Just over a week ago, a group of the great and the good from the world of the arts comprising something like 200 signatories wrote an open letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In it, they begged (there is no other word) the man with his hands on the nation’s purse strings to take precipitate action in order to save the self-employed in the creative industries from starvation. More relevantly, they expressed a valid concern that the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme is in no way adequate to retain highly trained and very talented individuals in their respective industries. Many may not qualify and those that do will probably find that a total sum of up to around £14,000 will be inadequate to tide them over for a year during which their trading income might literally be zero.
The specific request was simple. This was to extend the scheme until spring 2021, by which time there has to be a hope that theatres and other artistic venues might be reopening at something a little closer to full capacity. Even that may be unduly optimistic but who knows?
As the letter points out, freelancers make up approximately one third of the working capacity in the arts and, whichever the figure you choose to believe, this might represent somewhere in the region of 250,000 people in and around the theatre and possibly more.
Lo and behold, yesterday Arts Council England issued a press release proudly proclaiming £2 million of additional support for the self-employed, of which £1 million will go to the theatre. Nobody should ever look a gift horse in the mouth and any additional support is welcome. Indeed, Oliver Dowden is disproportionately enthusiastic, though speaking in the non-sequiturs so much favoured by ministers:
“This Government funding will help support our talented artists and freelancers in the cultural sector as we continue to open up cultural venues and live performances restart.
Our unprecedented £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund will of course stabilise organisations, and help secure the future of the performing arts to provide work for freelancers too.
Socially distanced indoor performances can now take place and I encourage people to support our wonderful music and theatre venues that are opening up by booking tickets and visiting them once again.”
The first question that springs to mind is whether the £2 million is actually new funding or merely money that was already earmarked and is now being dispensed.
The next observation, which will not need the skill set of a higher mathematician to comprehend, is that £1 million divided by 250,000 people comes to £4 each. Even if the estimated number of people is wrong by a multiple of 100%, that would still come to £8 per person, just about enough to buy lunch in Prêt a Manger, assuming that your local branch isn’t one of those that has bitten the dust.
Viewed from a different perspective, this funding is being siphoned through the Theatre Artists Fund, which was set up with the help of Sam Mendes. He was rightly proud when its major donor, Netflix, pumped in £500,000 to get things going.
Many of the self-employed who are already at starvation levels and could soon be facing eviction will probably not be smiling at the comedy of a situation in which a whole country’s resources yield only twice as much for their benefit as a single private company.
Taking the point a step further, the Fund has received £3.5 million in donations, i.e. if you remove the Netflix bonanza, the general public have given three times as much as Arts Council England.
This writer can only apologise to readers for the tedious repetition of his exasperated pleas to the government to start taking the theatre industry seriously. The bailout package is inadequate, leaving many of the highly skilled self-employed workers destitute and an industry that is of great value to the country on its knees. Rather than pussyfooting around and penny-pinching, real action is long overdue for theatres as a whole and all of those who work in them, that is if the government cares.