As news of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak’s £1.57bn arts and culture rescue package came through late last Sunday night, it was a good way to end the weekend… and enabled me to wake up on Monday morning much more optimistic about the future of the UK arts sector than I had been previously.
But hold back on the knight to the rescue fantasy. I have some concerns.
First: geography. Every single example of an arts organisation mentioned by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden on BBC Breakfast on Monday morning wasn’t only in the South East of England – but was actually in LONDON. Any national rescue package has to cover every corner of the UK and especially those where big money philanthropy doesn’t reach, namely post industrial towns and cities, rural locations… anywhere north of the Watford Gap.
Second: what constitutes ‘culture’ to this government? Again. There seems to be emphasis on venue-based organisations & ‘high art’ (for want of a better phrase). Art galleries, ballet, opera, big museums. Yes, they need help – and in many cases quite desperately. But to achieve its mission – i.e. to throw a financial ring of steel around our precious arts, culture and heritage sector – this cash has to reach the small guys and all artforms too. For every Royal Opera House there are dozens of Red Ladder Theatre Companies. There’ll be no trickle down effect here.
Third: mechanism and rationale for distribution. Who decides who gets what? Will it be by application… or influence? Some arts organisations are in a better position to lobby for support than others, with Lords/Ladies and Captains of Industry on their Boards (see above). Others are far more prominent than others. It has to be fair. And it has to be quick. We’ve already started to see the domino effect of COVID19 on theatres: Plymouth Theatre Royal, Manchester’s Royal Exchange, The Nuffield in Southampton are all shrinking their workforce or closing. Unless it can stop this rot in its tracks our sector will be a shadow of its former self before a penny is transferred. Once it’s gone, it’s more difficult to restore.
Fourth: the amount. £1.57bn seems a lot. It IS a lot. But it has to go round a huge sector with big needs. Will it be enough? Who knows. Also: will it stymie philanthropy with a ‘by-stander effect’. Will the public look at that hard-to-imagine amount of money and coming to the reasonable conclusion of ‘well, the arts is alright now, they don’t need my cash’, when the long-term problem isn’t solved by this fund. A bail out is only really a bail out if it does the full job.
Fifth: don’t count your chickens. This IS brilliant news and a major victory for our sector. Don’t get me wrong. But this government has form on not actually delivering on what it promises and a lot remains to be seen about how effective this rescue package will be when it comes to #savetheartsUK.
I’ve kept my eyes glued to this story for the past 72 hours for answers to my questions. None have come yet. Tuesday 7 July, 2 days after the original announcement) Arts Council England’s CEO published a statement on their website and on Twitter in which he conceded that “there are some truly tough decisions to make and difficult times ahead. And I fear that not everything that we want to save, can be saved.”
It seems that even Darren doesn’t believe that Rishi’s Riches can be the arts’ saviour.
But for now, we shouted and the government seems to have listened. I am cautiously optimistic. I’ll be following this story closely, keeping my eye on Rishi and posting again very soon. Watch this space.