TAITMAIL What is to be done?

The news that Halifax’s Square Chapel has gone into administration demonstrates the fragility of arts organisations in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s too early to say if the trust which ran this admirable venue can be classed as one of the first arts victims of the shutdown which has been made necessary by the spread of Covid-19, but the coincidence is notable. Last week the Square Chapel was just one of hundreds which had to shut their doors in the wake of government advice. This week, the trust announced that cash flow problems meant it could not continue in business.

It’s a sad ending to a noble enterprise which began nearly 40 years ago when a group of local people saved a crumbling Georgian chapel just across from the railway station. Despite its being neglected for decades, that group saw potential in a building as an arts hub and live venue in a town that had lost many of its entertainment facilities thanks to recession and unemployment.  Over the years the Square Chapel became one of those marvellous venues that audiences and performers alike could not resist. Its homespun atmosphere and enthusiastic volunteers made an evening there an absolute joy.

Just over two years ago Square Chapel re-opened after a £6 million refurb, backed by the local council, Arts Council England and others to create an extended building and programme, which would encompass film, theatre and other events. The revamp coincided with the spectacular overhaul of the town’s other attraction, the unique Piece Hall. Add in the extraordinary success of the TV series Last Tango in Halifax and Gentleman Jack, set in nearby Shibden Hall, both of which had brought tourists flocking to the area, and it seemed the West Yorkshire town had finally arrived on the cultural map.

One commentator even referred to Halifax, with artistic hyperbole, as the “Shoreditch of the North”.

Now, unless another operator comes to the rescue, 50 people will lose their jobs at the Square Chapel. It’s worth thinking about what that will mean for them and their families. Employees are unlikely to qualify for any of the government support recently announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer because their employer has ceased to trade, and will those on freelance contracts be able to convince the HMRC that their income has been destroyed by the virus or by the normal exigencies of business, revenue and costs, profit and loss?

Much more will be revealed about the latest attempts by the government to guarantee freelance income, but holes in the safety net for the self-employed are already appearing, not least the fact that no money will be paid until June. How will that work when there are bills to be paid and food to put on the table? 

Shadow culture secretary Tracy Brabin, who really is making a great fist of the job at the moment, is right to demand a temporary universal basic income, the cancellation of tax payments and diverting the £120 million budget allocated for the planned 2022 Festival of Britain into a relief fund for the creative industries.

But this crisis has also revealed is the fact that the cultural industries are so dependent on freelance work. According to the Creative Industries Federation, which has been lobbying hard for ministers to pay attention to the needs of the sector, as many as a third of workers in the creative industries are self-employed. Figures show that there’s been a 40% increase in the number of micro-businesses in the workforce as a whole. But it is also true that since 2008/9, self-employed earnings have fallen by 22% and the typical self-employed person now earns 40% less than their employed counterpart.

How long can this go on? The willingness of creative people to carry on creating can be seen every day on Youtube or Twitter, as poets continue to write and speak, theatre companies put on shows, artists display their work, dancers and musicians perform for a public they cannot see or hear. But isn’t it just this commitment to their art that allows the industry, and by extension, the whole of society, to continue to exploit their work?

How long can we really continue to base our economic model on the willingness of so many people to live next door to penury?

If the shutdown occasioned by the Covid-19 pandemic shows us anything it is that the extreme fragility of our cultural ecosystem betokens an unsustainable future. The virus will pass, the bars and restaurants will reopen, but it will take a very long time for the economy - and box office receipts - to recover.  Arts venues like the Square Chapel will find it hard to persuade people who have suffered a severe shock to their incomes to fork out for tickets.

So we need to think now about what kind of arts economy we will have in 2021 and beyond. Volunteer based – like the old Square Chapel? A universal basic income for creatives?  An arts levy? We need to be having this debate, right now.


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