In this moment of crisis, I love the message London’s Royal Court has put up outside its building – so representative of our collective strength – ‘Back Soon’. British theatre has responded to this lockdown by finding canny new ways to connect and create. There are sensational new commissions and digital work everywhere. Artists have raised emergency funds for colleagues. We’ve been inspired by responses to urgent community needs: Slung Low organising food parcels; Scottish Opera’s trucks aiding supermarkets; Venue Cymru becoming a temporary hospital.
But let’s use this moment of shared crisis to be honest with each other and ourselves: the past we are pining for wasn’t always that great in the first place. So, there are reasons to be sceptical of the voices (and there are many) expressing a desire to revert to the way things were as quickly as possible.
Back Soon in lights, sure… but also Back Better. Let’s not squander this once-in-a-generation opportunity. Let’s think long-term and think big. For what it’s worth, here are some of my own provocations:
Let’s accept there will be less money
There is no way round it. We’ll come out of this, but our economy has been savaged, investments have collapsed, organisations’ reserves are exhausted, and audiences will take a while to feel safe. The sooner we can accept there will be fewer resources to go around, and move on, the better. There likely won’t be the money to support as many organisations and artist careers as existed up to now. So we have to decide what we value most and want to protect. Everywhere there will be tough choices. How do we shelter our hard-won gains in representation? Should those of us who earn the most, earn less to keep others in work? How to keep creating with the communities that are most underserved?
To come out stronger, let’s not duck the tough calls. And let’s discuss these choices openly and publicly. There’s a group wisdom that comes with tuning in to many voices. Everyone should have a say, since everyone has a stake.
Let’s learn lessons from the previous crash
The banking crisis was our last major economic shock; it was an opportunity missed. Banks were bailed out, reform was piecemeal, and the rest of us paid the price with years of austerity. Let’s learn from these mistakes and do better.
This emergency has magnified the critical importance of our artists and freelancers – but also how fragile their environment is. These are the people in this industry who are now hit the hardest: financially, emotionally and in terms of their mental health. If there must be fewer freelancers working in a year’s time, let’s at least make sure they are properly supported and have agency in their careers.
Let’s not accept sticking plasters on areas that were always problematic
Smaller companies too. It would be profligate if we used the little money we have to only prop up the larger organisations (including Battersea Arts Centre) or best served geographical areas. As well as redress historic imbalances, let’s do what the banks didn’t. Let’s not accept sticking plasters on areas that were always problematic (such as dysfunctional touring relationships; an overheated Edinburgh festival) and do the major reconstructive surgery that has been needed for years.
Let’s make ourselves more accountable
I think ‘leadership’ gets a bad rap in the arts. We need great leadership now more than ever. This isn’t about heads of organisations. In this pandemic, we have seen incredible leaders spring up all around us, in every role, in every walk of life.
But while appreciating leadership’s value, let’s harness its power in a way that’s more accountable. If we acknowledge that we are often failing to serve the groups we exist for (such as our neighbourhoods, or young people, or artists) then let’s find ways to empower them and be answerable to their priorities. If we are only accountable to the same people as before, things will simply drift back to the status quo. We can do better if we give our accountability structures a really good shake.
Let’s become more ‘people-centred’
All eyes right now are on our imperfect, but remarkable, NHS. One thing I miss about my career in health is how ‘people-centred’ those organisations are. You can’t manage someone’s health effectively unless everything starts and stops with what works best for that individual. And in essence this is about enormous attention and care being given to every point of interaction.
In the arts, we say we’re all about audiences or communities or creative practitioners, and yet we do virtually nothing to adapt to their specific needs or individuality. Rather, we make everyone constantly jump through hoops and squeeze into boxes. It’s this kind of inflexibility that makes us perform so poorly in terms of inclusion. In the short term, audiences and communities won’t be up for engaging with live performance in the old ways (in large groups, in dark rooms, on uncomfy seats). Now is our chance to change all that and connect with others on their terms, not ours.
To make this shift happen, we have to learn to love data. Health services can only be responsive because they are awash with information on people’s needs.
In the arts, we have to get smart about understanding our local populations and those we interact with. There is little we do that is genuinely intangible or immeasurable. We have to work harder with our universities to measure and celebrate our value to individuals, our communities, our country, our world.
Let’s work together, like never before
In this pandemic, to a greater or lesser extent, we’ve all been affected – no one is immune. In rallying round, we’ve become hyper-aware of the symbiosis of artists, companies, venues and funders. And in the face of universal problems, our old hierarchies have felt very flimsy indeed.
Current challenges demand a level of cooperation from us that was previously inconceivable. We may not have much control of world events, but as a group we can absolutely determine the future of our sector.
In this, funders have a vital role. For too long, arrangements have encouraged us to be competitive. Now we desperately need to incentivise cooperation and generosity. Let’s put in place the funding structures now that will reward us for working together across all boundaries, after this plague has passed.
There is so much to do. This needs all of us as equals: artists, organisations, funders, communities, educators. You don’t need to be Arts Council England to have the power to convene. At Battersea Arts Centre, we are discussing with Improbable whether we can help create some of the digital spaces needed for these conversations. There will be many brilliant alternatives. We all need to chip in.
It can be hard to be reflective when you’re struggling with private or professional griefs. That’s okay. Even if as individuals we can’t always engage, the group has a collective strength that can propel us forward anyway.
We’re far apart… separated from each other, and also from the sky and the stars that were always our inspiration. But we still have our superpower, the thing we in the arts have always cultivated: our limitless imagination. Time to put that superpower to its most vital use yet. And let’s do it now. Together.