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8 July 2020updated 30 Jul 2021 8:57am

The government’s £1.5bn arts lifeline is welcome – but what will we choose to save?

The fear is that the package will prop up established institutions, leaving smaller organisations vulnerable. Only an inclusive approach will save the British culture sector.

By Stella Kanu

The government’s recent announcement of an emergency injection of a £1.57bn investment in the cultural and creative sector, after months of uncertainty and crisis management, is very welcome. Those of us who have lobbied behind the scenes for support for the sector have done so understanding that our cultural industries are one of Britain’s greatest success stories, employing more than two million people and contributing £117bn to the economy. As someone who has dedicated a career of 28 years to culture – delivering participation programmes, programming festivals, running venues and leading organisations, most recently as executive director of the London International Festival of Theatre – I am deeply aware of how crucial this financial support will be in protecting our work.

Though many people think of the arts in the UK as limited to high-profile films, television, music and theatre, the sector is in reality a far broader workforce; one that deals with health, youth participation and widening cultural engagement in every city, town and rural location across our four nations. Since the 1990s, the British cultural sector has focused on delivering social priorities through its core work – something that goes far beyond shows, concerts and performances. In fact, the majority of work carried out by creative organisations takes place in schools and community settings: real places, where real people live and work.

When the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, says that the government will prioritise “the crown jewels of our cultural heritage” – a problematic turn of phrase, intended to refer to large and established institutions, such as the Royal Opera House – he raises crucial questions about what we consider our “crown jewels” to be. The ecosystem that keeps British culture alive is made up of much more than venues and buildings, and spans all art forms, institutions and regions.

Dowden’s announcement raises more questions than it answers. How will the money be divided? Which institutions have been mentioned during these detailed negotiations? Where in our sector will financial losses begin to show first? Can we stem the bleeding? How do organisations apply for support? How can we bring furloughed colleagues back to work in time to help build our case?

See also: Ellen Peirson-Hagger on a summer without music festivals and it means for the music industry

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Dowden has also said that, in order to qualify for financial support, institutions will have to prove that they contribute to wider economic growth. The fear remains that this “rescue” package will prop up the largest venues, galleries, museums and organisations, which have strong muscle memory in economic terms, leaving individuals, smaller venues and organisations – especially regional ones, which are often crucial for local communities – even more exposed to impossible sustainability issues. It provides little solace to organisations that are already in administration, or for which the waiting period for actual cash will be too long.

How we deliver the arts to audiences in the future, after Covid-19, is a huge question. But right now, an even more pressing one is who will get to deliver it. It is expected that 287,000 creative freelancers and up to 400,000 of the cultural workforces will face redundancy before the end of this year. The culture sector has a vital role to play in creating, inspiring and nurturing a creative and inclusive nation. We need a post-pandemic reset agenda that safeguards our strongest asset – people – and doesn’t rebuild the industry in the same old ways. In attempting to save what it can of culture, the government has given us an opportunity to rebuild with innovation, and with a renewed focus on diversity and inclusion.

Black, Asian and ethnically diverse people have already been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19. These same communities are under-represented in leadership and over-represented in the freelance sector in the arts. Trainees now face the very real prospect of nowhere to go. When you add to this fundamentally unstable environment the mass redundancies that have been made since April, and are set to continue until the end of this year, and we have a huge crisis brewing. It can only be avoided by a concerted effort to secure the entry, retention and progress of a diverse workforce in the arts – one that includes people of all intersections of races, genders, sexualities, disabilities and religions. There must be a serious endeavour to ensure equality is maintained within every organisation this package aims to rescue.

The financial benefit of such an approach is clear. In 2015, the Creative Industries Federation report on creative diversity demonstrated the economic case for diversifying our workforces: the most racially and diverse companies showed better financial returns and clear gains in performance against competitors. These lessons must be at the heart of the distribution of this vital investment. Only an inclusive and innovative approach to the arts – one that does away with established hierarchies and entrenched inequalities – will save this industry.

See also: Can live streaming save the music industry during lockdown?

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