The rescue package for British culture, agreed on Sunday evening, amounted to £1.57bn, far greater than many had anticipated. After many months, the Treasury announced an investment that will go some way to alleviating the anxiety of the two million people who work in the arts.
Indeed, £1.57bn sounds like a lot of money. And it is. It’s the most significant investment package for culture in British history. The package was widely greeted with relief and will repair some of the damage the last three months have wreaked on the cultural landscape.
The road ahead remains rocky, however. Though the package will protect thousands of theatres, concert halls, museums and galleries across the country, most have already had to make difficult decisions – for some there is already no way back.
With creative spaces closed, many freelancers (who make up the majority of this country’s creative workforce) will continue to be locked out of work. It remains to be seen how far this package will tide them over until they can produce work again.
The anxiety for many organisations – including my own – Wilton’s Music Hall, a theatre in East London – is whether this money will go far enough and come fast enough for the industry and, crucially, its people. As long as our buildings stay closed, our industry remains a shadow of its pre-Coronavirus self. What has hampered our sector the most is the government’s slow early response to the pandemic and its failure to deliver successful virus containment programmes, which have enabled other countries to get culture back on its feet again.
Profit margins for theatre and music are notoriously tight; the difference between, say, 95% and 85% capacities can sometimes be the difference financial success and ruin. With adequate government support, it is now possible that loans and grants may be able to subsidise socially-distanced auditoria; 1-metre distancing allows for around 25% maximum capacity for most venues. As galleries and museums open up, and with pubs and restaurants opening their doors once again, it is only right that the government should now address the current ban on live performance in front of audiences so that theatre and music can at least be given the opportunity to make social distancing work.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Praise today, though, should be heaped on government. But that it has taken so long to get here remains baffling. 75% of people in Britain visited some kind of cultural event each year; much of the industry’s lobbying has focussed on the sector’s extraordinary economic value. Yet, up until Sunday morning there was still squabbling between Downing Street and government ministers over the scale of the package.
The truth is that, for many in government and no. 10, support for culture simply isn’t seen as an obvious vote winner – or, rather, as obvious a vote winner as pubs and holidays. It’s telling that on Monday’s Today programme Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden was unable to provide reason for why theatres must remain shut while airplanes now allow full passenger fleets onboard.
For years the industry has batted off jibes of elitism and has worked hard to broaden its appeal to communities where culture hasn’t always reached. It felt at times throughout this campaign that this was falling on deaf ears. This package must be put to good use so that, should something like this ever happen again, this government’s failure to act speedily in saving one of Britain’s most valuable assets will not be repeated.
Harry Hickmore is a theatre manager and head of development and communications at Wilton’s Music Hall