Culture in Crisis: The Arts, Defunded

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There are three things to say about the government announcement of £1.8 billion for the Culture, Arts and Heritage sector announced in early July. First, for those who work in a sector of the economy that employs about 270,000 people this is potentially a lifeline. Second, compared to the funding provided by other (mostly European) governments for the same purpose, it is a pittance. Third, one of the effects of this money is that it will deepen the inequalities that already scar the different forms that make up the creative industries.
Let’s be clear, this cultural subsidy is geared towards a very particular view of “culture” which excludes almost all music, film and television. So, it is directed towards live performance and the venues occupied by them and as a result this article focuses on that. The creative (and related hospitality) industries face the same dilemma as any other area of the economy. Having avoided the instant effect of lockdown mass unemployment through the furlough scheme, the problem of mass unemployment at the end of the furlough scheme is now rapidly becoming urgent.
That’s the case across the economy but in a sector that almost relies on the absence of physical distancing that problem becomes all the more acute. Secondly, that the money is a pittance compared to other countries becomes all the more insulting when we consider the sums the Tories have been prepared to pump into other areas. And that’s even before we remember the bail-outs for the banks 12 years ago. The reason for this miserliness, I explore below. Third, as theatre and film director Nicholas Hytner made clear when interviewed on the day of the announcement, the distribution of the money will be weighted towards establishment cultural institutions and not to — and I’m quoting — “leftie political theatre companies playing in fringe venues”.
The theatre company I work with had a production in a small London venue “postponed” in May and at the time of writing I can’t see how that “leftie political play” in a “fringe venue” is going to happen.
The venue — an awardwinning fringe theatre — may not get any of the government’s announced cash and is barely surviving on donations from past audience members. Thirty years ago, author Alan Sinfield described the ways in the Arts Council has become “subject to close central control, as the linked crises of the economy and state legitimation have produced stresses and strains”. That situation has only got more acute over time. What underlines these issues is the definition of “culture” being used to inform these decisions.
First of all, culture is seen as being defined by institutions rather than activity and, while it is true that we need to interrogate the institutions through which an idea of culture is being filtered and presented, in the traditions of Raymond Williams and Leon Trotsky I want to emphasise the activity — the work — that goes into cultural production. Secondly, the word “culture” has been in recent years more and more displaced by the term “creative industries”. Which reveals a mindset that sees cultural production not as being about human beings expressing their concerns, fear, worries and hopes about the world and their place in it, so much as being a source of profit-making activity. The present regime in this country has an especially “pragmatic” view of cultural production.
It is a creative industry and, like any other industry, for them the essential driving force is profit — in this case to some extent deflected by the external income generated by the activity. But as long as cultural production remains tied to a commercial logic, this crisis will continue. So, a factor in the government’s thinking about how this money is to be used has been the importance of London West End theatres — almost wholly dominated by musicals — to tourism and the income that generates. Billionaire impresario Cameron Macintosh announced, before the arrival of the government money, that re-opening the big London theatres wasn’t going to be economically viable with physical distancing measures.
So, state subsidy, along with the general erosion of distancing measures, will be sweet sounds in his ears. Even for large regional venues like Plymouth Theatre Royal and the smaller community-based Torrington Plough Arts Centre, the money — even if they get any of it — is irrelevant. Both have already announced redundancy plans for the majority of their workers. For other, similar places the same or closure is likely if it hasn’t already happened. Subsequently, access to cultural production in the form of live performance will shrink along with a narrowing of that cultural production towards almost-guaranteed bums on seats.
As a result, dance and theatre beyond live or livestream from the Royal Ballet, the National Theatre and the RSC, theatre beyond commercial transfers, classical music beyond the obvious repertoire are all likely to be pressured into effective nonexistence. Alongside this, funds will continue to flow towards already heavily subsidised forms that have a reputation — sometimes well-earned — of being for ‘cultural elites’ only. Within each institution inequality exacerbates as we move down the organisation. At the top, there are the “staggeringly un-diverse” boards of management that continue to define the parameters of cultural activity. At the bottom, there are the legions of freelance workers whose pay and conditions of employment are exemplary of the precariousness and poverty of much employment these days.
Many of the latter have had no access to furlough schemes and will be the easiest jobs to shed as theatres and other venues close. So again, the nature of cultural production as a place of work and activity will narrow. Theatre work like the plays of Edward Bond and John Arden were made possible through the extensive state subsidy of the Royal Court, a venue which changed the nature of theatre in Britain away from the conservative blandness of the 1950s but which is now dependent on West End transfers as that state support has all but disappeared. To avoid this depressingly likely outcome we desperately need a different view of culture that takes us away from the present philistine and impoverished idea that good culture is either moneymaking or feeds dominant bourgeois ideologies. This view is currently so pervasive that even the slightly liberal thoughts of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s director, Greg Doran, sound breath-takingly radical: “The hunger for the arts during the crisis is there for all to see. Theatre and the arts give strength to people in difficult times, they lift the spirits and bring a sense of community, which is desperately needed right now.”
But, to finish on a more optimistic note. Every crisis has the potential to give birth to the new and it may be that what emerges are new forms that come from necessity but are at the same time rooted in more democratic ways of cultural production. In the short term, without the possibility of venues re-opening, the better resourced venues have made much of their past work available through websites. Technology is going to play a greater part, as people experiment with new ways of working. Zoom has opened some doors and formats like this offer some hope.
We’ve discovered that, in times like this, we can go on working producing smaller scale pieces. Here is the route to some of the short pieces our company have produced:
Richard Bradbury is a playwright and author. Visit riversmeetproductions.co.uk and riversmeetproductions. co.uk/blog/ for more on this article