The live performance industry is in crisis. I know it, and if you’re reading this publication you certainly know it. At present, it is not possible to write for an industry paper without being aware that many readers are counting down the days, some on the fingers of one hand, until they can no longer pay their rent.
The industry needs serious financial support. How should the sector make that case to government, especially a Conservative government? Let’s be frank, historically the arts sector and the Conservative Party have not been the best of friends.
The rage expressed against National Theatre director Rufus Norris, when in January he told this publication he could at least engage with Boris Johnson, demonstrates the intensity of a political polarisation policed by the sector’s loudest voices. But like it or not, to save the sector not only Norris but every arts leader now needs to be able to talk Tory. For better or worse – and sometimes definitely ‘worse’ – I have been doing so for most of my life. Here’s what I’ve learnt.
We have to emphasise the economic case – one through-line in Tory thinking is the focus on ‘prosperity’
First, although we hate it, we have to emphasise the economic case. We all know that culture is not merely a machine for printing tax receipts. But whatever other shifts the Conservative Party has gone through in recent years, one through-line in Tory thinking is the focus on ‘prosperity’.
In the months before Covid, Johnson’s team tried to reassure doubters he wouldn’t slash state spending – especially, ironically, on the NHS – because he would steer us towards the ‘prosperity’ needed to fund it. Now the country faces an unprecedented economic crisis. But ‘prosperity’ remains the buzzword of the tribe. The sector will have to persuade government that it is vital to regaining that prosperity.
Secondly, we need to talk mental health. The right used to sneer at mental health ‘issues’, now even the royals are urging us to leave the stiff upper lip behind. Well before Covid, the Johnson government made improving the nation’s mental health a priority, with incentives for partners across government to include mental health clauses in their projects. The arts can and should demonstrate that saving them is central to that long-standing mental health agenda.
Thirdly, the arts mean community. And we will need our community centres as we rebuild an integrated society. Communitarian conservatives like to talk about “little platoons”, a phrase coined by the philosopher Edmund Burke to describe the smallest unit of community loyalty, repurposed in the last decade to talk about the thousands of local charities and voluntary groups that hold societies together. When so many towns face being left without an arts centre, those fighting to save them need to make the case that each is a civic hub and a ‘little platoon’.
There are thousands of other reasons to value the arts. I know it in my bones; you know it in yours. Art itself has intrinsic value. But to make the case to this government, we need to understand its own values. Prosperity, mental health and ‘little platoons’. Those are the buzzwords that will help.