Finally. Last night the government announced a £1.57 billion rescue package for arts and culture, and the feelings of relief were palpable.
After an intensely grim couple of weeks, in which every day brought with it a new loss: Theatre Royal Plymouth, the prospect of mass redundancies at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, the closure of Nuffield Southampton Theatres, it was beginning to feel as if the government was willing to let the sector sink, or at least a sizeable part of it outside London.
So, it was a huge relief when the government came through and it is testament to the tirelessness and persistence of campaigners – be they established names or passionate advocates for the arts - that they did. It’s fine and understandable to feel relieved. If you’re drowning and someone throws you a rope, it’s okay to feel relieved. I feel relieved.
Relief does not have to equate with gratitude, though. For one thing, it’s yet to be seen how this money will be distributed, and already there’s a fear that it will favour larger institutions, and that once again freelancers will slide through the cracks. It also must be rather bittersweet news to wake up to for the arts workers who have already lost their jobs.
It comes too late for Nuffield Southampton Theatres, with administrators last week announcing its permanent closure. It also comes too late, I suspect, for all those who’ve had their dreams dashed over the last few months or who have quietly decided that their career is no longer viable and started looking for work elsewhere. Too late, too, for all those less comfortably off young people who decide that a job in the arts is simply too big of a risk and never take that chance to begin with.
Throughout this, I’ve resented and resisted having to make an economic argument for theatre. I resent having to talk in terms of investment. I resent having to beg. Seriously, fuck that. The arts aren’t garnish. They’re not an optional extra. They’re not hot sauce. They are integral to any healthy and functional society and, in the vast majority of European countries, that is understood and reflected in the packages of support put in place by their governments in the early stages of this crisis. Not so in the UK.
For all the eloquently articulated arguments about why theatre matters, as a space for nurturing empathy and firing up young minds, as a crucial community resource that speaks to and for people, and for the positive impact that creative expression can have on mental well-being – God forbid we allow pleasure to enter the conversation, or the role that beauty and wonder play in our lives – there’s no doubt the economic argument won out.
Just listen to Boris Johnson. Arts and culture, he says, “make our country great and are the linchpin of our world-beating and fast-growing creative industries.” It’s as if he’s made a bet with himself about how many buzzwords he can fit in one sentence. He’s found another thing with which to beat the world, another reason to bang on about greatness and growth.
It can sometimes feel as if theatre in the UK is intent on making itself as palatable, polite and maddeningly apolitical as possible
Let’s just remember that Tory austerity measures were already responsible for the closure of almost a fifth of the UK’s public libraries. According to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s annual survey last year, almost 800 have closed since 2010. All this before Covid-19 entered the picture. It tells you so much about what the Conservatives value, about what matters to them. Libraries are vital, in so many ways: they open doors, they change lives. But they were allowed to wither.
In the UK, if anything, many theatres have been too successful in operating as commercial entities. The Royal Exchange in Manchester operated on just 25% subsidy. Its productions were critically successful. Its work is popular. It served its city.
In an article for Exeunt, The Stage Debut Award-winning director Atri Banerjee eloquently described the Exchange, where he was a trainee director, as “a powerful model of what theatre can be”. It did everything ‘right’, according to the Tory way of thinking, without undermining its ethos. And it was not enough.
It can sometimes feel as if theatre in the UK is intent on making itself as palatable, polite and maddeningly apolitical as possible, and one could argue the position the industry found itself in was a direct consequence of that. I worry that this 11th-hour aid, welcome as it is, will lead to more of that, to theatre that is meek and defanged, work that is the antithesis of radical, and a subsequent entrenching of inequalities.
So, while there’s a reason to feel more hope today than there has been for a while and it does feel as if a heavy weight has been lifted from our heads, excuse me if I don’t join the line to thank Oliver Dowden. The government may have thrown us a rope. But we were gasping for air because of it.