Across the world, galleries, theatres, museums and concert halls stand eerily empty, their audiences made to stay away for their own safety and their artists, like so many others, left out of a job.

The arts sector has been blindsided by coronavirus lockdown measures. As social distancing prevents audiences flocking to performances, world-famous venues are experiencing staggering losses in ticket sale revenue.

For smaller-scale arts companies and freelance creatives, whose personal and professional finances are far more tightly linked, the sudden loss of income has been a harsh reality to process.

In late March, Arts Council England (ACE) announced a £160 million emergency response fund to help the country’s arts sector weather the effects of the pandemic.

Under normal circumstances, ACE funding operates on three distinct tiers. National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs), such as the Royal Opera House, English National Ballet and Sadler’s Wells, receive the funding bulk. Non-NPO organisations, like smaller regional theatres, form the second tier, followed by freelance creatives who apply as individual entities.

NPOs are eligible for 4-year rounds of guaranteed funding, most recently set at £71.3 million per year for the 2018-2022 period. As the crippling effects of COVID-19 lockdown began to emerge, ACE faced a complex task: maintaining promised NPO funding levels and countering the effects of their plummeting ticket sales, while also keeping the country’s wealth of smaller organisations and freelance creatives afloat.

The consequent response package allocated £90 million to NPOs, £50 million to non-NPO organisations and £20 million to individual creatives, using up the majority of ACE’s reserves, as well as its 2020-21 Development Funds.

Crucially, ACE has also reallocated its National Lottery Project Grants and Developing Your Creative Practice fund into the emergency package. These funding pots are usually reserved for supporting freelance creatives. But they are now blended into the general response package, in part to support NPOs at the top of the arts food chain.

This decision to reallocate funds usually apportioned to smaller-scale companies and freelancers in order to mitigate lost revenue across the sector has sparked debate.

Some £20 million of emergency funding, equating to just 8,000 grants of £2,500 for all freelance creatives across England, will be thinly stretched across all those applying. Soon after ACE’s emergency response funding was announced, Grantium, its online grant application portal, was registering one new applicant a minute.

Just as with countless small businesses, contemporary dance company Richard Chappell Dance (RCD) has been severely impacted by the knock-on effects of COVID-19 restrictions.

Following seven years of consistent funding, the impact of COVID-19 has rudely awakened RCD to the reality of that security being swept from beneath its feet.

As much as 35% of the company’s projected 2020 budget disappeared overnight. “We’ve never really experienced anything like that,” admits Richard Chappell, company founder and artistic director, “and it’s happened on the cusp of us having a lot more resources.”

For Richard personally, who teaches and choreographs on commission alongside directing RCD, eight months of freelance income has simply evaporated.

RCD’s next major project, a site-specific outdoor show commissioned by the National Trust in celebration of its 125th anniversary, has also been axed.

That was a tough decision, Richard says. “It involved a lot of international artists whose expenses we couldn’t really justify putting into emergency budgets.”

On the arts scene, reputation and values are everything, and that remains front of Richard’s mind. “The heart of all our decision making was ‘we have to make sure the dancers get paid’,” he tells me.

“In future, I want to look back and be proud of the decisions the company made to support the artists we love to work with. It’s about ethics as an employer, but it’s also about valuing what the genuine definition of the organisation is… the identity of the ensemble is in the dancers and in my stability.”

Yet there is a double standard at work. Renowned theatres announcing they will potentially go into administration without emergency funding signals a “danger zone” for public funding bodies such as ACE.

Alarm bells ring when household-name arts houses are at risk of closing their doors, and rightly so. Losing these organisations and the artists, creative staff and technicians within their walls would be a devastating effect of the economic downturn wrought by the pandemic.

Smaller-scale and individual creatives have no such fame-as-leverage when requesting emergency bailouts. If their work disappeared, it would create a crack, rather than a crater, in the national arts scene, and this seems to be affecting the funding made available.

As Richard himself is the driving force behind his company, it is difficult to prove that RCD would fold without ACE’s emergency funding for organisations, worth some £35,000. This precludes RCD from applying, meaning that – as a consistent employer of individual creatives – Richard is now applying for the same individual emergency grants as artists he would usually employ.

Clearly, the running costs of major NPO organisations are leagues above the overheads of smaller-scale ensembles such as RCD. The losses incurred from cancelled shows will be staggering, too.

Even for the jewels in the crown of England’s arts scene, including some of the highest profile dance houses in the world, no audiences means no income.

In 2018, the Royal Opera House earned £45.5 million – 33% of its total income – from box office receipts alone. For Sadler’s Wells, ticket sales constituted 70% of income for the 2017-18 period, at £18,767,000.

“It’s a hugely complex and turbulent time that everyone is struggling to navigate, NPOs included,” Richard tells me. But, NPOs have other resources to plumb at this financially precarious time, whereas companies like Richard’s do not.

Some NPOs receive millions of pounds in private donations on a yearly basis, bolstered by reserve funds and consistent return on corporate investments.

There is also no doubt that those who love the arts and generate the lifeblood ticket sales that NPOs rely on will return to famous theatres as soon as they can. These organisations’ fame and reach will ensure they survive.

But for RCD, companies like it and individual artists, there are no such crowd funding resources, reserve funds, millions of pounds worth of donations and investment income to turn to in this time of need.

Instead, ACE funding is many smaller arts enterprises’ most vital resource. For RCD, it has constituted roughly 60% of the company’s funds since founding.

Yet, Richard is quick to emphasise that at no point should the funding debate become an “us against them.” It is a question of awareness, rather than adversity.

English NPOs and freelance artists have a delicately intertwined existence. Many freelancers depend on NPO support to raise their profiles, through creating works commissioned by renowned arts houses.

Richard himself freely admits that virtually all of his choreographic works “wouldn’t exist without the National Portfolio’s support.”

The Royal Opera House commissioned his 2018 work Still Touch for their Month of Sundays Festival, while various regional NPO dance agencies consistently support RCD’s professional associateships and residencies.

Ultimately, some ACE funding does filter through NPOs to freelancers, via commissioned work and professional collaborations. But that by no means makes the relationship a one-way street: freelance artists are often integral to helping NPOs reach their community engagement targets.

“So many of the Portfolios hit their targets by working with freelancers like me,” Richard says, as RCD maintains such high rates of audience engagement.

The company collaborates with close to 100 young people annually via its curtain-raiser programme, where local community groups and youth dance companies stage bespoke short works before the company’s main show.

The company’s larger-scale participatory work, Silence Between Waves (2019), saw the creation of a site-specific piece on a Devon cliff top, involving 45 local residents of Torbay aged between 12 and 95.

The project engaged the community across secondary schools and dance programmes for the elderly, including participants from Dance in Devon’s Step in Time group for older people, The Spires School and Brixham Academy. The work also featured performers from the charities Lifeworks and ROC Creative, organisations that work with adults and young people with learning difficulties.

RCD was planning to revive Silence Between Waves for summer 2020, but that is sadly no longer an option. Richard, however, refuses to see this as anything more than a temporary hold-up.

In order to maintain RCD’s profile, his company will need to avoid a “black hole” in its activity during this period, as well as demonstrating its ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion in the arts.

“So, the way that we’ll do that is by jumping back into our community engagement and performance programmes when it’s safe for audiences and participants,” Richard tells me. For him, that is a key motivator for riding out the current upheaval.

With the future still full of unknowns, Richard is finding other ways to positively adapt to the present.

With cancellations rolling in – and accepting that plans for upcoming shows and rehearsals were suddenly off the table – he has turned his attention to consolidating “the vision and the information for the new production that we’re going to work on.”

With time to suddenly fill, he is collating image boards, soundscape designs and research materials for RCD’s creative team. Despite the financial upheaval, this creative headspace is one facet of lockdown that he is “deeply grateful for.”

In fact, he can now see that this time will serve the company well as it re-enters the hyper-competitive post-pandemic world of arts funding applications.

“It’ll probably have a really positive impact on the project,” he tells me, as this time for exploring its creative nuances has “made the vision of the work so much more clear.”

Across the working world, pandemic precautions have forced companies to devise ingenious ways of keeping their businesses functioning – and their audiences engaged – virtually.

The same is true for the arts sector, which has rapidly built on its existing embrace of technology. Social media presence and online performance streaming has made leading organisations’ work far more accessible, and is now integral to maintaining audience and patron engagement as theatres, galleries and concert halls remain closed.

RCD is no exception. Adapting to the parameters of remote work, the company has renovated its YouTube channel, which now features repertoire excerpts from the past seven years.

Richard himself has digitalised his youth engagement activities with Oxford’s Pegasus Theatre, as well as his guest lecturing for Bath Spa University. He has also taken this opportunity to formally establish an Artist Conversation Programme, offering burgeoning creatives one-to-one consultancy support on career development and portfolio building, entirely free of charge.

But not all processes can turn remote.

For Richard, nothing can replace the intrinsic need for in-person rehearsals. “I need to make sure that the quality of the show is still there,” he tells me. This is an impossible task when dancers are limited to rehearsing “in their living room with a lag on Zoom.”

Creative enterprises also need to save what money they can in the current climate, given no ticket sales are on the horizon. It makes more sense to save now and invest in studio rehearsal time when lockdown ends, rather than contracting artists for less fruitful online creative sessions.

Looking ahead, Richard is also concerned about the effects of the current funding cuts on his company’s post-Brexit operation.

RCD is known for the diversity of its cast and frequent international collaborations, but the budget earmarked for visas has now been repurposed as emergency funds to keep the company afloat.

Keeping the trusted European dancers he has collaborated with for years will now be even more complex that expected, he tells me.

In light of COVID-19 and Brexit, artists will be faced with “a lack of investment and a higher risk of applying to funding, at the same time as a higher expenditure,” he says.

Richard predicts that, post-pandemic, the success rate for ACE applications will drop from around 50% to 12%. This will coincide with RCD’s need to fund additional visa costs previously voided by the UK’s membership of the European Union.

He points out that what will not change is the tacit understanding among successful creatives that the further you have progressed in your UK-based career, the more you will be working internationally.

Post-Brexit, this type of international collaboration will cost more, yet it is likely to become even more valuable an asset as it becomes trickier to achieve.

He is hopeful, though, that the unprecedented upheaval of the pandemic will ultimately foster better relationships across the creative industries.

The now compulsory experience of working from home, and the time-management melee that involves, might generate increased insight into just how many hours are involved in effectively operating from a home office.

“I’m starting to get emails from people who would never dream of getting back to me on a Sunday,” he tells me.

“Everyone’s work-life balance has been chucked into flux; it hasn’t really affected me because it’s always been in flux.”

As a freelance creative, he has never had his working week defined by contracted hours. Finding inspiration, creating works and hiring dancers, artists, composers and core administrative staff simply takes as long as it takes.

Collective experience of the ‘new normal’, he hopes, will effect lasting changes in the way arts organisations interact with freelance creatives.

In the meantime, though, the most important thing for dancers – and creatives in general – is to prioritise “mental stability, sustainability [and] general health.”

“There’s going to be a pressure to have creative output either during this period of isolation, or as soon as it’s over,” Richard says. In fact, he’s feeling it himself.

His advice on avoiding the pressures of the ‘lockdown for self-improvement’ trend? “Yes, be productive, use this time to your advantage,” he advises, but “don’t be… pressured to revolutionise your practice. Don’t exert to the point at which it breaks you – that’s the same for any workplace.”

Practising what its founder preaches, RCD itself has adopted this self-preserving approach.

By cancelling the tour planned for Spring 2020, the company will be able to streamline upcoming expenditure and divert resources to future work that will be unveiled to a – hopefully recovering – UK arts scene.

“The impact is immeasurable at the moment, for everyone,” Richard tells me. “It’s a sensitive time for the sector as a whole.”

But there is, of course, hope. A shortage of arts funding is nothing new and creatives are no strangers to hard work, the necessity of innovative thinking and the drive to survive in a hyper-competitive environment.

Wherever possible, smaller arts companies and freelancers will adapt and survive. And as for the rest of us? Playing our part means becoming a present, paying audience again just as soon as it is safe to do so.

For more information about Richard Chappell Dance, visit