‘It would be good to see education, justice and health departments channel funds to the arts’
It’s important to understand that the government doesn’t directly shape a strategy for theatres. Individual funding decisions and initiatives are taken by the UK’s arts councils.
But that doesn’t mean the government can’t play a vital role in the future of theatres when they come out of the pandemic. Much of what they can do applies to all art forms, from museums and opera to orchestras, ballet and beyond.
Continued and secure funding is obviously the bedrock of support. The amount the arts receive remains fairly stingy. I wouldn’t want an environment in which state funding was the overwhelming source of money – commercial revenue and philanthropy should be an important part of the mix. But a significant increase in the arts budget would be little more than a rounding error in the scheme of things.
Related to this, the government should be much smarter about securing funding from different departments. I tried hard to do this as a minister, but never got anywhere. To his credit, Matt Hancock established the National Academy for Social Prescribing when he became health minister, and its small budget helps supports arts health initiatives.
It would be good to see many departments – education, health, justice, communities and international development – channel significant funds to the arts in recognition of the huge role they play in their communities (in the widest sense).
The government should renew its push for greater diversity
It’s a sensitive topic, but it may be time to think of an arts tax that can support the arts more directly. A tourist tax should be considered, though I accept this could be precisely the wrong time to introduce it, or even a levy on the film and TV tax credit, all of whose productions depend on talent honed in the theatre.
The government should also convene the wider funding community outside Whitehall, by which I mean big city mayors, local councils, universities, large foundations, and even broadcasters. All of them support and fund theatres, and should be working much more closely as a team to support our theatres all over the country.
The work of this group could lead to the sharing of data, wider support for new productions and new business models that could ensure theatres are made more resilient.
The government should renew its push for greater diversity in the theatre. When I left the role of culture minister in 2016, I was commissioning a report on diversity in our drama schools: what are the barriers that prevent people from a wide variety of backgrounds attending our top schools and going on to success in the theatre?
Finally, an idea that might be bonkers: relax heritage planning laws. Many of our theatres are woefully unfit for modern audiences. Some should be demolished and replaced, and at the very least it seems to me sheer madness to cling on to every last piece of Victorian cornicing.
After the pandemic, theatre must move on and this seems a great place to start.
Ed Vaizey was culture minister from 2010 to 2016 and is an adviser to Digital Theatre
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.