TAITMAIL Making a lifeline lead to something better

So did the culture department make praising the government a condition of getting money from the culture recovery fund? Well, yes… and no.

Here’s the wording that goes with getting a grant: “Welcome this funding on your social media accounts using the hashtag #HereForCulture. In receiving this funding you are agreeing to acknowledge the government’s culture recovery fund. Alongside this we require you to alert your local media outlets to the news”.

The word “require” hints at being an instruction, while “acknowledge” is definitely not the same as “praise”, but the thing smacks more of paranoia than diktat, and pretty cack-handed at that.

This is not new. Organisations getting Arts Council funding, for instance, are expected to acknowledge that fact on all their publicity material, and sponsors get more than narked if they don’t get mentioned in the press, never mind in publicity material. But whether it’s a requirement or not is neither here nor there: why wouldn’t you want to brag about the fact that you had been deemed worthy of national funding recognition, of being rescued as a “crown jewel”?

But it starts to look a bit more sinister next to other oddities, like why Nevill Holt Opera is the only country house opera company to get anything from the fund, pocketing £85,000. Private Eye helpfully points out this week that Nevill Holt is the private enthusiasm of the Carphone Warehouse multi-millionaire David Ross (the new No 10-approved chair of the Royal Opera House as it happens), who certainly doesn’t need financial help and can afford to be a regular contributor to Tory party funds. ACE won’t say how many applications to the fund failed, estimates are around 500, but most fell because of issues of viability rather than because all the money had gone before the scrutineers had got to them. Viability doesn’t seem to be a problem for the Holt festival with its brand new 400-seat theatre, but one wonders why in all conscience Ross applied at all. Did any other country house operas – Garsington, Glyndebourne even – apply? Wasfi Kani’s Grange Park Opera in Surrey didn’t, “mainly because I know there are tiny organisations that don't have access to the London wealth. I would rather they got the money” she tells me.

So where are we with this recovery thing? Three handout tranches from the £1.57bn motherload have so far amounted to £408m to 2,009 recipients, two rounds for grants of under £1m each, one for £1m-3m each and another round of those to come. The £55m Capital Kickstart programme is on its way, and the big beasts wanting upwards of £3m will have to wait for the Repayable Finance programme - £257m available for long-term low interest loans - and with those funds now closed the wait shouldn’t be long. The rest is mostly for film and TV production (£500m).

Apart from those annoyances which are more to do with political character than management, and the three-month delay in rolling out, the scheme seems to be working while theatres and concert halls still can’t open for live performances. The fund was meant to restore the fortunes of otherwise successful arts organisations to where they were before lockdown and it might have done that, but there has been enough leeway built into the citations for each recipient to use their nous about building for the future. 

And while the Treasury has no interest in protecting freelancers from cyber security training courses, there’s room for the grantees to build that into their plans for their new money 

This week AI has been profiling Kneehigh, the one-time local am-dram group that blossomed into an international touring company whose CEO candidly admits was wrestling with existential matters before Covid reared its demonic head - not its financial health but its future direction. When Covid did ambush us, the company had to get its head down and confront the issue of zero income and insolvency avoidance.

By stripping to bare bones it did it, furloughing 80% of its staff, but at the same time it was keeping an eye on what others were doing as, of course, were hundreds of other cultural organisations. It kept faith with its contracts with freelance creatives exercising “pay and purpose” whereby the work of contractors was rechannelled; did retraining and prototyping in line with the new conditions; and with the help of the Change Creation group devised a new business plan.

It discovered that there was a new digital dimension beckoning, so that as soon as it knew it had the money it had asked for from the recovery fund it could pull its team back together again and spring into action with a new form of presentation, in partnership with two other organisations, with production performed simultaneously live and online. 

The new show has been put together with old friends Bristol Old Vic and Emma Rice, Kneehigh’s artistic director until she left for an ill-fated term running Shakespeare’s Globe and who now has her own company, Wise Children. What Rice says about the new venture, a reimagining of her last stage production for Kneehigh, The Flying Lovers if Vitebsk (pictured), could be the words of a thousand artistic directors determined not to be overcome by this year’s experiences. “This is our chance to ensure that ‘the show will go on’ by doing what we do best: dreaming, daring, innovating, collaborating, creating and inspiring - even in the face of a global pandemic” she says. “This de-stabilising time has impacted our industry in many ways, but the accessibility and availability of dynamic and engaging theatre should, and must, continue”.

So Kneehigh is duly grateful for the “lifeline” that allows it to evolve, and has learned lessons. Has the government? If it has learned the value of the arts to our communities through this, and the ingenuity of creatives in adapting to changing circumstances, it will know that its responsibility doesn’t stop with the creation of a one-off rescue fund.  It needs to understand the nature of the sector, the vital component that is the freelancer, and that the system of support has to change as arts organisations like Kneehigh are. Lord Mendoza and his expert panel need to look beyond the beguiling promise of digital technology to ensuring that the people that create content will still be creating this time next year, and the year after.

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