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Western Europe / UK

How will the UK arts industry emerge from Covid-19?

The UK arts scene is worth billions to the economy, not to mention the good it does for the country's global image, but many artists feel forgotten amid the coronavirus crisis.

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English folk musician Eliza Carthy back in happier times when live performances were allowed. The Mercury Prize nominee and hundreds of other artists now face an uncertain future because of the Covid-19-related restrictions imposed on venues. (Photo by Jo Hale/Getty Images)

Eliza Carthy is a UK musician who can boast of a long and highly successful career. The daughter of influential folk musicians Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, she began performing at the age of 13 and turned professional at just 17.

Over a career spanning more than 25 years, she has twice been nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize for her solo albums, has composed music for film, theatre and television, regularly presents BBC radio shows, and is the patron of a number of music festivals. In 2014 she was awarded an MBE for services to music.

But this year her professional life has been turned upside down by a pandemic that has stopped almost all live performances in the UK since the end of March.

“For the very first time in my life, I’m actually going to have to sign on,” Carthy says. “I have to see next week if I’m eligible for Universal Credit.”

So farewell to the life of the singer?

Despite the UK government’s efforts to prop up a creative sector worth £11.7bn to the economy with furlough schemes and grants, even some of the most successful artists are slipping through the cracks.

Carthy qualified for a small business grant at the beginning of lockdown but has not qualified for subsequent self-employment grants. With that money spent and needing to support her children and parents, one of whom is very sick, she has run out of options.

The government has distributed £409m in grants to arts organisations in recent weeks, but saving venues does not necessarily equate to support for struggling artists, particularly with social distancing restrictions increasing across the country as winter draws in.

Carthy fears a talent drain across the country: “I was praying to whatever it is I believe in that Boris Johnson, [UK culture secretary] Oliver Dowden and Rishi Sunak were going to come up with something, but there’s just nothing for us.”

In October, Sunak sparked outrage when he seemed to suggest that those in the arts unable to work should consider retraining. Though the UK chancellor later claimed he was misquoted, his comments reinforced the view that the sector was being undervalued and misunderstood.

Eloise Tong, the general manager of Theatre Bristol, a sector support organisation, says: “There are loads of conversations happening nationally about the sector – we’re seeing lots in the media about it. But artists feel like they’re not part of those conversations, that they’re being spoken ‘about’ but not ‘with’.”

Creative industries are hugely valuable to the UK economy

The UK government set out a ‘sector deal‘ for the creative industries in 2018, with £150m in funding aimed at increasing exports and inbound foreign direct investment.

Data from the UK government’s Department of Cultural, Media and Sport (DCMS) released in July 2020 shows that between 2010 and 2018 the gross added value (GVA) of creative industries grew much faster than for all DCMS sectors.

That total GVA in 2018 represented an increase of 43.2% in real terms since 2010, compared with the UK economy as a whole, which grew just 1.4% over the same period.

This growth has been driven by small organisations. Only 44 of the nearly 296,000 businesses active in the sector had an annual turnover of more than £500m, and those smaller businesses accounted for £85bn of the £111.7bn of GVA.

A thriving creative industries sector has not just benefitted the UK domestically but has also supported exports. Since 2010 the trade surplus for DCMS sectors has also been steadily increasing.

Despite suggestions of retraining, the sector also has the potential to sustain jobs over the long term. A 2015 report by Nestor, a charitable organisation focused on innovation, estimated that 87% of creative jobs in the UK were at low or no risk of automation in the future.

All of this highlights how important protecting the arts will be for the UK’s economic recovery from the pandemic.

Yet the resilience of the sector is being severely tested. Research published by Oxford Economics in July 2020 predicted a £77bn turnover loss for creative industries in the UK in 2020, with employee numbers dropping by 122,000 alongside a further 287,000 jobs lost for self-employed workers.

The UK government’s attempts at supporting the arts sector

The centrepiece of the government’s support package for creative industries has been its £1.6bn Cultural Recovery Fund (CRF), for which two rounds of funding have been announced. A report from the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) estimates that the CRF will boost the DCMS sectors’ GVA by £1.4bn and should see them return to pre-lockdown levels by 2022.

Kevin Appleby, the concert hall manager at Turner Sims in Southampton, says the CRF has been a lifeline to many organisations at a critical time.

“There are a number of venues that were right at that stage of just not being able to continue and have been able to pull back from that simply because of this support that has come through,” he says.

To receive grants, organisations needed to apply to the government based on what funding they required to keep afloat through to 31 March 2021. The UK Arts Council administered the funds for the arts sector, and a spokesperson for the public body says the funding decisions were “demand-led with the specific aim of preventing vulnerable but valued cultural organisations [ceasing to exist]”.

“Applicants also needed to show they are culturally significant, and applications have been assessed by Arts Council teams based in our nine offices across England, who have expert and broad knowledge of both their local areas and the cultural sector,” the spokesperson adds.

Some have complained of a lack of transparency and others that the best-known venues and organisations have done proportionately better than others. A degree of contention is perhaps inevitable given the grants are partly based on cultural value, a subjective measurement.

Of the £75m in larger grants, London-based organisations received just over £22m, with other regions seeing similar amounts. On a per capita basis London did disproportionately better from the £333m in grants of £1m or less, however.

Rather than showing a regional bias, this may just be because London has a higher density of arts organisations. This tallies with the DCMS’s own data that shows half of all creative industry GVA is based in London. Even so, this heavy weighting to the capital leaves a government that has talked so much about ‘levelling up’ the country open to criticism.

Artists and other professionals are still struggling

While the efforts to save imperilled venues have been widely welcomed, many argue not enough is being done to support individuals.

Self-employed workers were excluded entirely from the initial furlough scheme. Though that was later rectified, many working in the arts still find themselves unsupported as they typically worked on temporary contracts or through a mixture of self-employment and pay-as-you-earn.

Theatre Bristol received a small business grant at the beginning of lockdown, but Tong says that many other organisations across the South West missed out, often because artist groups share working spaces to save costs. Yet grants were only available for one per building. She also criticises the communication regarding eligibility.

“I think the government support was very black and white,” Tong says. “For the people who received it, it was brilliant, it was a lifeline, at a time when they had no income coming in. But for many others, they just couldn’t access it because they didn’t fit that exact criteria.”

London’s deputy mayor Justine Simons says that the pandemic has brought attention to the wider supply chain of creative industries and says the mayor’s office has been emphasising the need to “support the whole cast, not just the headline acts”.

“We want support to be intelligently designed to support the whole ecosystem because it’s like a table, isn’t it? If you take a few legs off, it falls over,” she adds.

Unemployment across the economy has hit young people the hardest, with data from think tank the Resolution Foundation showing that one in three 18 to 24-year-olds either became unemployed or were furloughed during the first three months of the pandemic.

Simons says: “I think the risk here is that we lose a generation of people who are at the beginning of their careers in the creative economy.”

The government’s missed opportunities

Venues and artists have been forced online to create streamed and recorded performances in the absence of live events, but monetising digital events is difficult.

Carthy has continued performing online, but performers often have to rely on donations via tip jars. “I started a coffee account – buy Eliza Carthy a coffee; you can donate a fiver or however much you want,” she says. “I’ve been keeping that as a sort of emergency fund for the band that was due to come on tour with me earlier this year.”

Turner Sims in Southampton, like other venues across the country, has been experimenting with broadcasting performances. Some of the most successful venues, such as Wigmore Hall in London, have streamed these performances for free online. Most venues, however, have to charge to make them economically viable.

At the end of June 2020, the government’s Dowden set out a five-stage roadmap for reopening venues. The government moved to stage four at the beginning of August, which allowed indoor performances to resume, albeit with limited and socially distanced audiences.

Kevin Appleby of Turners Sims says: “Stage four, with limited audiences is not financially viable… 25-30% capacity of audiences, even allowing for everybody working their hardest to try and make something work, doesn’t stack up financially.”

Appleby adds that there was great enthusiasm from audiences to return when stage four began, but since the locally tiered lockdown restrictions were introduced in recent weeks “that nervousness is coming back again”.

Dowden had floated the idea of a ‘seat out to help out’ scheme, which would see the government top up the revenues for events faced with reduced audiences. A similar scheme to support restaurants in the summer proved popular.

While there was enthusiasm for such a scheme from the sector, it appears to have been shelved by the government, and any imminent introduction seems unlikely given the rising number of Covid-19 cases across the country.

Increased uncertainty is making it almost impossible for venues, promoters and artists to schedule a programme of events that in normal times would take months or even years of planning.

Appleby says: “On 26 November we are due to be filming a live-stream concert with a limited audience in the auditorium, but even at this point I have no idea whether it will happen or not.”

Arts are more than just economically valuable

There is still optimism from many that, like other parts of the economy, the arts can be built back better.

Deputy mayor Simons says that the perception of all artists being well-paid needs to be challenged: “The average salary of an artist or a dancer is something like £10,000… well below the London Living Wage. A tiny percentage within the creative economy earns very good money, but the real bulk of the work in the sector is done by people on low pay.”

Organisations such as the Musicians’ Union have called for a universal basic income for those working in the arts, similar to the scheme announced recently in San Francisco. Proponents say this would not only protect vulnerable workers during the pandemic but also broaden access to the sector to those from less privileged backgrounds.

In a country where discussions of any kind of government benefit are highly politically charged, such a scheme would be guaranteed to meet some level of opposition. But the question for the government is, how valuable is the arts sector in its view, and how much time, energy and resources is it willing to invest in trying to support it?

Simons thinks the government needs a “five-year plan for the creative recovery of the nation”, which would include safely reopening all venues, creating public confidence to return to those venues, rebalancing the labour market, introducing tax breaks to encourage investment, and looking at ways culture can increase tourism and community cohesion.

The value of the arts is not just evidenced in purely economic terms but also by all of the books, music, television and films that have been consumed during the pandemic. These works of art have been a comfort in the most testing of times.

What value should we place on that?