UK arts crisis

The UK arts industry is facing a major collapse due to a lack of support from the government during the pandemic

Photo by Noisy Little Monkey on Flickr.

9 minute read — by Sam Feierabend

The arts industry is a crucial part of the heritage and culture of the UK. Around 370,000 people are employed into the industry including theatres, live music and museums – with arts contributing an estimated £48 billion to the UK economy. Yet the coronavirus pandemic has provided unprecedented challenges for an industry which relies heavily on audience turnover and visitors to attractions for income. With the rate of infections so high, the decision was made on 16th March to suspend West End and live music performances and all venues were forced to take advantage of the government furlough scheme to be able to pay staff.

As lockdown rolled on and the government were handing out grants and business loans to help save businesses and the economy as much as possible, the arts sector was seemingly ignored. £15 billion had been granted to local businesses by the start of July and £14.5 billion had been granted to public services. On the other hand, nothing had been set out by the Chancellor to save a crumbling industry, which for context, had lost £660 million just in the first 12 weeks of cancelling theatre performances.

After actors and musicians spoke out for their industry coupled with a public petition calling for financial support for the arts that reached 176,000 signatures, Rishi Sunak finally announced the Culture Recovery Fund on 5th July which would grant £1.7 billion to live music and theatre venues to keep them afloat. However, some within the industry, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, have argued that this is not enough, especially with social distancing measures meaning that audiences would not be at full capacity and would lose more money by partially reopening.

However efforts have been made to slowly reopen the industry with various test events and venues being opened over the summer. In July, Lloyd Webber himself helped to arrange a socially distant theatre performance at the London Palladium to a 25 percent capacity crowd. The first outdoor music venue was opened in Newcastle where groups of five could book a socially distanced platform with an overall capacity of 2,500. The outdoor theatre in Regents Park reopened on 14th August with a run of hit musical “Jesus Christ Superstar”, marking the first elongated performance season of live theatre.

However, the real crisis in the arts industry is more evident when filtered through to local levels. Local music and theatre venues are a crucial part of the industry which desperately needs saving. Many established artists and performers would not have reached the high levels of success without having to start circulating small, local venues to establish a reputation. Removing this mechanism may lead to a complete collapse of a thriving industry.

Many smaller, independent venues have had to announce redundancies. An estimated 6,000 people have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic and the acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company are facing an entire workforce redundancy come the end of October if funding is not secured. In addition to this, 70 percent of people involved in the arts are freelance workers so do not qualify for the furlough scheme. As a result, many self-employed actors and musicians have had to either walk away from the industry or adapt their daily lives to make a living. Matthew Finch is a self-employed musician based in Bath who is one of many people not helped by furlough, as his informal teaching at school means he is above the income threshold to receive grants. His day to day work involves running up to ten choirs across Somerset, being the musical director for a local theatre company, writing and selling music online, accompanying gigs and offering private piano lessons (his main source of income). When the lockdown in March was approaching, Matthew says, “I decided to start learning to use the technology I had available to me about two weeks before we locked down as I would have no way of earning an income without any grants- it was about how and what can I diversify my work into?”

Adapting his work became easy for Matthew. Despite an initial income drop of around 50 percent, he was still able to run choir rehearsals over Zoom whilst still running his piano lessons online. The extra 50 percent was earned from setting up online courses in sight singing, a weekly music appreciation club and arranging a virtual choir show which brought together various local choirs onto a live Zoom show which tickets were sold for.

Despite the inevitable challenges of a life locked down and having to adapt work, by May Matthew had found some silver linings. “It was quite good. I’m spending less money on petrol whilst spending more time at home with my family”. He also acknowledges how having the arts engulf his life means that “you do more than you ever need to do” which is tough for some in the industry, with the Incorporated Society of Musicians estimating 60 percent of musicians are currently considering a new career. However, working online means that Matthew “misses the interaction greatly” mainly due to “all the strange, wonderful, talented people you meet with the same interest and end goal” which shows how the arts is glued together by the shared sense of community.

Of course, musicians and performers are the only people the audiences see when watching the arts. Behind the scenes, though, teams of technicians and equipment operators tirelessly work to keep productions running and the pandemic is equally challenging for them to find work. Luke Emmett is a freelance technician capable of everything from lighting design and sound design, to event management and arts marketing. He admits his job is “exciting but can also be terrifying in equal measure”, owing to the inconsistent flow of jobs for which he is booked. Like Matthew, when the pandemic hit, Luke took to learning online tools to diversify the services he could offer and considers himself “lucky to get a fair amount of work managing the technical side of online conferences and events”. Unfortunately, many technicians in the arts have struggled which Luke feels is down to “people not being as willing to pay for online support and advice in the same way they normally would”. For Luke, “the arts and being human go hand-in-hand. The essence of being human is the ability to share our stories and the arts is the vessel which enables that to happen”.

The importance of youth and community theatre has been drastically overlooked where interactions have been taken away from a generation. Scott Rogers helps to organise Zenith, a volunteer-run youth theatre company based in Bath for 13-22 year olds and is angered by the inaction of the government saying that there is “a complete lack of regard for creative young people. For a generation who are stereotyped as being addicted to their mobiles, this pandemic has shown that young people crave interaction and that is a key part of what Zenith is about”. Zenith had been preparing to perform the musical “Chicago” before being forced to postpone until February due to COVID restrictions, but the government policy of allowing groups to meet in an “outside school setting” means that the company have been able to restart rehearsals but only in strict smaller bubbles. This is something that Scott sees as “a godsend” but also adds that “it just isn’t the same rehearsal room and there has to be a way of getting back to normal as we are rehearsing for something that we just don’t know if we can do”. Perhaps most worrying is the impact coronavirus might have in the future. Scott notes that “the industry is losing people left, right and centre and there is the potential that there could be a new volunteering crisis with people being too scared to return when we are back to normal.”

Over the initial lockdown, Zenith kept meeting over Zoom and in July streamed a live show called “A Night In” where various performers came together to deliver a variety show. Having to adapt to the new environment is something Scott has taken as a positive from the pandemic for the creative arts, especially in his day to day job at Bath Spa University working with drama students. He says “innovation has allowed us to create whole virtual productions which is completely new and means that the digital world, maybe in the future, can blend with the live world”. This could open up opportunities to immerse audiences with disabilities in live performance – such as people who are blind or deaf or have difficulty accessing transport to venues.

For such an important part of UK culture, it is staggering to see the lack of support given from the government. Arguably, this importance, especially on a local and community scale, isn’t fully understood. This view has only been cemented by the eagerness to push the return of sport over creative arts. If there isn’t action soon then a serious collapse in the industry will happen – and one that goes much further than the current state. Ultimately, the opportunity for young and creative people to express themselves will not be there. As Scott puts it: “confidence is the golden gift that theatre gives to young people to use in all walks of life and their futures”.