The government has come up with a £1.57 billion package for the arts. So that’s all right, then?
Or maybe amid the warm welcome and feelings of relief we also need a little scrutiny. After all, at this point we don’t know exactly how much money there will be for theatre, how it will be administered, who will get a piece of the pie and in what form, and how those who benefit will use what they receive.
That sum seems like a lot of money, although it’s small compared with some of the packages being offered by other countries, even if the government hailed it as the “biggest ever one-off investment in UK culture”.
But if the figure floating around near the start of the shutdown that theatre was losing around £100 million a week is correct, then the package just about covers the losses of 15 weeks of lockdown. It may not be nearly enough to see theatre through the crisis, particularly if most theatres remain without box-office income into next year and the furlough scheme ends. I am not holding my breath that it will be enough for redundancies – such as those of casual staff at the National Theatre – to be retracted or delayed.
I don’t want to sound churlish. Of course, the money is welcome. Without it theatre would be in a far worse, more despairing place. Many have worked indefatigably behind the scenes to persuade Oliver Dowden, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Treasury of the urgent need for investment. They made the point that without it the arts would founder, theatres and arts centres close forever, companies shut down, artists be left without livelihoods, and communities without access to the arts and the opportunities to co-create.
That £1.57 billion is a lifeline, but how much of a lifeline, and for whom, will depend very much on where the money is directed. Our cultural leaders must ensure that it doesn’t just go to protect their own, or each other’s manors, but rather the entire theatre ecology. There is a significant difference between a package aimed at bailing out theatres, and one that could and should be used to support and transform theatre in all its many manifestations.
It is a mite worrying when Dowden talks about using the money to preserve “the crown jewels” or when former Arts Council chair Peter Bazalgette speaks of saving “cherished institutions” as if British arts and theatre are only represented by and valued for a particular kind of culture. The kind that includes a particular canon of work and stories delivered by the same creatives and artists who have primarily delivered such cultural offerings for decades.
This work, which the government likes to describe as “world-beating”, is often London-centric and not representative of a wider, more diverse theatre ecology; one made up of independent freelance artists and regional companies who have often been working with communities for many years.
Why should we preserve ’the crown jewels’ when they are part of the very cultural infrastructure that has failed for too long to serve everyone?
That mindset implies that it should be business as usual and that arts and theatre should just pick up where they left off in mid-March, oblivious to the fissures that have opened up in society and in the structures of theatre itself in recent months. Why should we be eager to preserve the crown jewels when they are part of the very cultural infrastructure that has failed for too long to serve everyone in the cultural ecology, whether artists, audiences or communities?
It is early days since the package was announced and some of our cultural leaders clearly recognise that there is no going back to what we had before March 16. They know that the events of the past few months have highlighted long-standing inequalities of access and opportunity and representation that cannot go unaddressed any longer.
Writing in The Stage, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s deputy artistic director Erica Whyman declared that when it comes to the package that: “The devil, I think, is not in the detail: it is in us.” By that I think she means in how the recipients of the package use what they get to benefit everyone, advance diversity and support those who are most precarious in both society and the industry, many of whom have fallen through the cracks of all the other support schemes.
But how will we not just lapse into the same old ways of doing things? How can change be implemented quickly enough to save those freelancers and companies, often theatre’s most diverse workers, who are most at risk of leaving the industry? The pandemic has enabled independent artists and companies to have a louder voice; but what they urgently need is some cash.
The shutdown began with contracts curtailed and cancelled, some theatres behaving well towards freelancers, others behaving despicably. It was a key moment that spoke volumes about those organisations’ true values and levels of self-interest. The government package represents another crucial moment in a crisis that is very far from over. It is one on which our leading cultural institutions and leaders will be judged.