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Rethinking the Arts

Empty theatre

 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. 

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