The arts has had a reprieve – but do we even deserve it?
In this blog Richard Freeman wonders why culture is taken for granted.
Last night, the UK treasury announced a £1.57bn rescue package for British arts and culture institutions bringing a big sigh of relief to those that cared. This is 11th hour stuff. As Tom Morris, from the Bristol Old Vic said – the British arts were extremely close to being ‘destroyed by accident’.
You don’t need to be a newshound, or even especially well-informed, to understand that the UK cultural infrastructure was about to drop off a cliff. We’ve yet to see all of the detail, but we know it is already too late for venues like the Nuffield Southampton Theatre, that will probably never open again. There are thousands of creative makers, performers, organisers and technicians who have also been forced to jump into other work or will have lost their jobs. Maybe we won’t see them using their skills in this sector for a generation, which is frankly a crime.
Nonetheless, £1.57bn is probably more than anyone had hoped for – so we’ll take it. But it HAS to be for the people who make the arts, not the buildings that house it.
And be under no illusion, this money is down to four months of relentless and persuasive hard work from people who understand what a life-changing catastrophe we were staring out here – and who put everything on the line to be heard.
I could trot out the stats about how much the creative industries is worth to the British economy, but I suspect you’ve already got a fair idea. If not – here (it’s worth over £10bn per year, so 10% to plug the gap is actually fair enough.) But, remember this – more people went to UK theatres last year than to football matches. The ROI is, actually, a bonus on top of what arts and culture really does – but more on that in a minute.
I don’t go to many football matches. I don’t pay much attention to equestrian sports. I’ve never spent an afternoon at the curling, um court? Track? Pitch? Exactly. But I will defend, to the hilt, the need for these activities to happen, to receive public and lottery funding and for a healthy national regard for sporting excellence. I will also defend the grassroots, the amateur and the experimental – because that’s where the good people get good, and the rubbish people expand their social world and positive mental health and compassion and effort.
I don’t really ‘get’ most sports, but I am very thankful that we have them. And I’m thankful that playing games is part of the British psyche.
When it comes to the arts, frankly, I am tired of being surprised that not enough people do care. The energy and innovation from creative practitioners across the world – and especially the UK – is simply incredible – YET our overall national attitude is ambivalent at best. Bold, eccentric, curious, serious/not-serious story-telling and creative play is also part of our psyche – perhaps more so. So, why do we not ALL stamp our feet when the government appear to be letting it collapse?
I think there are three possible reasons for the apathy:
- The arts is not commercial enough, so the financiers are not lobbying for its protection
- The arts is not good enough, so the output is not worth defending
- The arts is taken for granted, so most people don’t really actually know what they’re engaging in
It’s true that the economics of culture is broken. Too much investment concentrated in certain areas, untapped relationships between progressive business and arts development, and pricing/value of live experiences that usually make absolutely no sense. But this isn’t the reason Covid-19 threatened its existence. Every business in every sector forced to close its doors, whilst the costs mount up, is at risk of insolvency. So why were the arts left to hang for weeks after everyone else?
It’s true that I think, and you think, that a lot of the arts is crap. But that is irrelevant. I have (and hopefully you have) recently seen some British-made films and theatre and exhibitions that have changed lives; heard extraordinary music that has been honed over years and years of development; binged box sets that involved production crews of 100s; read enchanting books to children; been exasperated by radio and journalism; challenged by new architecture; transfixed by immersive technologies.
Also completely irrelevant whether you liked it or not.
My £80 income tax contribution to culture last year (it’s 1.6% of gov budget, guys) not only bought me access to all of the stuff that excited me, but also paid for access for the children, elderly and unwell who can’t pay tax, as well as those who can’t afford to pay tax. And I bet some of those people enjoyed things that I thought was crap. For my £80, hundreds of people can get lost in their own subjective response to new worlds, so it doesn’t matter if everything is my or your idea of ‘good’ or not – it matters that it is there and that people can get inside it. As a nation, helpfully, we do also happen to make great stuff. This isn’t the reason for dithering decisions from government on what to do. So what is?
It’s true that the arts is taken for granted.
And that’s it.
If this isn’t a cold-water-in-the-face wake-up call, then what is? The insular comfort is now over. Everyone has to look at the culture they love and be able to shout about it, recommend it, ask for more of it and stand in front of it when recessions and pandemics come to smother it.
always possible is not an arts company – but we are team of makers, writers, musicians, performers, doodlers, and our practice in business development and strategic problem-solving is determined by our experience as story tellers and our confidence to imagine. We must shout louder about the culture that inspires us, and champion those who push boundaries.
Every factory, school, co-working space, innovation hub, construction site, farm, skyscraper and guest house should be championing local and national culture. Not just as a thing to do, but as a thing we need. Arts and culture come in many forms – but let’s know what they are, how they are made and demand more of it.
Lockdown has been an opportunity for people to reconnect with the very stuff that is at risk. Shows broadcast from the National Theatre that were first nurtured and carved out in pub theatres and after-school drama clubs. 50 years of Glastonbury, celebrated from an empty field, demonstrates just what an epic accomplishment that festival is in giving a leg-up to thousands of musicians, comedians and story-tellers who have earned their 10,000 hours of practice.
The treasury have had their arm twisted, and will now hopefully steer the ship away from the biggest iceberg. But we cannot be here again. Let’s stop messing around. Let’s be clear about the intrinsic social, aesthetic, identity-defining, place-making, confidence building and economic value of our culture. Let’s keep making some bloody noise.
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Listen to my 2018 interview with the brilliant Frank Cottrell Boyce, writer of the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, on the value and engagement with culture in the UK.
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Written by Richard Freeman, always possible CEO