TAITMAIL The moment of shock
Before I launch into this week’s diatribe, take four minutes for this, from the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. It will put you in the mood.
“We are” as Perry says in this week’s New Statesman “living in a moment of shock”. Things are changing for ever and we will have to change too, but as yet we don’t know how.
We are enrolled on a crash course on the future. This week there was a useful webinar from Four Communications’ Truda Spruyt and Matt Railton, working with the Creative Industries Federation, and some clear signposts came out of it: we will have to find new audiences while hanging on to the old ones, and that means going virtual and using social media to their full; social exclusion has ironically made us more interactive with our local community – “hyperlocal”; partnerships in which professional rivals come together for a common good.
Since we went into lock-down on March 23 museums and galleries have launched virtual tours of their collections, theatres and opera houses are putting productions online, artists of all disciplines are offering workshops and demonstrations to log into. The BBC is giving the government a live crisis demonstration of why it should keep its hands off and let it do what it does well with its “Culture in Quarantine” programme, giving work to musicians, actosr and directors to produce a series of new works. Organisations are combining to provide uplifting material for a depressed but still cultured nation.
And all of this is not primarily to make up for lost income, which it probably can’t, but to maintain a connection with a bereft audience - or audiences because analysis, say Four, shows that those logging on in the strange temporal vacuum are not necessarily habitués, they’re new.
Hyperlocal refers to neighbourhoods coming together to make sure their neighbours are not alone in the crisis, with people supporting their local bars and other independent businesses, for instance, by buying vouchers to use at a later date. “This stems from a sense of loyalty, a bit of loss aversion to of these having to close permanently, especially from regular audiences, and an understanding of the impact that these organisations have in their local areas –through their artistic programme, and wider social value” Matt Railton says. “Very similar drivers will be in play for the arts organisations, which informs audience prioritisation in the recovery planning - organisations that combine well with that local embeddedness will get wider relevance and resonance and do well in sustaining interest and support, building new audiences and position for the hard fight for audiences when restrictions lift”.
And there’s a hyperlocal attitude emerging in another way. The Old Vic was the first theatre to close, cutting short its Endgame season by a couple of weeks and asking ticket holders to help the theatre survive by not to asking for their money back. In return the theatre has made a deal for them to see a streamed version of the play via Digital Theatre, plus a year’s free Old Vic membership.
But the serious business of survival for arts organisations and artists is fundamental: reliable income. Maintaining a public presence when public buildings are closed is one thing, being able to afford to run the buildings once they're open again – or even to get them open - is another. Similarly, individual artists are losing gigs, exhibitions, publications - where will the money come from to ensure their creative future?
Despite the creative industries being the most valuable sector to the economy, worth £1.7bn a year, there has been no recognition of the fact that 30% of it is self-employed/freelance, the section of the work force that has been largely left out of the Treasury’s reckoning. The Arts Council is trying to help with a series of quick-fire yet deep-seated measures - https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/blog/responding-covid19-emergency - but the £160m has had to come from existing funding streams, so that half the project grants have to go for a start. ACE’s CEO Darren Henley is as dismayed as those who won’t now get their projects realised.
“I’m truly sorry” he writes in his blog. “Many of you have written over the last few days to tell us of your shock and frustration, and I wholly understand your dismay. Such a blow would be hard at the best of times… But because of this crisis, because of its enormity and its calamitous impact on the people and organisations in which we invest, we’ve had to move fast, and respond decisively”. Unlike government pronouncements hitherto, there is no attempt at sweetening the pill or self-justification in trying to get succour to organisations and individuals: “Some may not survive” he says bluntly. “And while individually the failure of these organisations would be painful, collectively their loss would decimate our cultural infrastructure. Together, they employ thousands of people, commission thousands more, and support many small companies through their supply chains”.
Since 2010 arts organisations have had to be enterprising, imaginative and collaborative to deal with a 30% cut in subsidy, a slump in business sponsorship and local authority support compromised by government austerity. A large part of their survival has been in the ability to rely on trusts and foundations for funding, but in the last couple of weeks charities have taken a £4bn knock-out blow from which they may never recover.
A new analysis of arts charities has just been published by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and Nesta, Charities speak, which examines the role played by the sector. It shows how charity funded arts and cultural activities have been crucial to issues of isolation and community cohesion, and are now under significant threat. “In addition, many arts and cultural venues have closed during the Covid-19 pandemic” it says. “Local community arts and cultural organisations rely on in-person gatherings to carry out their activities. As these can no longer take place, their income will be impacted and they will become even more vulnerable”.
So it’s about getting up close, and personal giving is proving to be increasing its impact. Patreon, the fundraising membership platform founded in 2013 that connects artists and audiences online, reports that in the first three weeks of March more than 30,000 artists launched on its platform, and by March 13 growth in numbers of “patrons” was already up by 36% on the whole of February.
No-one knows if the mood of interpersonal co-operation of weeks will survive the pandemic, but it might well be a key to the future. Online presentations will never replace live performance, but the Four webinar revealed them as a door to new audiences.
There will be an immediate and possibly longer term gap in funding – ACE talks about the “massive and unsustainable loss of revenues” caused by the pandemic closures - and the old and efficient “three legged stool” of subsidy, sponsorship and box office that collapsed over the last decade needs to be refashioned, with subsidy restored to 2010 levels and coming back into the design.
But the subsidy will need to be shared in a new way, with the Arts Council even more of a co-ordinator and a cash point, and more of its grants being channelled through local authorities which should have a statutory duty to support the arts and culture as well as libraries. National arts institutions should be funded separately, as the main museums and galleries are, but with an expressed responsibility to support regional and local activities, so much easier to do now with modern communications technology than in 2010.
Ad ACE’s chair Nick Serota says, the whole arts community needs to come together and find ways of linking arms with politicians of all sorts, counter-intuitive as this might be to some. None of us can hope to weather this storm alone” he says “but by working together in partnership I believe we can emerge the stronger, with ideas shared, new ways of working and new relationships forged at the local, nationals and even international level” he says.
So cheer up, and have another listen to the Rotterdam Philharmonic…