The arts are in trouble, Covid-19 has hit them hard. Unless we want to lose a huge proportion of our cultural heritage and arts venues, we must act now.
The arts are a source of pleasure, solace, and escapism for people the world around. In Britain, we have a rich artistic heritage and continue to be world leaders in the industry. We’re the land of Shakespeare, of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and of The Beatles. Theatre attracts more than twice as many tourists to the UK as sporting events, according to research published by VisitBritain. 40% of UK households subscribe to Netflix. But all that is at danger of being lost unless urgent action is taken.
Theatres and live music venues are likely to be the hardest hit. Leading theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh has warned that theatres will not be able to open until 2021 “The truth is, until social distancing doesn’t exist any more we can’t even plan to reopen”. Fellow West End producer Sonia Friedman wrote in The Telegraph, that “British theatre is on the brink of collapse” and that “70 per cent of our performing arts companies will be out of business before the end of this year”. She predicts that the moment the job retention scheme ends, theatres will sink. The famous Globe Theatre, a bastion of our cultural heritage, has warned it will not survive without urgent funding. Regional theatre’s face going bust without the income that Christmas Panto’s bring. 82% of grassroots music venues are at immediate risk of closure.
For most companies and venues it is simply not possible to think out re-opening in the coming months. Certainly, for most, it is not viable to re-open with social distancing in place: most theatres, for instance, rely on around 70% of audience capacity to break even, and can you imagine a production of Romeo & Juliet where the star crossed lovers have to stay two metres apart at all times.
Most London theatres are old and not exactly spacious. Each big musical has about 200 people working in one building. There’s the matter of getting everyone in and out of the theatre safely, how do they deal with hygiene issues and queues for the toilets during the interval, among other logistical issues. And even if it were all possible to do safely, how many people are actually going to feel comfortable sitting in a confined space with hundreds of strangers for 3 hours in the foreseeable future? Simply put, it isn’t going to work.
Similarily with film production companies. How can they continue filming whilst social distancing measures are in place? Shooting actors two metres apart will not make for great viewing.
Ask yourself this: as you’ve been sat at home, searching for solace from Covid-19, where have you turned? Likely the arts. Whether it be binge-watching a Netflix series, watching one of the many streamed theatrical productions online, or listening to live-streamed concerts from your favourite artists. It is the arts, and artists, that have helped many get through this difficult time. Now it is our turn to help them.
For every £1 invested in the arts, up to £6 is generated in the local economy. The Arts Council reports the industry contributes £10.8billion a year to the UK economy, contributes £2.8billion a year to the Treasury via taxation, and generates a further £23billion a year and 363,700 jobs. Life would be beige without the arts, but there’s a lot to lose economically as well.
And it’s not just arts organisations that are struggling, it’s the artists themselves, many of whom found all their work cancelled overnight when lockdown measures were introduced. Over two-thirds of theatre workers are self-employed or freelance, many have fallen through the gaps in the Self Employment Income Support Scheme, and with no furlough pay have been left with little or no support at all.
Email your MP and ask them to sign the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre’s open letter, sign a petition yourself, shout it from the rooftops, donate to your favourite venue or a struggling artist. Do whatever you can, but do it now. Time is running out.
Churchill’s famously said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life”. Boris Johnson should heed the words of his hero and idol and act before it is too late – it will certainly be easier to safeguard the industry now than it will be to rebuild it from the ruins.