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Has the UK government abandoned the arts?

26 February 2021

The culture sector has been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. Is there more that can be done for individuals and institutions, or are criticisms of the government’s response unfair?

From the March 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Ed Vaizey

It’s often said that the job of culture secretary is the best in government. But in the last year the prospect of parties, plays and premieres has been pushed sideways by the pandemic. I wouldn’t wish the job on my worst enemy at this moment, and Oliver Dowden is far from being that.

More than almost any other sector, the arts have been clobbered by Covid. Our museums are shut and our theatres are dark. After a faltering start, the government came forward with a generous rescue package. Aside from the national schemes like furlough, bounce-back loans and self-employed income support, some £1.57bn has been found specifically for the arts and released in tranches to support hundreds of institutions. Many organisations that had never received public subsidies before, such as music venues, have been helped for the first time. There have also been some generous capital grants to our museums. So, it would be churlish for anyone to suggest that the government has stood idly by while the arts burned. Its intervention has helped a huge amount.

There is also, it has to be said, an element of tough love in the government’s approach. There is a view that this is an opportunity   to do things differently in the future – and I sympathise with that point of view. So, as well as a long-overdue pivot towards digital provision, there should be some much-needed shaking out, with venues and collections looking to merge, and some weaker organisations finally running out of road. Many arts organisations are doing at last what they should have done years ago – reaching out to their local communities, engaging with health centres, schools and community groups, and finding they are better and more sustainable organisations for it.

Although the financial support package was generous, there were justified complaints that, despite Dowden’s valiant efforts with the Treasury, the money took too long to arrive, and too long to dole out. Lying behind this is the constant feeling that, in terms of government priorities, the arts come last. Despite their enormous importance to tourism, soft power and general well-being, there has never been a government that takes them as seriously as it should. Now is the chance to put in place a long-term plan for funding the arts. It’s perhaps odd that I should suggest, at a time when the government is thinking of cutting the overseas aid grant, that now is the moment it should consider a set percentage of support for the arts, say 0.1 per cent of the budget.

There have been two great catastrophes.The first has been the abandonment of freelancers, many of whom work in the arts. A whole swathe of them – about a third – have fallen through the cracks of the income support scheme and are ineligible for loans that have helped many others. Just five per cent of the overall Covid support package would have seen them right.

The final debacle has not had anything to do with Covid at all but will be just as devastating. The new rules that follow Brexit mean that touring in Europe will now be vastly bureaucratic and significantly more expensive. More than half of people working in the arts depend on Europe for half their income.  Government ministers sound like speak-your-weight machines when they respond to this issue, saying that any remotely pragmatic solution does not fit with the government’s policy to take back control of our borders.

While I hope that post-pandemic we can have a long-term plan to support the arts, I fear for the future. This has nothing to do with cuts, or inattention from the top. Rather, this is because the government, amid the chaos, has seen fit to start a culture war with the arts, waging a fake war on woke, where for the first time since the modern arts settlement was put in place, we see a Secretary of State for Culture determined to breach the arms-length principle and start to dictate to independent institutions how they should direct their scholarship and curation. That will be far more devastating in the long term than a year of terrible closures.

Ed Vaizey was Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries from 2010–16.

Charlotte Higgins

In the eyes of the current government, the arts have been far from abandoned and its cultural rescue package of £1.57bn is proof of this. When the funding was announced by the government in July, after months of increasingly panicked lobbying, there was rejoicing. In reality, it was to be spread very thin – through the culture and heritage sectors including museums, galleries, historic palaces, theatres, independent cinemas, grass-roots music venues, dance companies and concert halls. It included loans, monies reserved for capital projects, and grants.

Without it, some of the most famous names on the British cultural scene – the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre – would have gone under. Unable to earn through box-office takings, or through their restaurants, cafes, bars and shops, they would simply have run through their reserves. The more ‘successful’ the institution, according to the neoliberal framing of our times, the more exposed they were, having proportionately less cushioning from government funding than their less commercially adept fellow organisations. West End theatres were especially endangered. But so were public organisations such as the National Theatre, which, through the very fact of earning 80 per cent of its income (the kind of agile entrepreneurialism encouraged by successive Tory governments) had made itself dangerously vulnerable to the pandemic.

The government prevented Britain’s cultural infrastructure from hitting the wall. The theory was that if you kept the buildings and organisations going, it wouldn’t be too long before they could get up and running again, and re-employ freelancers. But this position was premised on the kind of thoughtless optimism that has characterised so many aspects of the government’s handling of the pandemic. For the arts, this optimism coalesced around the folly of ‘Operation Sleeping Beauty’, in which, back in September, the culture secretary Oliver Dowden encouraged theatres to mount seasonal productions, which many duly did, though unsupported by the kind of government-backed insurance scheme that allowed some productions in film and TV to continue through the pandemic. ‘Operation Sleeping Beauty’ duly hit the buffers of reality as Covid rose and theatres were forced shut – with devastating financial consequences.

So far I have suggested that the government has not exactly abandoned the arts so much as behaved in a hesitant, inconsistent and basically incompetent manner easily recognisable from its approach to Covid-19 as a whole. But as hinted above, the way it has handled the needs of the creative workforce has been another matter altogether. Here, abandonment would not be too strong a word. The majority of the skilled professionals who work in the arts – from singers, actors and artists to technicians, producers and designers – are freelance. More than a third of these – that is, of the people who actually make the art – are ineligible for the government’s self-employed income support scheme. Ask these people whether they feel abandoned by the government, and you’ll get a hollow laugh in reply. The entire shaky system of cultural work in Britain, with its networks that link different fields and competencies, has come under intense, often intolerable pressure that will leave it damaged for years. Once you add Brexit to this cocktail you’ll find even established professionals wondering how they are going to survive, at the point when touring becomes theoretically possible, when a once-ordinary trip on the Eurostar with a cello looks like an expensive, perhaps even unaffordable, nightmare of work permits, carnets and visas.

The truth, though, is that, as in so many parts of British society, the pandemic has revealed vulnerabilities in a structure that was already creaking. The UK arts have been ‘running hot’ for years – making miracles out of the thinnest resources, with no spare capacity in the system. And who is largely responsible for these vulnerabilities? Step forward David Cameron’s 2010 coalition government: the chancellor George Osborne, and his willing accomplices, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and arts minister Ed Vaizey. It was according to Osborne’s flawed dogma of austerity that local authority and schools grants were cut to the bone; that the Arts Council budget in England was slashed by nearly 30 per cent. If you want to find the real destroyer, the true abandoner of the arts, don’t waste time on bit-part players like Oliver Dowden: look for that cultured, opera-loving angel of death, George Osborne.

Charlotte Higgins is chief culture writer for the Guardian.

From the March 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.