Cultural Heart of London debate launches new cultural strategy for the West End

On the morning of Tuesday 29 September, the Heart of London Business Alliance (HoLBA) held an online symposium to celebrate the launch of their cultural strategy – the Cultural Heart of London, whilst simultaneously announcing the launch of a new digital channel – Art of London – which should be available later this week.

In a discussion led by Jan Dalley, Arts Editor of the Financial Times, representatives from the West End’s leading cultural institutions discussed London’s unique spirit and shared their ideas on how to protect and promote its extraordinary creative potential.

Introduced by Ros Morgan, Chief Executive of Heart of London Business Alliance, and livestreamed from the ODEON Luxe, Leicester Square, the panel included Kenny Wax, President of the Society of London Theatre, Stuart Murphy, Chief Executive of English National Opera, Axel Ruger, CEO of The Royal Academy and Sherry Dobbin, partner at FutureCity.

The debate was lively, thoughtful and insightful, as the participants shared how the Covid-19 crisis has affected their organisations and the creative methods that they are employing to continue their engagements with audiences to provide vital diversions during this time of national crisis.

HoLBA commissioned Arup to investigate the potential impact of Covid-19 on the West End in a range of different scenarios and to produce ideas and recommendations for future recovery. With a range of modelling of different scenarios, at worst with the West End suffering repeated lockdowns the area would see a “catastrophic” loss of 97% of GVA (Gross Value Added- the financial value of all goods and services produced in an area).

What was unanimously agreed was that the sector requires immediate help, in the form of support and investment. The arts and culture have always played a big part in economic national recovery and 2020 is no exception.

All of the participants agreed on the importance of restoring confidence to visiting audiences, with Axel Ruger highlighting the emotional states of both venue workers and audiences who visit. Ruger felt it would take about a year for audiences to restore their confidence levels, saying “the nervousness is not to be underestimated”. He added that it was vital for concerted action by all organisations and businesses to achieve consistency in behaviour in applying the guidelines, which would in turn boost public confidence. He reminded us that the crisis has shown us just how “essential” the culture sector is, noting the “explosion” in online uptake of cultural offerings, adding “I’d say we provided an essential service”.

Stuart Murphy rightly highlighted people’s nervousness about travelling on public transport to get to and from the West End, also citing the older demographic of the ENO’s audiences, noting that with the digital outreach they must appeal to a wider age range in order to generate younger attendees. Echoing many who think from an audience point of view, Murphy also added “Socially distanced theatre doesn’t work. People don’t want to turn up to a party that’s half empty….Socially distancing is troubling in theatres.”

Without government help, Wax said, “95% of the West End theatres will stay closed”. Big musicals are major drivers to London’s economy but they “won’t open without government backing”. He highlighted the need for a government-backed insurance scheme covering business interruption cancellation which includes COVID risk. The insurance market is currently refusing to cover for this. The government has already helped the Cinema and TV industry with just such an agreed government backed insurance scheme, so logically all it would take is for them to extend this scheme to cover the live theatre sector. Their lack of action and initiative is inexplicable.

Supporting Wax, Murphy added “We (the arts and culture sector) are world leaders – you can’t say that about much in the UK”

Wax also reminded viewers of the complex ecosystem of theatres across the country which depend on a thriving West End to receive hit shows which then tour to great financial advantage to all regions of the UK. Mentioning the almost 300,000 people who work in the theatre sector, he also highlighted in the injustice of the vast numbers of freelance workers who have “fallen through the cracks” of the government’s range of financial support schemes.

The call to directly aid freelancers – the majority of the creative world’s workers – was unanimously supported, with Axel Ruger reminding us that “the notion of creativity is predicated on freelancing and flexibility”.

Drawing attention to the many ways creatives had adapted to contribute to society during the first months of the pandemic, Murphy was rightly proud of the creative ways his organisation has engaged with communities. Whilst appreciating this, Axel Ruger cautioned against becoming “instrumentalised”, filling the gaps in social care, reminding of the need to stay connected to the artform and its expression.

Sherry Dobbin provided some useful overviews during the debate, reminding us that “we go to the creative sector when we don’t know what to do, which is an indicator of value”, and “Absence teaches us what is valuable”.

Ros Morgan concluded the event by issuing a challenge to viewers to think about how they could make a contribution to the rebirth of the West End. Whilst acknowledging that we have many challenges ahead, the publication of this new report and the opening of the new digital channel Art of London are concrete measures of the determination of London’s West End cultural leaders to find a positive way forward.

Thank you to everyone involved for a very worthwhile event.

You can watch the recording of the event here

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