It’s a poor show on the pandemic front

Just when we hoped it was safe to take in a show, or listen to live music, the Government steps in to postpone the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, writes Mark Cantrell. Is this the final curtain call for the UK’s arts and entertainment sector?

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

THE show must go on, as the old theatre adage puts it, but the Covid-19 pandemic has made a mockery of such defiantly optimistic sentiments.

With much of the UK’s arts and entertainment sectors mothballed, or required to operate under strict audience limitations, the past 15 months have been tough — not just for businesses, but for the freelancers — who make so much of our cultural clockwork tick.

To say this is a period of existential crisis for arts and culture is no hyperbole; many wonder how much will survive as the measures to suppress the virus take their toll. Little wonder, then, that the proposed end of covid restrictions on 21 June was such a hotly anticipated date, because it offered venues the freedom to operate at full capacity.

Sadly, on Monday, anticipation turned to dismay, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed to the nation that remaining restrictions will not be fully lifted until 19 July. The new Delta variant demands caution, we were told; extra time is necessary to vaccinate as many more people as possible.

Performance issues

NOBODY’S happy at this turn of events, of course. Some applaud its necessity for public health; others express concern at the ongoing economic and social impact. Either way, it’s a tough call; especially for a Government that has justly earned plenty of criticism for its patchy record in handling the pandemic.

Even so, the delay represents a “crippling blow” to the sector. Over 4,000 shows will be cancelled as a result, claims the Music Venue Trust (MVT). A knock-on effect will see many thousands of people unable to return to work — many of whom have not had the chance to earn for the last 15 months.

Meanwhile, a great deal of work will need to go into rescheduling, cancellations, rebooking events, handling refunds and managing customers, staff and artists. The delay will cost the sector £36 million, it is claimed, adding to the “mounting pile of debt which this crisis has created”.

Theatres are feeling the pinch, too. Like their live music counterparts, the delay is a blow for hope — as much as business.

“The proposed four-week delay to full reopening of live entertainment venues will have serious implications for many theatres and performing companies around the country,” said Julian Bird, chief executive of trade body SOLT & UK Theatre.

“This delay not only impacts productions and theatres preparing to open in the next few weeks, but also shows currently running socially distanced, which had planned to increase their capacity — and producers making the difficult decision whether to start rehearsals for shows due to open in late July or August, with thousands of jobs hanging in the balance.”

Caroline Norbury MBE, chief executive of the Creative Industries Federation (CIF), called the delay “ incredibly disappointing news” for the sectors it represents. While public health should “remain the number one priority”, she warned there’s a danger that the delay will exacerbate a loss of talent.

“The planned lifting of capacity limits [on audiences] should have been a significant next step for the sector in rebuilding, and its delay will be devastating for many,” Norbury added. “Businesses have gone to great expense to put plans in place for beyond 21 June, which will now be postponed or cancelled, once again plunging them into a protracted period of uncertainty.”

Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of trades union body the TUC also chipped in with calls for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak to do more to help businesses and workers get through these beleaguered times. He has already announced that he is not minded to extend the furlough jobs protection scheme beyond September, when it is set to end.

“We all want to beat this virus once and for all,” O’Grady said. “But this announcement is a big setback for many workers and businesses — especially in the arts and hospitality sectors.

“The Government must step up and provide urgent targeted support for these industries. We cannot afford for more companies to go to the wall, taking good jobs with them.

“The Chancellor also needs to announce now that he will extend furlough for as long as is needed, rather than cutting it off abruptly in three months’ time. Working people need this certainty now — not a rollercoaster approach to protecting livelihoods.”

Studying for the part

THE issue of making ends meet for cultural organisations runs deeper than ticket sales and audience numbers, however.

Many artists, organisations and venues rely on fundraising as a significant part of their income. They use a range of events and activities to fund creative projects, alongside raising funds through patrons, donations, memberships and subscriptions. But here, too, Covid-19 restrictions have hampered efforts.

This side of the ‘survival strategy’ employed by arts and culture organisations has been explored in research conducted by the universities of Sheffield and Kent, with the support of the Chartered Institute of Fundraising (CioF). Doubtless no surprise — it paints a daunting picture.

“So many of us interact with and benefit from arts, cultural and heritage organisations regularly, such as museums, live music venues, visiting sites of historical interest, or even attending events and activities run by community groups,” said lead researcher Dr Marta Herrero, from Sheffield University’s School of Management.

“But a significant number of fundraisers report that the sector needs continued financial support, and for furlough and recovery fund schemes to be accessible for all, to ensure its survival in the medium and long term.

“Whilst resilience and innovation continue to be key skills characteristic of the fundraising profession in the face of prolonged funding cuts, only with this kind of support will they be able to safeguard the richness of our cultural life here in the UK and create a sustainable sector akin to pre-covid levels.”

Dealing with the Crisis, as the study is called, was carried out during 2020 and released in May this year. The report highlights a number of risks that it claims threaten to harm the “diversity and richness” of the sector due to the impact of the pandemic.

Over half of those taking part in the study anticipated the impact would prove dire: 62% expected their organisation’s income to fall during the pandemic, with nearly half (47%) reporting that social restrictions during the pandemic meant many of their revenue generating programmes had been postponed. Other key findings included:

  • 79% said that their fundraising activity overall has decreased
  • 66% of organisations said they had postponed planned arts and cultural projects and programmes
  • 64% said financial support in 2021 and beyond was very important to the survival of the sector
  • 89% said supporting organisations unable to access emergency funding was important

Reports of increased workload and stress don’t help either, serving as they do to highlight a concern that if staff welfare issues are not addressed there will be a “real risk of a significant loss of talent” from the sector in the future.

“The social restrictions in place during most of the pandemic made a lot of normal fundraising activities impossible for a wide variety of arts and cultural organisations,” Herrero added.

“Closures of venues and cancelled events left a gaping hole in the finances of many in the sector, with fundraisers having to quickly find new and flexible ways to raise money in an accessible way to ensure the survival of their organisation.”

There was a little more to the research than doom and gloom, however. There were examples of arts and cultural fundraisers adapting and responding to new ways of working, taking new approaches, and changing their fundraising activities during the pandemic.

A total of 55% of fundraisers said new approaches to digital offers for their members and supporters had met or exceeded their expectations. Many of them said that having the digital infrastructure to hold events and programmes online meant they were also able to broaden their audiences.

But this is perhaps cold comfort for those that fundamentally rely on live performance, and the immersive audience experience that forms a key part of the package, such as live music and stage performances. Digital can only go so far to make up for the lack of ‘being there’.

Nobody wants to give covid a boost; likewise nobody wants to see arts and culture go to the wall. This isn’t just about entertainment and cultural enlightenment; lives and livelihoods are at stake too. Either way, the ramifications will be felt long after this pandemic fades.

“Many across our sector will have looked towards full reopening as a lifeline following the past year of hardship,” Norbury said. “[T]he Government must now move to extend and expand support schemes, ensuring continued restrictions will not have irreversible consequences for the creative industries’ recovery.”

It’s not just about the fortunes of one sector, or one industry, though: there are wider implications too, given the cultural sector’s contribution to the UK economy — over £8 billion according to Arts Council England.

As Norbury said: “The skills and innovation of our creative organisations and practitioners are vital to rebuilding the UK post-pandemic. We are losing creative talent from our industry and we cannot build back better without it.”

Sooner or later, the show really must go on. If there’s anybody left to stage it…

MC

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Mark Cantrell

Mark Cantrell

A UK writer and journalist, Mark Cantrell is also the author of two novels: Citizen Zero and Silas Morlock. Read more of his work at tykewriter.wordpress.com