Three and a half weeks after announcing amid fanfares and praise that it was allocating £1.57 billion to the cultural industries, the government’s latest episode in its stuttering attempts to rescue the arts sector got off to a bad start.
Despite promises by the Minister Oliver Dowden and a press release issued by his department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that his proposals to bail out theatres would be explained on the Arts Council England web site, nothing was there.
Sadly, many might feel that this symbolises the care and consideration that the government has shown for the arts from the start of the pandemic.
Our politicians seem more interested in coming up with new slogans—the latest is “Jump-start”—than actually feeding those creative types who by now may literally be starving.
The big headline was a promise that £500 million, which appears to be new money, would be found to kickstart film and television production. Readers may note that this exactly matches the amount to be shared across the whole of the arts and cultural sector at this stage by Arts Council England.
For the avoidance of doubt, the latter sum has to be shared amongst theatres, music and comedy venues and museums. To quote from Mr Dowden, the package will have to be spread around to “protect buildings, organisations and people”.
Representing a government that seems intent on passing the buck in so many areas of our diminished lives, he went on to say, “today, we’re publishing guidance so organisations know how to access help. We’re also calling on organisations to be creative in diversifying their income streams and the public to continue supporting the places they love so this funding can be spread as far and wide as possible”.
This writer would love to know how he thinks that closed theatres can diversify their income streams.
Bizarrely, the remaining £258 million for cultural organisations across the board is to be reserved for a second round of funding later in the financial year (to March 2021) “to meet the developing needs of organisations”. Why this money isn’t available immediately when it is so desperately needed is not explained.
In addition, £270 million of the original package is to be provided by way of loans to help large organisations that will not qualify for grant funding.
To quote from so many respondents after the last effort, this package is “too little too late”, although we still do not know exactly how late.
The crisis has clearly become acute since, in interviews, Dowden confirmed that the next review of social distancing will not take place until November, far too late for theatres to open this year or, in most cases, before the spring of 2021.
To make matters worse, “successful applicants for grants will need to have an innovative plan for how they will operate and be sustainable for the remainder of this financial year, and be able to demonstrate their international, national or local significance. Smaller organisations must show how they benefit their local community and area.”
Frankly, this is likely to be the kiss of death for many organisations that do not have enough money to survive for the rest of the financial year.
It also begs questions about how much time and money it will take to generate the paperwork to support the proposition, which will need budgets and accounts, that organisations have such an innovative plan and are suitably “significant”.
Once again, the main interest appeared to be in issuing a press release that would show those involved in a good light, with quotes from admiring fans, not of the arts but of Dowden and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak.
There was also news about the creation of a Cultural Recovery Board, which will be chaired by Sir Damon Buffini, currently Chair of the National Theatre. Why this was not put in place months ago is yet another unanswered question.
Once again, the government is shouting loudly but seemingly achieving very little, at least for theatres, their workforces and the large battalions of the self-employed who have received even less help than their colleagues who now face imminent redundancy.