Last Tuesday, just 10 days after the shutdown of theatres began due to Covid-19, Arts Council England announced a £160 million emergency response package.
It was an extraordinarily swift and directed response for an organisation that often moves more like a considered tortoise than a hare. It is also an absolutely necessary one.
Because, to put it bluntly, it was abundantly clear the shutdown meant that some of its national portfolio organisations were facing catastrophe in just a few weeks, as box-office receipts halted.
Diversifying into new income streams – restaurants, bars, conferences – has made arts buildings less reliant on public funding, but when the building is shut, so too are those income streams. Unfortunately, many of the costs remain. Like hamsters on a wheel, once on it they can’t get off. Unless it breaks. For some, insolvency beckoned sooner rather than later.
The Arts Council is trying to do an impossible job in unprecedented times. It has put everything it has into the package, including its reserves, and it has diverted funds from Project Grants and Developing Your Creative Practice.
This is devastating for independent artists and companies going forward, and also those who spent huge amounts of unpaid time in making applications that now will not be assessed. You could feel the regret behind the statement when ACE said that it felt these diversions were “the best way to rapidly support as many people and organisations as we can at this challenging time.”
There are plenty of very smart people at ACE and they care as much about theatre as you and I. They will not be unaware of what this means for the grassroots and the many freelance artists who have always found it difficult to get projects off the ground, and who in the future may find it harder than ever.
The Arts Council is trying to do an impossible job in unprecedented times – it has put everything it has into the rescue package
ACE understands that there is absolutely no point in saving the many theatres we have dotted across the country, if there is no art to go in them. Or if, in the longer term, the art-form stalls, and generations of practitioners who have been hanging on by their fingertips (including many mid-career artists), and those at the beginning of their careers, give up for lack of support and pathways.
The £20 million emergency fund for freelances and creative practitioners, offering grants of up to £2,500, will help some but not many. It may further marginalise some of those from the most vulnerable groups including disabled artists, working-class artists and artists of colour whose foothold within the industry is often fragile.
An open letter to ACE from more than 500 freelance creatives points out that the fund will cover only 8,000 artists and the cost is a huge one: losing all other funding streams until 2021. It is a brutal situation, and I know many artists are in despair because of it.
I guess some of the thinking behind the ACE decision might be that once we come out the other side of the shutdown, there may be a great deal of work available that has been postponed rather than cancelled. Nonetheless, much of that work would need further funding to get it on the stage. The resumption of project funding must be a priority when the right moment comes. There must be some kind of payback by recognising the burden that is falling on the independent sector.
But ACE was faced with an impossible choice. Unlike the German government, which has announced a €50 billion package of support for artists and the cultural sector, recognising that it is characterised by a high proportion of self-employed people whose livelihoods have disappeared overnight, the UK government has been slow even to recognise the problems faced by the self-employed in any sector, let alone the arts.
The most moving thing about the German announcement was not just the amount of money involved, but also culture minister Monika Grütters’ deep understanding that “the creative courage of creative people can help to overcome the crisis. We should seize every opportunity to create good things for the future. That is why the following applies: artists are not only indispensable, but also vital, especially now”.
If only our own government understood that too. The resources that ACE currently has at its disposal to help the sector are a sticking plaster, whereas what the Germans are doing is providing the oxygen the cultural sector needs to thrive.
The arts in the UK will come through, but the sector will be bloodied and bruised and the ecosystem damaged. The test of those who do survive because of ACE support will be how generous and supportive they are towards those who have been left with very little or nothing at all.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner