The Arts aren’t just abut glossy shows in big cities – all communities should benefit from this funding.
The £1.57bn recovery package for the arts is without doubt fantastic news. The UK’s creative industries made their arguments – and thankfully, the government is addressing the crisis we are in.
The package is generous, too, and if distributed through bodies such as Arts Council England and the British Film Institute, which have a forensic understanding of the sector, I’m sure it will make a huge impact. The economic benefits of the arts are undeniable – in 2018 the creative industries employed 2 million people and contributed £111.7bn to the economy. Put alongside the social impact, it’s clear this industry deserves this investment. A huge sigh of grateful relief is audible across the sector; we all see a glimmer of hope amid the gloom of the coronavirus shutdown.
Now, though, we await the detail with bated breath and there are clearly some things we as an industry must absolutely ensure. First: geographic spread. The arts don’t just happen in London or larger cities; they are in every city, every town, every village and we must ensure all communities benefit from this package and still see the arts as accessible activities on their doorstep. The money needs to be distributed evenly across the UK, with particular focus on areas where there are only one or two cultural providers, to ensure the local artistic ecology does not collapse.
Second we must ensure sectoral spread. The whole spectrum of the arts must benefit and when it comes to theatre, every part of it needs to be covered. Of course the “national gems” are important but so too are the touring companies, the grassroots organisations, the independent youth theatres and the 70% of the workforce that is freelance. Theatre is an ecology, each section feeds the other and we need to look after it all.
Perhaps most importantly we must ensure that all our activities are protected. The arts amounts to far more than just glossy shows and pantos. While these are key parts of our identity, there are other aspects we must not forget: we are a confidence-building tool for our young people, a skills development crucible for our artists, a place of community and connection for our elders … the list is endless.
During lockdown at Derby Theatre, where I work, our front doors may have been closed but we have not stopped. Yes we are producing “Zoom plays” and digital content for our audiences, but we’ve done so much more than that: from delivering food parcels to care givers, to providing online drama clubs for young people, play readings over the phone for care homes and even cooking lessons to support the most isolated in our community. We understand that our position as a civic building is about more than just “one good night out a year”. This work must be supported – not just to survive but to flourish. At this time, more than ever, we as a society need a space to heal, regroup and re-examine our world and it is in the vital area of participatory arts that we as an industry can ensure this. If there is no ticket income to subsidise this any more then we need to find money from within this recovery package to do so.
Finally we must not step away from our duty to ensure that the gains made over the last few years in equality, inclusion and diversity are built upon and accelerated. We can and must do better at ensuring every part of our nation is represented in our workforce, on our stages, in our galleries, on our screens. This must not be lost in the scramble to return to how we used to do things. A new normal that is broader, deeper and ultimately more exciting for artists and audiences is possible. Let the rescue package be an opportunity.
The money from the government announced today is incredibly welcome but for theatres, at least, it may still be some time before we return to full houses and mass gatherings, so let’s use this breathing space to pause and genuinely consider a fair and equitable way to take the whole industry with us.
Sarah Brigham is artistic director and chief executive of Derby Theatre.
[Taken from an Opinion piece as originally featured in The Guardian.]