Empty theatre

Rethinking the Arts

By Irene Albesiano

It has been widely reported that the COVID-19 crisis has severely affected the UK economy and many employers have had to announce redundancies. Since March, 695,000 workers in the UK have lost their job and a recent report by the ONS estimated that the unemployment rate rose 4.1% in the three month up to July. Economists had predicted an even worse scenario due to the current Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (i.e. furlough) expiring at the end of October, with predictions of a “tsunami” of job cuts, though the Chancellor has since announced a replacement, the Job Support Scheme, to help top-up wages of some workers. 

The sectors worst hit by the pandemic have been those most reliant on in-person business and therefore most impacted by restrictions aimed at social distancing. The struggles of sectors such as retail, civil aviation and hospitality have been widely acknowledged by both the media and the government with interventions such as the introduction of the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme and the development of an aviation recovery strategy.

Another sector severely impacted by the pandemic is the arts sector. This sector includes theatres, cinemas, museums, galleries, and music venues. Remote working is unfeasible for most workers in these industries and many venues remain closed. Young artists are often freelancers, meaning they have been unable to draw on the furlough scheme. Job losses within the sector have escalated since the start of the lockdown. In the theatre industry alone 2,000 workers lost their jobs in just a month (from the beginning of June) and the total number has already exceeded 5,000 job cuts since March.  Announcements of 400 redundancies at both the National Theatre and the Southbank Centre and more than 300 at the Tate resulted in protests over the last month. In June, a study by Oxford Economics for the Creative Industries Federation projected a £74 billion drop in income and 400,000 job losses for the creative industries, which has the highest percentage of workers currently on furlough (more than 40%). As such the sector is highly exposed to a sharp fall in employment at the end of October. 

While the easing of the lockdown restrictions in June and July temporarily helped the hospitality and retail sector and encouraged more consumer spending on the high streets, the arts sector struggled to reopen. Social distancing rules present significant logistical challenges to theatres and art venues, which are able to operate at only around 30% of their full capacity – with the outlook now looking bleak for when full audiences will return. Some theatres have reopened to the public, but they can accommodate only small productions as bigger ones are too expensive and therefore not profitable due to the reduced audience capacity. Moreover, with cases of COVID-19 on the rise again and further restrictions being introduced, the public’s confidence to go out is fragile and this reduces the prospect of more arts venues from reopening. 


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Some theatre productions have tried to adapt by staging shows outdoor to increase the space available while social distancing and giving the public an increased sense of safety. For example, in August the Turbine Theatre in London announced the revival of the rock musical “Hair” as part of its new open-air series. However, as we approach the winter, the colder weather makes these sorts of innovations less viable. This highlights just how complicated and volatile the situation is for arts venues trying their best to continue operating without further jobs being lost. 

Despite some help from the government such as the £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund, including the Emergency Grassroot Music Venue Fund worth £3.36 million, the arts sector is not considered a priority for the recovery of the UK economy as it is in other countries such as Italy and Greece. According to the “Cultured Communities” published by the Fabian Society in August, the underfunding of the arts started before COVID-19, especially outside London. Between 2009 and 2019, more than £860m was cut from annual council spending on arts and culture and those cuts were worse in the regions compared to London. Further, the Fabians report highlights that the largest proportion of cuts hit villages or smaller to medium-sized towns. That has meant that arts and cultural organisations in such places have become increasingly reliant on revenues from performances and from other services such as hospitality (e.g. bars, restaurants) within the venues. This means the arts and culture outside London, especially in smaller towns, have been left more vulnerable to the economic shock of the pandemic. 

We must rethink the arts as a powerful tool to improve wellbeing, encourage national unity in times of crisis and promote jobs and growth. In 2019, the arts sector added around £10.8 billion a year to the UK’s national income. Investment in local arts organisations, infrastructure and initiatives offers an opportunity for the government to advance its goal of ‘levelling up’ the UK. In recent years, funding has tended to favour the arts sector in London and major regional cities. As the pandemic has prompted a shift in thinking about where we live and work, the government should consider the importance of local arts in boosting the local economy and providing a cultural focus for communities facing challenging times. 

Football on the brink?

The shock announcement that Wigan Athletic FC have gone into administration once again highlights the lack of leadership and governance in English football. In the last year, three other clubs from the game’s North West heartland, Bury, Bolton Wanderers and Macclesfield Town have faced financial troubles, with Bury forced to drop out of the Football League, yet at the same time Manchester and Liverpool each boast teams amongst the richest in Europe.

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Our funding

The Centre For Towns is committed to funding transparency in accordance with Who Funds You? principles. Here we list our total income for the last reported year as well as all sources of income over £1,000. The Centre For Towns carries out original research on its own behalf, or in collaboration with external partners.

2018/2019 income: £17,000

Donations over £1,000

Ernst and Young: £2,000

Royal Institute of British Architects: £5,000

Arts Council England: £10,000

Arcadia Theatre

When a theatre closes; the story of Llandudno's Arcadia

At ninety three, Wyn Calvin is still a master of the twinkly self-subversion that’s characterised his career as a comedian and pantomime dame. There is no attempt at small talk he doesn’t answer with a joke- unless, that is, he replies in song. He speaks in a slow, lilting, r-rolling Welsh rumble that coats everything he says in the glitter of high drama. He likes to begin lyrical meditations on subjects like the serious responsibility of the pantomime performer- and then puncture them: “Well anyway, aren’t I an old bore?” There is just one moment, in my two conversations with him, when he seems completely serious; and that is when he tells me the story of how he once saved a small theatre in North Wales from the remorseless march of capitalism, in a feat of dazzling Machiavellian cunning.

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Weekly bulletin on COVID-related job losses, 14th July

COVID-19 is having an unprecedented impact on people’s lives and the economy. Not every industry has been able to shift to remote working and even those that have, have often experienced great reductions in demand. In the last few months, businesses in the UK have started responding to losses in revenue by announcing extensive job cuts.

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The “Levelling up” Budget – towns are still waiting

Forty years of hurt…

The Government has made it very clear that “levelling up”, reducing geographic inequalities in the UK economy, is one of its top priorities. With details as to what the policy means in practice thin on the ground in the Conservative Party manifesto, the budget was eagerly anticipated as the moment when the Government made ”levelling up” real. We are still waiting.

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POLLING: How do our towns intend to vote?

At the Centre For Towns we make no apology for wanting our political parties to focus on the challenges our towns face. We see advocacy for our towns as one of our defining aims. To that end, we have repeatedly emphasised how any political party hoping to win power in a general election must win dozens of marginal constituencies comprised exclusively of voters in towns. The upcoming general election is no different. With the Conservatives piling up large leads in rural communities and Labour performing best in our largest cities, the remaining vote in our towns becomes the decisive battleground.

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Statement on the Future High Streets Fund

The government has today announced that an additional 50 towns In England will benefit from the Future High Streets Fund. Fifty English towns were already shortlisted for support, bringing the total number of Future High Streets Fund towns to a hundred. Ever since we were founded in 2017, our high streets have been a priority area for us. This is because they are an issue of deep concern to people in our towns. A declining high street is a visible symbol of a town's relative prosperity and serves as a lightning rod for a raft of underlying problems our towns face. We have been pleased that many other organisations have joined our call for greater priority to be given to our high streets, including our partners at the Institute for Place Management.

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Chancellor's statement: No sign of levelling up

The Government’s response to the outbreak of COVID-19 was unprecedented in both scale and speed and was reasonably successful in protecting the economy through the most stringent period of lockdown. However, job losses have accelerated in recent weeks and, as restrictions have been eased, the sheer scale of the challenge facing the UK economy has become clear: businesses have cut back capital expenditure and consumers are reluctant to return to their normal patterns of activity.

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Budget 2020; what we'll be looking for

In tomorrow's Budget, the Chancellor and the government will rightly want to lay out how the economy deals with COVID-19 (Coronavirus). On that specific point, we at the Centre For Towns have produced extensive research showing the geographical distribution of an ageing population (towns getting older, cities getting younger). So, given that we know older people are most at risk from COVID-19, the issue of geography is likely to be important. That said, dealing with COVID-19 is obviously a priority for the Chancellor and the country and we hope the issue is covered well and in detail.

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REPORT: Our towns lag behind on foreign direct investment

The large majority of foreign direct investment (FDI) went to Core Cities in 2018. This reflects a continuing trend: our Core Cities are best-placed to attract foreign direct investment whilst our towns are starved of the investment they badly need. Today we release a joint report with Ernst and Young which looks at the distribution of foreign direct investment across the UK.

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Announcement: Arts & Culture in our towns

We are delighted to announce a major new research project with Arts Council England. Many of you in towns have expressed to us the importance of arts and culture to your town’s identity and future prosperity. We agree. Which is why we are committed to providing the very best evidence on the status and strength of arts and culture in our towns.

England’s towns are often missed in debates about cultural opportunity. They can be lost in a discussion that has focused upon issues of north versus south, London versus the rest and urban versus rural. Yet, an increasing body of evidence is demonstrating that there are particular features of cultural life in our towns that impact significantly upon the lives of the people who live there. Now is a good time to undertake a review of the level and distribution of investment in, and engagement with, arts and culture in England’s towns.

The project will carry out a rigorous and thorough analysis of the patterns of spending on arts and culture in our towns in order to identify any gaps in existing investment. This in-depth analysis will also move beyond an analysis focused solely on Arts Council England spending to include investment by local government and other bodies such as Local Enterprise Partnerships. We want to present a detailed picture of the scale and geographical distribution of all arts and culture spending in our towns, not just that provided by the Arts Council.

We will also be investigating levels of engagement in arts and culture in our towns, together with an understanding of the physical infrastructure of arts and cultural institutions in our towns. We want to investigate levels of participation in, and engagement with, arts and culture in our towns. Is there, for example, less engagement with arts and culture in particular towns, and is this related to a lack of investment or a deeper problem? This analysis we will of course need to consider the socio-economic, demographic and governance characteristics of our towns in relation to the types and scale of investment they receive.

We want to explore the relationship between the socio-demographics of place and levels of engagement in arts and culture. This analysis will, amogst other things, seek to incorporate place-based measures of socio-economic decline and demographic change in order to draw out how historic processes impact upon levels of engagement in arts and culture. We will want to understand, for example, if those places with the highest levels of socio-economic decline are also places which struggle to capture funding in arts and culture.

Taken together, this analysis will provide a detailed portrait of the relationship between patterns of cultural engagement and the types of investment provided by Arts Council England, local government and other bodies in towns across England.

We will break our analysis down into the Centre For Towns typologies: ex-industrial towns, commuter towns, coastal towns, market towns, university towns and new towns. The remit of the work will cover all towns in England.

We will of course keep you updated on progress throughout and look forward to engaging with you to disseminate our findings.

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