‘Artistic armageddon’ as funds run dry

Glastonburied: This year, many festivals could go bust. © Getty

Should government save the arts? Live events have been extinguished by the pandemic. Festivals, theatres, and museums are all struggling – but some would prefer that the money go elsewhere.

An “artistic armageddon”, wrote the Evening Standard’s Julian Glover. A “cultural catastrophe”, said the head of the Creative Industries Federation.

Legendary West End producer Sonia Friedman added, “The loss is inconceivable [...]. We need our government to step up and step in – sharpish. There is no time to waste.”

The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the global economy. But few industries are as reliant on large crowds and enclosed spaces – factors that contribute to the spread of Covid-19 – as the arts.

The pandemic has led to the cancellation of countless events, including Glastonbury and the Edinburgh Fringe. Over 90% of independent festivals say they now face impossible costs and the prospect of imminent ruin.

According to a report in the Financial Times, yesterday, UK revenues across the creative sector are predicted to drop by 30% in 2020, with more than 400,000 jobs set to be lost.

Many historic venues, including Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, have turned to crowdfunding to stay afloat.

Just yesterday, 98 leading directors, actors, and producers called on the government to rescue the ailing theatre sector, where 70% of jobs are at risk. In a letter, they wrote the sector was “on the brink of ruin”.

Playwright James Graham, who rose from working in local theatres to writing the recent TV hit Quiz, argues that any government funds should be seen as an “investment” and not a “bail out”.

After all, the arts generate a huge amount of money for the economy, from tourists attending West End plays to teenagers attending festivals.

What’s more, as the performance artist Travis Alabanza wrote in the Metro: “Arts, culture, and entertainment not only boosts the UK economy, but undoubtedly adds so much emotionally to the fabric of our society.”

Though the measures are yet to be seen, arts minister Oliver Dowden has promised to come to the rescue, saying, “I will not see our world-leading arts and culture destroyed.”

But he faces resistance from those in government who believe that gigs and festivals right now aren’t nearly as important as hospitals and food banks.

If a piece of theatre, music, or other creative work is good enough, they say, it will always pay for itself. As one analyst wrote: “England’s rich cultural tradition developed free of government funding.”

So, should government save the arts?

Gig economy

No, goes one argument. Culture that relies on government funding tends to produce niche work that goes ignored by most of the public. Truly great art challenges society and makes us question everything. State funding tends to stifle these qualities. And, in the final reckoning, it is not really about money: extraordinarily creative people will keep being creative whatever happens to funding.

Of course, goes the opposing argument. It is incontestable that culture benefits society. We learn from the arts; we heal through them. As the guardian of our society and civilisation, government has a huge responsibility to protect our culture. Throughout history, many of our greatest artists, our most wonderful buildings, our music and our literature have all been made possible by grants from government bodies. It would be little short of barbaric to harm this legacy today.

You Decide

  1. Should people who do not go to theatres, galleries, and museums be paying tax to support them for others?
  2. Imagine two festivals. One is fully funded by government grants. The other is massively profitable. Which do you think would be best?

Activities

  1. Make a banner that you might take on a march calling for more government support for the arts. Think of a powerful way to put the case, using just a few words and one strong image.
  2. Write a dramatic, Shakespeare-style monologue arguing that the arts deserve government support right now!

Some People Say...

“There is no prejudice that the work of art does not finally overcome.”

Andre Gide (1869-1951), French author and Nobel prize-winner

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Twice as many people normally go to the theatre every year in the UK than go to Premier League football matches. Last year, the arts and culture sector contributed over £10 billion to the UK economy, overtaking agriculture. Across the Atlantic, the American Alliance of Museums warned that US museums alone were losing at least $33 million (£26m) each day during the pandemic.
What do we not know?
We do not know if theatre-goers and music fans will willingly return to venues after lockdown is lifted. We do not know how many people who have lost their jobs in the creative sector during the pandemic will return to similar work in the future. We do not know if public support for arts funding will be high when the country enters into a recession.

Word Watch

Wreaked havoc
To cause damage, disruption, or destruction. Wreak as a verb comes from the Old English for “to drive out” or “to avenge”.
Crowdfunding
Asking for help from members of the public instead of going to an investor or selling something.
Ailing
Unwell; sick; weak.
Bail out
When the government spends a large amount of money to rescue a failing company or sector. During the 2008 financial crash, the government bailed out multiple large banks.
West End
London’s theatre district. A key touristic and cultural destination, it rivals Manhattan’s Broadway.
Arts minister
Oliver Dowden’s official job title is minister for digital, culture, media and sport.
Stifle
To hold someone or something back; to suffocate.
Reckoning
Calculation.
Barbaric
Savagely cruel.

Subjects

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