City’s arts organisations respond to Government’s £1.57bn ‘investment’ announcement

Hull Truck Theatre
Hull Truck Theatre.

Following weeks of pressure from the arts sector nationally, the Government has this week announced a package of support and investment into the sector, aimed at keeping arts venues and institutions from financial collapse.

The £1.57bn package will include repayable loans, ‘targeted support’, grants, and capital investment to restart infrastructure and construction projects paused by the coronavirus lockdown.

Announcing the offering on Monday, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “Our arts and culture are the soul of our nation. They make our country great and are the lynchpin of our world-beating and fast growing creative industries. I understand the grave challenges the arts face and we must protect and preserve all we can for future generations. Today we are announcing a huge support package of immediate funding to tackle the funding crisis they face.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “From iconic theatre and musicals, mesmerising exhibitions at our world-class galleries to gigs performed in local basement venues, the UK’s cultural industry is the beating heart of this country. This money will help safeguard the sector for future generations, ensuring arts groups and venues across the UK can stay afloat and support their staff whilst their doors remain closed and curtains remain down.”

Hull’s arts venues have been closed to audiences and productions for four months, with many staff furloughed. Whilst it has been announced that venues can reopen to the public, currently live shows and performances are not allowed.

Broadly, nationally, the Government’s emergency package for arts venues has been welcomed as a stop-gap solution preventing immediate financial ruin for the many venues that have had their income streams stopped.

Hull Truck Theatre’s Artistic Director Mark Babych, and Executive Director Janthi Mills Ward, offered this immediate response to the funding announcement: “The much welcomed and needed £1.57bn investment from the Government for the arts, culture and heritage sector will hopefully provide meaningful investment for both organisations such as ours and the brilliant creative workforce that brings it alive. Huge thanks to DCMS, Arts Council England, UK Theatre and politicians across parties for lobbying and making the case of how important the arts are and how close they were to being lost.

“We look forward to working with the national funding bodies to ensure Hull Truck Theatre and the whole arts ecology within Hull and East Riding can be supported through this investment, to not only survive but thrive.  We can’t wait to bring creativity back into our communities as a key part of our cities and regions emergence from these challenging times.”

Creative directors within the arts industry, however, have expressed concerns about the longer term recovery, sustainability, and delivery of the arts, especially regarding the impact of social distancing when audiences can return, and safety of both audiences and performers.

The announcement has also opened debate about the value of the arts to people and places, and the way in which the arts sector operates.

Freedom Festival 2014
Freedom Festival 2014. Photo: Jerome Whittingham @photomoments.

Mikey Martins is Artistic Director and CEO of the Freedom Festival Arts Trust.

Responding to the funding announcement, Mikey said: “It’s great news. It could not be anything but great news.”

He went on to say: “The figures are interesting, because within the details of these figures £700 million are loans. I’d like to understand that better, because that is a very different way of the Government working with the cultural organisations, that’s not something that happens very often. That’s tricksy, that to me is more leaning towards an American model, private investment as opposed to public funding. Maybe that’s a good thing, I’ve often said the arts suffer from being scared of being commercially successful.

“I think it’s a very clear, bold, statement that the arts and the cultural sector is worth a lot to the Government, which is great to see. There’s been an awful lot of work done proving the economic impact of the arts,” he said.

Dave Windass, playwright, theatre producer, and assistant editor at Wrecking Ball Press, also commented on how investment in the arts provides a sound return.

Dave said: “I’ve spent time in the last decade reminding influential people whenever I can of the importance of investment in the arts sector, through the What Next? movement and during other conversations, so reminding politicians of ongoing investment and support in the arts is nothing new, even in these unprecedented times of emergency. Investment in the arts is an easy argument to make and win but, sadly, the case has to be made with infuriating regularity. It’s always worth reminding ourselves of the numbers – the arts contribute £10.8bn a year to the UK economy and the sector contributes £2.8bn a year to the Treasury via taxation, and generates a further £23bn a year and 363,700 jobs. For every £1 of funding in the arts, the government recoups £5. Not my figures, those of the most recent report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research based on ONS stats.

“More broadly, the wider creative industries contributed more than £111bn to the UK economy in 2018, which is almost £13million every hour of the day. Suddenly, £1.57bn looks like small change, doesn’t it?”

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, Lord Mandelson commented that the Government’s support package to the arts will have to be shared among an estimated 800 venues and institutions across England.

The ‘generosity’ of this timely package will have to be spread far and wide. Its impacts, creative directors suggest, will also have to be seen to go beyond merely staving off or preventing the bankruptcy of arts venues and organisations.

Mikey Martins said: “We’re now going towards proving the wellbeing and social impact of the arts. I’m nervous because all I see in the actual language that comes out of Government ministers is an absolute lack of understanding of what the cultural sector of the UK actually is.”

The arts sector provides opportunities for the development of life-skills and learning, a wide variety of employment opportunities and career development, and helps shape and even change the nature of places. The UK City of Culture 2017 project changed Hull for the benefit of its residents, and positively altered people’s perception of Hull more widely, it can be argued. The arts are not just about entertaining audiences in venues.

Heads Up Theatre Festival
A show from Heads Up Theatre Festival, 2014. Photo: Jerome Whittingham @photomoments.

Investment in the arts locally is about more than reopening the doors of currently closed venues. The value of the arts, and the work of artists, to the economic and social growth of the city must be better understood and further developed, explained Dave and Mikey.

Dave Windass said: “Naturally, I’d be looking at the big arts organisations in Hull to take a lead once they’ve steadied their own ships but they also need to consider this changing landscape, rather than pick up where they left off. It’s time for them to reset and reimagine their purpose and role in the community. If the many freelance and self-employed artists that this city has, who do so many wonderful creative things, are to survive, then this resetting and reimagining also needs to factor their talent in, and conversations going forward need to include them. We need to smash some of the old hierarchies apart in order that we’re strong together, and to ensure that we’re all doing something that’s relevant to the city that we serve. Hull Truck, Artlink, Absolutely Cultured, Freedom Festival, Hull Jazz, Back To Ours, all good organisations who do good work, need to continually consider, and reconsider, how they work with freelance talent and grass roots artists as we all battle to get out of the other side of this mess.”

Mikey Martins said: “We need to think about how we use this opportunity to reform some of the sector, not just recover it, because otherwise what’s the next thing that’s going to come along and knock it out again?

“It would be really good if there was a really interesting conversation about this money, a way of bringing people together, to discuss how the arts and culture sector actually works – the commercial ends, the publicly funded ends, and everything in between. I think it would be good for artists to see things a little differently. It’s often a misunderstanding of how things work that makes life quite difficult,” he said.

The detail of how much of the announced £1.57bn will come to Hull’s arts venues, what proportion of it will be repayable, and how grants will be expected to be spent, will become clear in the coming weeks.

[Jerome Whittingham –]

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