TAITMAIL No normal, no more
At the start of Radio 4’s Front Row on Tuesday presenter John Wilson seemed bucked to be able to say that the government had announced a couple of hours earlier that museums, galleries and cinemas could reopen from July 4.
“Cultural life slowly returning, but returning to what? Normal?” he asked, before introducing the four guests who were going to tell him what the new normal should be, post-Covid. It was part of the BBC’s Rethink pan-theme across its networks, and came as, he said, the arts face their biggest crisis since the Second World War – a predicted income loss of £74bn by the end of the year, and more than 400,000 jobs gone.
Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern, said the “challenging marathon” was daunting to the sector but hugely energising, having to deal with a lack of resilience, deeply embedded racism, an unbelievably bleak economic forecast and louring over everything the climate emergency. Though actually, come to think of it, Tate Modern was already tackling most of those, largely in response to the carbon footprint priority.
So there would be, and have been, fewer blockbusters (she hates that word) expensively transporting heavy installations and their carers around the world causing environmental havoc; a new focus on the “hyper-local” audience rather than international curiosity; longer runs for what big shows there are giving “slower art, a deeper experience”.
Amanda Parker, a communications consultant whose organisation Inc Arts campaigns for increased inclusion in the arts sector, wants us to stop paying lip service to diversity and for the Arts Council to make it a condition of public funding. Is that not already in ACE’s new ten-year plan announced in January, Let’s Create? “They’re saying it but definitely not doing it”. In the absence of large art, she said, people found local. At this point the actor and musician Mik Scarlet texted in to say he’d been a disability worker in the business for 40 years and there was less diversity now than there was then, so a handbrake turn needed here.
David Jubb ran the Battersea Arts Centre until a year ago and wants subsidy going directly to artists and small organisations; now, 50% of ACE funding goes to 50 organisations “many of them addicted to producing” (meaning ego-serving experiment disregarding audiences). There are 3,000 independent artists (I'd have thought many more) and 500 community-serving venues that actually lead cultural change, and decisions on who gets what should be made at local level. There should be community arts centres with artists paid a stipend for a year, and ACE acting as a development agency. No reason why that shouldn’t happen alongside ambitious co-productions, though.
The music critic Alexandra Coghlan wants an end to the 19th century model of concert-going, where nothing happens except between 7.30 and 9.30pm. She wants day-long programming with shorter concerts and a re-evaluation of the integration of live and digital performance. She wants a scrapping of the habit of maintaining a tiny classical repertoire with irrelevant narratives, more scope for performing new work – “creative art emerges out of current experience” – and new venues that make tickets affordable to everyone. You could have new pieces performed two or three times on the same day with intervals to discuss the music before hearing it again.
So the wish lists of these four rather randomly chosen individuals have interesting points but do not in themselves amount to any kind of picture of the arts of the future. First there needs to be a rescue, and the Culture Tsar and task force of trusties appointed by the culture secretary on May 20 are still looking for the ball in the long grass.
The elephant in the room for John Wilson’s discussion had not featured in the earlier Boris Johnson announcement either, and was only addressed 24 hours later as a sort of afterthought, perhaps as a result of the devastating words from Adrian Vinken at Theatre Royal Plymouth that morning. Theatre.
On Wednesday morning Vinken was on the Today programme saying the TRP, one of the great regional co-producers serving England, may never reopen, and explained why. Confirming that he was going to have to make his talented and specialist staff of 100 redundant (and therefore dispersed) by today, he said there was no way a theatre could operate with social distancing, however distant, and no venue would be able to operate safely until there was a widely available vaccine. Added to that, large institutions like the 1,300-seat TRP (pictured) are cash drains and to make them viable once closed as theatres they would have to be converted to other uses. Just to keep that from happening to TRP alone he needs £250,000 a month compared with a current income of zero.
It was a couple of hours after that that DCMS said theatres and concert halls could reopen after July, but not for live events – misunderstanding that it’s not what’s happening on stage that’s the problem, it’s the close proximity to each other of members of the audience. And Vinken repeated what everybody except government ministers knows, that once you close a theatre it's almost impossible to reopen it.
Then 85-year-old Dame Judi Dench stoked the embers by telling C4 News that theatres might not reopen in her lifetime, joyously repeated by the Daily Mail (whose editor used to be the Sunday Times arts correspondent). The grim truth is that theatres have until October when they will start to think bankruptcy, and while the Arts Council will announce next week how it will lay out its £160m rescue fund it won’t be anything like enough.
Late on Thursday culture secretary Dowden put out a five-point "road map" for reopening concert halls and theatres, ranging from putting old shows online to outdoor productions moving indoors, all either already being done by theatre companies or in their planning. What is missing from Dowden's plan is any kind of timeline without which there can be no concrete planning, and, critically, any mention of money at all.
The initial response should be that furloughing has to be extended for the arts, or those elements of the sector that can’t make an income, until such time as they can. DCMS is saying that to the Treasury, the Treasury is replying that it can’t make exceptions. Impasse.
That deadlock has to be broken, but the bigger answer is already on the table: government investment in the form of a Cultural Renewal Fund. Instead of subsidy grants the government would make interest free loans to arts organisations, repayable over, say, 25 years, a mortgage arrangement. This can be distributed at local level, as Jubb suggests, with councils given statutory responsibility to nurture arts in their communities, and the Arts Council operating as an overseeing broker.
So no, John, there is no normal in the future for the arts – but has there ever been?