Sat 25th April 2020
A long read
I’m stuck in bed with a knackered shoulder. I’ve been experiencing a series of pitiful lockdown injuries. The first was a black-eye when one of my kids head-butted me. The second was a back injury after emptying a potty. And this week I woke up with a frozen shoulder so I can’t lift my right arm. I’m afraid my main contribution to the worldwide COVID-19 effort has been to prop up the flagging sales of Ibruprofen. This sorry state of affairs has reached rock bottom by being bed bound for two days. My partner is now trying to do her day job and look after our kids (my job) at the same time. Despite my guilt I won’t pretend there hasn’t been an upside; I have experienced relative quiet for a couple of days. I love my kids and all that but being tanked up on max strength painkillers, laying down in a quiet room and catching up with events outside this house has its perks.
I have been reading about the inspirational work of some cultural organisations during the COVID-19 crisis; such as Slung Low and Holbeck in Leeds and Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol. I have also spent time thinking a bit about my old job in Battersea and how challenging it must be to run a venue right now. When Battersea’s Grand Hall burnt down in 2015 we had insurance, we had the other half of the building to do stuff in and as far as I am aware we were the only theatre which burnt down that year. In other words we were inundated with masses of generous support from our local community, artists and other cultural organisations. But the crisis still threatened our existence. God knows what it would have been like if every cultural building in the country had burnt down at the same moment and simultaneously the rest of the world had shutdown.
I feel for people in venues; especially those who rely on a huge portion of income from ticket sales and live events. It will be very stressful to work out how to keep going; inventing new survival plans day to day and trying to do the right thing by everyone. The reality is that it’s worse for thousands of artists and freelancers who find themselves in an even more precarious position with no fallback, no regular funding and no physical resource to work with.
In thinking about all these challenges, I thought I would share a few thoughts, to contribute to the conversation about the future. I’m aware that because I don’t currently work in the cultural sector, it’s easy to guff-off about its future. And it’s potentially bloody insensitive when artists, producers and organisations are having to deal with the fallout. Many will be facing hardship and making difficult decisions. But I am going to write this on the assumption that maybe a bit of distance from the sector could be useful at this moment. If it’s not and it’s just bloody annoying, then do yourself a favour and stop reading now.
My thoughts on the future are based on some assumptions about COVID-19; I will be clear about these. Most scientists and commentators seem to suggest that a vaccine for the world’s population is, at best, 18 months away. At worst there might not be a reliable vaccine and we will have to depend on better treatments to ensure better outcomes from the disease. So I am assuming COVID-19 is here to stay for a few years. I also assume that social distancing in various forms is here to stay until we have a vaccine or treatment. The social distancing models created by scientists at Harvard (Figure 6, page 17) and Imperial (Figure 4, page 12) show that phases of distancing may be required until 2022 or beyond to control the virus’s spread. And regardless of these models, I assume that the UK government will continue to enforce various methods of social distancing until a time when we have a vaccine or treatment to avoid our National Health Service becoming overwhelmed. Finally, I assume that public performances in crowded venues are likely to be one of the last activities which are given permission to go ahead after any period of social distancing. And by turn, they are likely to be one of the first activities to be restricted in any future shutdowns. In other words, I am assuming that it’s going to be precarious and difficult to run public culture programmes for the next few years.
Of course, this assumption could be wrong. Maybe like SARS, the current Coronavirus will choose a moment later this year to sling its hook and disappear without trace. Yes please. But on the basis of the evidence to date, I think the above assumptions provide a plausible planning scenario for our sector. It’s a very tough picture for anyone whose work is about bringing people together. Not just for those in culture but for people who work across the third sector, in sport, hospitality, events, catering and so on. Of course, if it’s hard for us, then we just have to imagine the next few years working in care homes or working for the NHS. That’s a whole different level of challenge.
Whichever way we look at it, the cultural sector is likely to experience a major upheaval over the coming few years. Alongside the difficulties of bringing people together, public and private funding streams are likely to reduce. The future of the government’s furlough, self-employment income and loan schemes is unclear. The likely consequence of COVID-19 will be that the cultural sector contracts; with some organisations going bust while some artists and freelancers are forced to seek work in other sectors. Every organisation and every freelancer who ceases to trade will be a tragedy. We must work together to seek out support from government; and we must look out for each other as things become more challenging in the coming months and years. But despite hardship for collaborators and friends, we should not shy away from conversations about how we adapt and change. Because if we do not have these conversations openly now; then the long-term future of the sector might simply be about those with the deepest pockets and those, in this moment, who the government chooses to support.
I’m not deliberately trying to paint a bleak picture; I think it’s actually helpful to face the worst of what might happen so that we can proactively and openly debate what we do about it. We need to imagine our way out of this, to transform our sector and give ourselves the best chance of a future. Most importantly we need to make a positive contribution to communities across the country. And we need to do all this in such a way that we end up with a better way of working beyond COVID-19.
In other words, as tough as things feel right now; we should see this as an opportunity for us to work together to make the funded cultural sector better. Because let’s be honest, it really needs to be better. Let’s have more honest conversations about what is not right with the way that we work; so that as we adapt to survive, we end up surviving in a form that puts us in the best possible shape for the future.
I think there are some key issues which we have collectively failed to meaningfully address; represented by the following questions…
How does the cultural sector value communities? Do our communities have agency or command over the resources of our sector?
How do we value artists in our country? Who can actually afford to be an artist here?
How far have we come on inclusion? Who gets to feel comfortable or excited when they enter one of our national cultural institutions?
Our collective progress on inclusion has been poor. I think if we’re honest about the state of subsidised culture in this country, then we would, if we could, do it differently.
Of course there are inspiring practitioners, projects and venues leading exceptional work. But this is the problem; this work is too often the exception. I was reminded of this when I was reading about Slung Low and Knowle West Media Centre. This work and these companies tend to sit on the periphery of the cultural sector; while the centre, which commands most of the resource and attention, rolls on. I am tired of waiting for every round of Arts Council England regular funding, every three or four years, to deliver change. The reality in our sector is that the pace of change on inclusion and equality is glacial. The latest Arts Council strategy, Let’s Create, is a fantastic direction which signals the potential for real change. But I increasingly worry that great examples of more progressive cultural practice in our sector (which often receive tiny amounts of the overall allocation of public funds) are used by funders to make things appear rosier than they actually are. I am not convinced that there is an appetite to tackle the core of our sector. On the evidence of the last couple of decades, it is reasonable to assume that it’s a high risk strategy to wait for Arts Council to lead significant change.
The current cycle of regular Arts Council funding runs from 2018 to 2022. There are around 840 National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) and the top five of those organisations currently receive 21% of the total pot; over £345 million in a four year period. The top 50 NPOs receive just under 50% of the total; over £812 million in four years. The top 50 NPOs are largely made up of venues, museums, orchestras and big producing companies; it’s the same for the top 150. Only one of the top 50 organisations is led by a practitioner who founded the company (and that comes in at number 49 and is the charitable arm of a profit-making company.)
Obviously this is a very crude and reductive way to look at the distribution of Arts Council England funds. NPOs are only one aspect of its funding, let alone local authority and other aspects of the funding ecology. And the last thing we need right now, in a time of crisis, is to turn in on ourselves. We need to do exactly the opposite. But what is useful about reviewing the Arts Council’s NPO portfolio during this COVID-19 crisis is that it reminds us of the kind of organisations which demand the greatest subsidy. They tend to be long-standing institutions which are either buildings (venues, museums etc.) or production companies (orchestras, dance, theatre, etc.) Because of the restrictions on public programmes, many of these will struggle for survival; unless the government steps in with a rescue package which I hope is forthcoming.
But while lobbying for government support, I think we also need to grasp the nettle of changing our sector for ourselves. This is the time to have that debate and to devise fundamental structural change across our sector. I think it is time to fund independent artists and communities more than we fund cultural venues and major production companies. Over the next few years venues and production companies will find it difficult to operate in any kind of financially sustainable way. We have a choice to make as to whether we do everything we can to sustain these giants of the sector; or whether we take opportunities as they come to invest more public funds directly with artists and communities. I think we should do the latter because we are much more likely to support creativity and innovation that reaches inside communities in this moment. This is a time when the most important thing we can do is to support communities and help everyone to play their part in imagining the future. By investing more directly in artists and communities we would be more likely to address the needs of communities during the time of COVID-19. This would include getting behind the people who are working to tackle the current crisis: tangible community projects; devising creative solutions; providing opportunities for reflection and hope.
I think this could mark a long-term change of direction for the way we distribute funds in the cultural sector. I suggest this as a producer who absolutely loves cultural venues. My heart beats faster when I walk in to a well-used community and cultural venue. But I think our sector has got its priorities wrong. For too long buildings and big production companies have commanded the lion’s share of our sector’s resource and its public narrative. Over time, Arts Council has sought to improve the way the sector goes about including everyone. But, as a whole, we are failing at this fundamental challenge. And now it’s time for a change of direction.
Directing more regular funding at artists and communities would be a more positive approach in the short- and long-term; so there are salaried artists and community members who lead our sector across the country. In return for their funding they could be required to form and lead regional and national networks; modern-day creative guilds and unions; designed to help share learning, innovative approaches and exciting new projects across the country. We could then provide small pots of funding to buildings across the country to contribute to their core running costs on the proviso that they act as creative hubs, serving their communities in multiple ways. No longer would these buildings be producing houses which control the direction and narrative of the cultural sector, they would be serving houses that support the creativity of their community. Museum buildings could be supported to care for their collections but communities and artists would be able to set the direction for how they are used, shared and developed. If we take this approach I think we would see a growth in the number of participation specialists who start to lead our cultural buildings, rather than a predominance of those with a primary passion for production. A strong Arts Council would be needed to lead this model; and to provide project funds which could be accessed by artists and communities to create new work, often in partnership with the national network of community venues.
I think this kind of structural shift is necessary; to change the balance of power. One thing I learnt in Battersea was that unless you change the structure, it is very hard for change to be sustained. Because the old structure works like elastic, and after all the hard work by everyone to make change happen, the prior structure just starts to pull everyone back to where they started. I think this is one of the main reasons why the sector has failed to embrace real change on inclusion; everyone says they want to do it; but the existing structure just keeps pulling everyone back to a resource heavy, industrial production model. However, if we create a more balanced structure then we enable real change. I think this change of structure would ensure that funded cultural buildings will creatively serve their communities as their primary purpose. Holbeck in Leeds and Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol will be the majority not the minority. I also think this change of structure will empower artists and communities, who are the real changemakers. We will have a renaissance of creative and community invention, artists will have more resources to make and share more work, and the structure of and relationships in our sector will be more inclusive and open. It will, of course, also empower producers to run great community and cultural buildings, inspired by the ideas of the artists and communities who they serve.
I spent a lot of time at Battersea Arts Centre arguing that our organisation should receive more regular funding from Arts Council so that we could produce more work, be more in control of our destiny and offer an alternative to the kind of work produced by major producing houses. It took me a decade to realise that this was a fool’s errand. The thing that enabled Battersea Arts Centre to be more artist and community centred, than a lot of larger producing houses, was because we relied on those artists and our community to survive. By working in partnership on almost everything we did, we developed shared creative processes and benefited hugely from the creative inspiration of artists and community members. I sometimes wonder how much further we could have gone as a community and artist centred venue if I had spent more time celebrating that fact; and stopped chasing the idea of always producing more work.
There is a follow-up to this blog called Time to change the numbers posted on 10th May 2020