the expense of the intricate national cultural ecology.
This funding will only succeed if we take all parts of the industry with us. We need to ensure geographic spread – it can’t just be centred on the bigger cities. We need it to be spread over sectors too, yes there should be support for some of those bigger organisations that really deliver, but we must ensure the grassroots organisations are still standing and that freelancers are supported to stay in the sector. I also absolutely support the idea that the gains made over the last few years in equality, inclusion and diversity should be built on and accelerated. We need to emerge from this as a more relevant, more representative and fairer sector.
A proportion should be spent on the ‘crown jewels’, but let’s not forget the ‘hidden gems’ – the theatremakers, the creators and, of course, the producers who pay for it all (very often, literally risking their house on a show). One of the main problems is that producers may not want to take a risk because of the danger of a localised lockdown. I strongly believe some of the money should be used to underwrite the risk of producing shows – some sort of guarantee against the risk of closure due to a second wave. Having this sort of insurance will lead to more jobs and stability within the industry, not to mention the huge secondary spend for theatres and their local economies.
The priority is to support all of those who perform with their voices and bodies and souls: those skilled freelancers without income, those talented casual staff whose roles have been terminated, those dedicated full and part-time staff who have been laid off. Regardless of subsidised or commercial sector, I’d propose that those who can demonstrate that their livelihood is based in the performing arts would receive a grant of £2,500 per month (in line with the monthly furlough capped sum) backdated to April 2020, and lasting through until the end of the current fiscal year in March 2021. What’s left, we divide between both sectors to prepare productions and houses for a safe return as soon as possible.
I would clone Alan Lane and the team at Slung Low for national distribution. With anything left over I would support the broadest and most diverse cross section of theatre possible: individuals and organisations, across all scales, valuing local and national impact. I would seek to understand the specific needs of the commercial sector and why, representing 80% of theatre tickets sold, it is critical to rebuild the industry and the workforce. As commercial theatre usually relies entirely on ticket income, it will need support to get shows back on stages, particularly on tours, but it is willing to pay back public money where there is surplus.
The government rescue package should favour ethnically diverse freelancers and organisations to safeguard those in our industry who are most at risk. We must protect the gains we have made in diversity that are now in danger of being lost. Many freelance creatives did not qualify for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme or Self-Employment Income Support Scheme and so currently have no support. We also know that black, Asian and ethnically diverse arts workers are most likely to be in junior roles that are at risk of redundancy or working as freelancers - hence why we partnered with Eclipse and Black Womxn in Theatre on the newly launched #AllOfUs campaign. The recovery of our sector needs to represent the people who make the work and celebrate the intersectionality of our wonderful industry. Photo: Helen Maybanks
Now that the Welsh government has confirmed the £59 million identified by Westminster will be allocated to the arts, how should it be spent?
1. Freelancers – to ensure we keep these brilliant people in this beautiful and crazy industry.
2. Venues – without whom there will be far less community-focused arts, and mass redundancies of skilled artists, facilitators and technicians – all part of
our core team at Theatr Clwyd.
3. To reduce risk as we return to live performance.
And better funding for those who commit to employing freelancers, to greater diversity across their workforce and to addressing the climate emergency in their working methods, as well as for those who put the voices of their communities front and centre.
I agree with Dominic Cooke that staffing levels in many theatres and organisations have probably become too large. I don’t envy those who must decide on who gets what but I would urge theatre buildings of all sizes to cut down their core staff levels considerably. Sustainability is key. Whoever receives money should use their best efforts to repay it over time. The commercial sector will also require support, especially those who embrace regional touring, and again the funds could be repayable if projects prove successful. I would also prioritise arts organisations that work with schools and in the local communities. Photo: Johan Persson
We should think of it as an investment not a handout. The money should be used to help people do what they do best – put on shows and events, not pay for venues to mothball. The industry takes risks every day – that is the essence of the industry, whether it is financial, creative, or on some occasions physical (like with dance and acrobatics) – so let the risk-takers get on with what they are good at – putting on shows. Then the freelancers will have work, the supply chain has customers, the venues have audiences. Use the money to subsidise productions that have reduced capacity due to Covid-19 precautions. Use the money to underwrite the losses if an event or show is cancelled due to a local outbreak of Covid-19 and finally use the money to refund some of the tax paid over the last two years by the freelancers who have fallen through the cracks of the support schemes.
There is no area of the sector that doesn’t need a slice of that £1.57 billion. The distribution of this money needs to be spread to save the most, rather than the most established or the largest. It should include some large organisations, but national and international touring companies will need to be protected, especially as their networks include many diverse artists and organisations. They will be disproportionately hit by the cancellation of tours and the cost of creating and producing work will surely rise. Organisations that actively and consistently, without virtue signalling, have diversity, and the multiple ways it shows up in identities, as part of their agenda should be top of the list for distribution. Frankly, it could be a condition of getting any money. Spreading the money further still we must do all we can to safeguard the direct work taking place in our communities. The civic role of culture is not over.
This moment of suspension has allowed for reflection. We can now clearly see the gulf of disparity in opportunity for many different individuals and marginalised groups. Let’s use this money to catalyse the change we’ve long demanded. The funding must urgently go to organisations, groups and individuals who prioritise diversity and inclusion and can evidence their active work in creating a more harmonious and fair society. I would advise those deciding on the criteria of distribution to engage with the campaigns asking for sectoral change, namely: We Shall Not Be Removed, Culture Needs Diversity, Freelancers Make Theatre Work and Public Campaign for the Arts.
The beginning of the year saw real energy put into starting to close the gap between the art made and the artists who make it and the communities that subsidised art in England. Relevance. Closing that gap has become even more important in the wake of the damage being done by Covid-19 to our communities. If the money isn’t being used to continue this work then we’re going in the wrong direction. Give it to artists to make art directly for and with our communities.
I keep hearing the same urgent questions. How do theatres survive? How do we not lose a generation of freelancers? How do we make the sector radically more inclusive? Should we pay six-figure salaries? How can theatre buildings be used more creatively? What happens when the bailout is spent and social distancing continues? How is the “Let’s Create” strategy implemented among all this? How do we imagine a better future? There is one strategy which will best respond to all these questions: fund independent artists and communities directly. Together, they will lead change. Like they always have.
I would urge funders to support organisations that prioritise audiences. The money needs to be given to people who want to serve the public: to be in service. We need to support organisations that make great art to engage, inspire, challenge and delight people: a theatre for all. And a theatre for a lifetime. Support places and spaces that offer opportunities for people to artistically express themselves and grow. After all, we have to remember, how can we expect audiences to commit to us in this time of crisis if we do not commit to them?