TAITMAIL The worst of times, the best of times
Thanks for the bundle, Rishi, but what about the workers?
After the relieved welcome for “the biggest ever one-off investment in UK culture” as the government calls its £1.57bn arts fund announced on Sunday night, comes the reckoning. How will the money be divvied up? What about the freelancers the creative industries rely so heavily on? What precisely are the crown jewels? Why so late? Where does Neil Mendoza fit in all this? Whatever next?
What we know is that England is to get £1.15bn of the pot, Scotland £97m, Wales £59m and Northern Ireland £33m. The English money will be handed out in grants (£880m) and loans (£270m) “on generous terms”, with £100m going to cultural institutions (and since the national museums and galleries are directly funded by DCMS non-national museum curators fear the lion’s share won’t be going their way) and English Heritage, and £120m in investment to restart capital projects stalled by the virus. The decisions on who gets what will come from “expert independent figures” at the likes of ACE, Historic England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the BFI. So plenty of overtime to be had there.
Nothing about the workforce, 700,000 of them, some of whom have been getting their redundancy notices in the last few days. According to the Creative Industries Federation (CIF) 2017 report Creative Freelancers, freelancers represent 47% of creative workers compared with 15% of the workforce as a whole. That’s nearer 70% in the theatre, reckons the former Royal Court artistic director Ian Rickson. “What people don’t know” he adds “is that a really high proportion of these workers live below the poverty line”.
So the hope was that the other bit, the further extension of furloughing that would allow particularly theatre and concert hall staffs to stay and work towards the sometime reopening, would come on Wednesday with Sunak’s summer statement, #PlanforJobs. Zilch – “we cannot afford a lengthening of furloughing across the board” and of course “there can be no exceptions”. It ends in October, just as rehearsals for a life-saving panto season should be starting.
The unions were the first to burst the bubble. The response of Bectu’s Philippa Childs to Wednesday’s announcement was that if this uniquely talented and hugely undervalued group don’t get urgent and special attention “the future of the £100bn sector is at risk as highly skilled freelance and self-employed workers are forced to seek work elsewhere”, presumably in the hospitality industry which, it turns out, is what #PlanforJobs is really about. “Creative workers need action from the government and they need it now” she declared. At Equity Christine Payne said her hardship fund was being nibbled at by 30 destitute actors a week: “It’s all well and good having fabulous buildings but if you have no-one to work in them, to perform, whether it's the National Theatre, the Mill at Sonning, the Bolton Octagon or a club in the north…. You need people” she said.
“Alongside support for job creation, government should further unlock the creative potential of the next generation by supporting new start-ups and freelance work, and by introducing greater flexibility to the apprenticeship system” said the CIF’s Caroline Norbury. Perhaps it will, but the fact remains that while, as Nick Hytner says, it’s deemed safe now to sit side-by-side strangers on trains and aeroplanes for hours on end, we cannot sit next to anyone else in a theatre or concert hall for 90 minutes. These places can earn nothing until audiences are allowed back, and while fantastically imaginative digital versions of drama, music and dance are delighting us, no-one has yet found a satisfactory way of making that pay. VAT is being cut for theatres from 20% to 5%, but only until January and that will be no use while theatres are closed.
On Monday Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary who has to get some credit for the rescue fund even if it really belongs in the deeper recesses of No 10, gravely allowed that not all jobs/organisations could be saved, and that theatres opening was “still some way off”. The priority had to be “the crown jewels such as the Royal Albert Hall”, which actually creates nothing at all, so the crown jewels seem to be the places tourists have heard of, with the Bolton Octagon way down the list.
Theatres, then, have closed and many more have already made redundancies because with opening still vaguely some way off they can earn nothing to pay wages. None of this needed to have happened if this decision had been made a month ago, says the administrators at Southampton’s collapsed Nuffield Theatres, so why wasn’t it? Because the government can only react, and having already made a decision and had to change it when the blindingly obvious had become unavoidable, it takes a while to turn the tanker around.
As to Neil Mendoza, the Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal appointed by Dowden six weeks ago, he has been hugger-mugger with the boffins of the Arts and Humanities Research Council looking beyond rescue with the AHRC’s Boundless Creativity programme to build a new, so far unnamed, project - also announced on Wednesday - that will explore how the arts can use the new digital technologies they didn’t know existed in March. The £1.57bn package, Mendoza says, has been months in the making and is a “huge endorsement” of the cultural sector, which has been doubly creative just in learning how to survive. He says the committee he’s co-chairing with the AHRC’s Andrew Thompson is working on the blueprint for the sector’s digital future, “what works, what hasn’t worked – and what can be monetised”.
Audiences have been coming to plays and concerts in numbers never imagined, but online and for free. Creatives have been learning how their traditional skills can be adapted to new requirements. Partnerships are being discovered and exploited. The “knowledge economy” is being explored. Producers are finding out how to blend live and virtual performances.
The work of universities and agencies such as King’s and Nesta, and slightly shadowy quangos like the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (which among many other disparate things is looking at audiences of the future and clusters of creative industries) is being corralled to create a report which will be published in a year’s time. Mendoza’s project will also be looking at other things that have emerged lately and that could be affected by a broader, even global, creative community, like climate change, racism, diversity and cultural education.
It's exciting blue skies thinking, or would be if the horizon wasn’t so overcast by worries about how to earn a living, not just in the creative world’s new digital future but now.
Welcome as it is, a bundle of money alone is not the answer: there needs to be transformative thinking characterised by what the creative industries have achieved these last four months, but involving long-term financial commitment involving investment, devolution of funding decisions to local and regional level, tax breaks. Let’s believe that they will be part of the blue skies thinking too.