TAITMAIL The cost of joy

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Could this have been true? The story goes that when Keir Starmer recently rang Boris Johnson to ask for theatres to be reopened he got the usual non-committal response of “as soon as we safely can”. But at the end of the call Johnson didn’t hang up properly, and the unmistakable voice of his Senior Adviser could be heard exclaiming: “The last people we’re going to allow back to work is those fucking dancers!” 

Sounds plausible? What might spoil it slightly is that the next time I heard it, from an equally impeccable source, the call was from Sam Mendes, not Starmer. 
 
True or not, the question remains as to what the government understands by “the arts” and how decisions based on that understanding are made, as theatre job losses rise to 5,000 a month and economic life-saving pantos are being cancelled for the coming season. The fact is that the sector itself is having to put funding issues to one side as it addresses existential truths and tries to discern a future through the oncoming gloom of endless Covid lockdown for venues.
 
When the culture secretary announced the £1.57bn rescue package for the creative industries he thought he’d clarified the government’s intentions when he said it was for the “nation’s crown jewels like the Royal Albert Hall".
 
So what are the crown jewels in this context? Not, according to Tara Arts’ new boss, a receiving house once described by its CEO as “the nation’s village hall”, a commercial business that gets no public funding and doesn’t actually produce anything. Abdul Shayek’s appointment was announced by Tara this week, and he told The Stage: “The ‘crown jewels’ in my opinion are the freelancers who make things happen, and I am worried with the language being used. https://www.artsindustry.co.uk/news/2159-anti-racist-rallying-cry-by-new-tara-arts-head
 
“We are a forest, and in a forest you have a variety of different-sized trees and we need to save as many of them as possible. You can’t just save the tallest trees and think that the rest of the forest will live on.”
 
That language may not be familiar to Dominic Cummings or Oliver Dowden but it certainly is to Caroline McCormick, the founder of the Achates Philanthropy Foundation which for five years has presented awards for small but crucial examples of support for local arts initiatives, the Achates Philanthropy Prize www.achates.org.uk/?LMCL=pLxdLb. Past cited philanthropists have included a couple who bought a Northern Ballet dancer a pair of shoes and a theatre studies student who gave Yard Theatre in London’s East End £2,500 because she liked its commitment to working with local artists.
 
“Like Abdul says, we are an ecology, we have to feed eachother” McCormick says. “The emphasis recently has been on economic value, but that is to diminish the breadth of what we offer which is about social impact, well-being, identity, artistic value – joy, which is really important at his time. Culture and its value to us has really become clearer than ever.”
 
The awards, normally a modest affair, will happen again in November but there will be no prizes this time. Instead, crucially supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, there will be a conference and showcasing event at Home in Manchester. The conference title is “Arts, Audiences, Money”, the theme the interaction of those dynamic elements. “We’re trying to move the prize into a movement, people coming together in a non-political space, talking together and disagreeing together about the future both within the boundaries of their sector and beyond”.
 
At the end of the day where the prizes would have been handed out there will be half a dozen or so case histories in the Covid context drawn from 120 identified by “ambassadors around the country” and whittled down by a panel of judges. McCormick says she wants to see “arts organisations turned into soup kitchens, arts organisations doing dance with old people, arts organisations working with schools helping children maintain their education”.
 
This kind of event is not going to get serious notice from politicians because it’s based on anecdote rather than statistics, but what these last six months have done is to expose the role the arts have in the broader community. Arts organisations, McCormick says, have never been better aware of and in tune with their audiences, but you can’t count that. 
 
There needs to be a new subsidy system that takes account of the uneven playing field. The philanthropy element has become more complex in recent years, but the criteria for giving – scale, regionality, art form, venue and data, more or less in that order - are still keeping small and medium arts enterprises away from the party, and the Arts Council is going to have to address that in its new National Portfolio round.
 
There’s a nervousness that the government’s rhetoric is forcing major arts organisations to be more commercial while the SMEs of the sector get diminished artistically, seen as nothing more than conduits for diversity and community. There’s no reason why the likes of the National Theatre can’t be in a dialogue with the community, or why small organisations can't do great art. “That’s the sign of a healthy ecosystem” McCormick says. “I’m worried that we’re seeing a splitting out due to economic pressure. A phrase like ‘crown jewels’ and the kind of thinking that goes with it doesn’t help”.

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