Whose bailout is it anyway? Saving the Arts may not save Culture

Empty Theatre (almost) | An experiment with HDR. | Flickr

The recent announcement by the government that they are giving a £1.57bn ‘bailout’ to the UK’s arts and cultural sector has been hugely welcoming. As far as traditionally culture-shy and fiscally prudent Conservative governments go, it is a huge amount; it is almost three times the annual budget of Arts Council England. But when you consider it against the pay out in France of €7bn and the fact that the UK creative sector is worth £111.7bn it suddenly seems a relatively austere investment.

But despite that, and after weeks of campaigning, it will no doubt save some of our most valued and treasured cultural institutions (although it may too late for some). It is certainly a substantial amount that begs the question, where is all this money going and will it go to the people who need it most?

For me, there are three very important issues that can’t be swept away with the tidal wave of relief that this much-needed cash injection for these cultural institutions brings.

First, the important word in all this is ‘institutions’. Before the pandemic, the arts and cultural sector was critiqued for being elitist, London-centric and to beholden to the whims of commercial deals and private funding (thereby negating ‘risky’ but more diverse and community-engaged) projects. These issues for the sector aren’t going to go away unless this ‘bailout’ is used to address them. But any ‘strings’ that come attached with the bailout are unlikely to effect positive change in this regard; the fear is that the funds will come with further London-centrism, and come matched funding from private collaborators. Oliver Dowden has already said that any institution that receives the money will need to “prove how they contribute to wider economic growth”, rehashing a tired mantra that arts and culture need to be economic agents first and drivers of cultural enrichment second.

Second, the arts sector is a fragile ecosystem of freelancers and small bespoke firms all working with larger companies on project-based work. Will the bailout help to kick-start these projects? If so, it needs to filter down to the freelancers rapidly before many of them cease trading or have left the sector altogether. Large cultural institutions are not always the best agents in sustaining this freelance economy not least because of their imperfect knowledge. A freelance rescue fund (something that the creative workers union Bectu is helping to lobby for) would be a much better and more efficient way to get the money to where it is needed in the community, quicker. The Arts Council itself, prior to this news has already distributed £64.8m in emergency covid-19 grants to small cultural operators, so utilising their networks and extensive knowledge would be a wise move.

Saving the Royal Albert Hall in the present is one thing, but if a generation of school children do not see the events and programs within it as an important part of their education, then it will not survive in the future.

Third, the arts and cultural sector that is managed and governed via local councils has been decimated by over a decade of austerity, down 40% since 2010. Local councils’ arts budgets have been slashed to the bare minimum, music and theatre lessons have been squeezed from schools and socially-engaged artistic practices that aid in the alleviation of poverty, homelessness and mental illness have been almost entirely farmed out to charities. These charities do some incredible work, but the energies used up in simply raising the funds could be better directed toward more of the vital help they provide. The prolonged redaction of artistic practice from local council provisioning has transformed it form a public common good to a privilege afforded to only those who can afford it. Saving the Royal Albert Hall in the present is one thing, but if a generation of school children do not see the events and programs within it as an important part of their education, then it will not survive in the future. Central government spending on culture has been notoriously blinkered, with glitzy events and culture competitions, but with very little substance and long-lasting effects (one just has to look at the failure of the cultural ‘legacy’ of the 2012 Olympics). In the 2019 general election campaign, Labour pledged a £1bn ‘Cultural Capital Fund’ that aimed to bolster the arts spending of schools and local councils; imagine what could be done with £1.57bn?

The arts and cultural sector – messily embedded as it is within the creative industries – was a thriving part of the pre-virus economy and if progressed sensitively and justly, it could be an important way out of poverty for many, and a great equalizer between the North and South of the country.

If Wetherspoons can be given a bailout, then it is absolutely right that one of the UK’s most profitable sectors does as well. However, to use it maintain its inequalities and dangerously narrow view of culture would be mistake. This is a chance to radically change how the arts are funded; don’t waste it by simply appeasing the cultural elite.

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