Views: The UK government’s belated arts “lifeline” – the devil will be in the detail

A personal view by Gary Donaldson

Like most people, I welcomed the long- overdue unveiling of financial measures to help the arts and culture sector this week. However, this has come after fifteen weeks of deafening silence, which has caused incalculable tension, pain and uncertainty in our industry.

With so many theatres announcing closure, hibernation and large-scale redundancies already, the Chancellor’s financial plan already feels very much like too little too late- and that’s before we even get into the detail.

Let’s be realistic here; The Conservatives have never been advocates for funding the arts. And for this lame and failing government, it is positively the enemy. Why on earth would they actively help prop up an industry that encourages ideas, debate – and makes people think? The pressure of public support for our theatres and theatre companies has finally made them do something after almost four long months.

Needless to say, the previous emergency assistance package of £160 million given to the Arts Council to distribute didn’t go very far. Most importantly, it all but ignored the vast numbers of freelancers who keep our industry alive; it also ignored smaller and fringe venues which are so often the seed bed for tomorrow’s great actors and writers. Let’s not forget that writer James Graham (INK, THIS HOUSE, etc) started his career just ten years ago with a show at London’s Finborough Theatre. This money must reach the smaller organisations proportionately and not be utterly gobbled up by the bigger players alone.

Let’s also not lose sight of the fact that this new package has been unveiled for the entire arts and culture sector, including museums, galleries, concert venues, cinemas and heritage sites, so let’s not fool ourselves that anywhere near the 1.57 billion is coming our way. My mildly-educated guess is that the theatre sector will find itself with around £600million, less than four times the original amount doled out to the Arts Council to disseminate earlier in the crisis, but to put it into context, this amount- for the entire theatre industry- is about the same as the amount the government gave to one airline – EasyJet – several months ago when it started bellyaching as only airlines can do.

Its not as if we have all been sitting around on our backsides since Covid-19 kicked in. Larger theatres quickly started streaming work online to help to keep the country entertained throughout these dark times – and what a great response that has had- and the work continues. New content and fun activities have come out of dozens of theatres up and down the country to help children learn, adults engage and have some fun, and the whole population to feel in some way connected again, after the greatest societal dislocation since World War Two. Creative people did what creative people do best- they adapted to a new way of working and found new, vital and eminently helpful ways to make a difference in society. And while it has attracted little media attention, the scale of the work has been phenomenal.

So many small theatre groups have been doing outreach work into their communities, reinforcing the connections between isolated and vulnerable members of our society; running online workshops and activities for local communities; making scrubs and masks for health workers; delivering groceries to those who have been shielding; and overall, contributing in hundreds of small but significant ways to their communities. If you’re looking for the true value of theatre within a community – there it is!

There have been a number of earnest and heartfelt petitions and online campaigns by arts professionals and theatre lovers to draw attention to the plight of theatres and those who work in them. Some may be perplexed as to why this should need to be so, when the theatre industry punches massively above its weight in terms of its contribution to global exports as well as the domestic economy, returning over three times the amount invested in it back to the Treasury every single year. No other industry does this!

Many of us have been banging on for decades about the fact that more people visit theatres than go to sports events each week ; now with a few higher-profile voices echoing ours, folk who have larger Twitter followings than us, perhaps we are all starting to be heard. Theatre is a multi-billion pound industry which earns more than any manufacturing sector in the UK economy. Remember that next time someone tells you that theatres don’t matter!

The reason for this lack of fighting power is, I suggest, because to the general population, we are genuinely under-visible. This is mainly attributable to a huge deficit of media time and exposure when compared to, say, sport.

Can you imagine if the arts had equality with sports on our TVs, magazines and newspapers? How much more the world could see about what we do, how we help to contribute to the fabric of society in so many significant and positive ways.

Sports/arts equality of coverage would mean that there would be several arts channels to choose from, daily highlights on at least one of the four major terrestrial TV providers and a segment in each major news bulletin.

Only then will we be seen by the whole of society for what we are – one of the UK’s strongest, most diverse, creative and vital sectors. Theatre has helped many developed economies climb out of recession faster. Money INVESTED (not given to) in theatre will return more than threefold- and it will do so faster than any other sector.

The details, we are assured, of this package will follow. Let’s hope it’s soon. Until we see that detail, we are still in the dark – literally and metaphorically.

And this time the freelancers and fringe venues must be properly supported. Ignoring them-again- risks the whole foundation of our industry.

The current Secretary of State for Culture is called Oliver Dowden. A man who in his entire Parliamentary career has never asked one arts or culture related question (according to my research into his record). An Identikit career politician with just two years of “real world” work experience and certainly no genuinely evident zest for his current position; he is simply a place-filler. And yet – he may go down in history as the man who closed more theatres than Hitler.

10 Replies to “Views: The UK government’s belated arts “lifeline” – the devil will be in the detail”

  1. Hi Gary. I wanted to reread your thought provoking piece again before replying. I was struck by your comments about the ideas and debate stimulated by the smaller venues and it occurred to me that it’s places like the Finborough, the Orange Tree, and my local The Tabard together with the fringe and comedy venues that have traditionally directly challenged the government (especially Tory governments. Satire was never so much fun when we’ve had labour governments – though maybe Corbyn was beyond satire. ) Maybe this government wouldn’t be too sorry to see some of them close!
    My lodger is one of the freelance victims of the virus in the art world. She’s an artists’ model and her work dried up overnight. She has just started to work again, sitting for zoom classes, but she’ll have no regular income until the schools re-open.
    Anyway, I was very impressed. You should submit it to one of the dailies. Amanda

    1. Thanks for your comments Amanda. Sadly with this situation, many of the worst-hit are those least able to continue their passions, and our thoughts (and if possible- donations) must be with them. I am glad that your lodger has begun to pick up work again – let’s hope it’s the beginning of the way back!

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