Rescue package or not, the arts sector must not return to old ways

I’m still trying to digest this week’s news that our previously ‘small state’, laissez-faire government is making a dramatic intervention to rescue the arts. It’s unexpected, unprecedented, and the relief across the entire culture and creative sector is palpable. I’m glad the government has listened to audiences and communities across the country saying that culture matters to them.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is describing the investment as ‘world-leading’, and ‘the biggest ever one-off investment in UK culture’. It’s early days, but it’s hard to dispute this description. The funding will save much of the theatre and music industries from collapse. Galleries and museums are better placed, but still face big challenges.

With new hope also comes caution, particularly when the headline ideas seem to be ‘London’ and ‘Building work’. The detail isn’t out yet, but initial information hints that none of this investment is going directly to people. The emphasis is on organisations and buildings (or more accurately building work) at a time when the creative sector is finally acknowledging the value of the people that make and nurture culture, including tens of thousands of freelance artists and creatives.

In the context of such a generous cash injection, it’s difficult to argue with the £100m targeted at England’s national companies. The devolved nations get to choose. The suddenly accessible streamed performances by big hitters such the National Theatre have been a highlight of lockdown. It’s classic top-down culture, but the public thirst for these events is enough to remind us why we cannot let these world class enterprises fail. On the contrary, we need to disseminate their work more equitably – it’s easy to see where 90% of these big players sit on a UK map.

Recent years have seen strides towards geographical rebalancing of cultural investment and it would be a retrograde step to backtrack now. And of course that means investing in cultural production outside of London and the metropolitan centres, not simply disseminating London-made culture to the rest of us.

For buildings, there will be £120m of capital investment to restart construction work on cultural infrastructure and support heritage construction projects. This rings a few alarm bells. There is a suspicion that this might be more about supporting the Prime Minister’s beloved construction industry than supporting culture. Some money will go to architects and designers, it’s true. Much will also leave the sector.

The Nuffield Theatre in Southampton announced on 2 July that it would permanently close as a result of the Covid-19 crisis

Builders need jobs too. And in a crowded and pressured world it’s crucial that we hold physical space for art and creativity, and that this space is accessible and ecologically beneficial. Will there be any requirements on the location, architectural quality and environmental sustainability of these building projects? Let’s hope so.

But we need to think further what we mean by ‘infrastructure’. Even the most cutting edge building is only as good as the professional and creative people that animate it. Recent years have seen exciting – and badly-needed – capital improvements to buildings that do not have enough staff to open them up in safe and engaging ways, nor enough revenue to pay artists and performers to make the work that delivers their core purpose. I’d even suggest that, unless investment in construction is backed up with investment in people, it will have a detrimental affect on UK culture. And for much of the UK, above all that means investing in Local Authorities, those broken and hollowed-out vehicles for civic investment and geographical rebalancing that in recent decades have been brought to their knees by central government, leading to many of our current social crises.

Because the question of where people sit in all of this investment is fundamental. We need a cultural ecosystem in which buildings (and organisations) serve people, communities and creativity, not the other way round. Just as the Covid-19 crisis has prompted calls to ‘rebuild better’ across the whole gamut of our economic systems, so the crisis in the arts is a wake-up call to rethink the way we do things.

Prior to Covid, Arts Council England was already rethinking things in its new 10-year strategy, Let’s Create. There is a danger that a government rescue package of such enormity will be gleefully fallen upon as a chance to go back to the way things were when culture was (comparatively speaking) better funded, and the extent of our social and environmental crises less blindingly obvious. It’s understandable – the arts have endured many years of adversity. But like the rest of society, we have work to do.

The Covid-19 crisis has prompted difficult and imaginative conversations in the arts sector. We’ve been reminded how resource-hungry large buildings and institutions can be, how hard it is for them to be fleet-of-foot, creative and ahead of the curve. At last, we’ve acknowledged the centrality of creative people – artists, performers, producers, curators and more – many independent and freelance, who create the art and are the lifeblood of the creative industries. There has been talk of arts organisations getting out into their communities more, rather than luring audiences to them – indeed Directors of major institutions have placed this centrally in their recovery strategies. And there are fresh calls to work with audiences and communities, to create with them on their own terms and amplify their own creative voices.

Rescue package or not, we need to make good on recent aspirations if we are to retain our sustainability, vibrancy and relevance – and ensure everyone has their chance to flourish in the new normal.

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