The outbreak of Covid-19 has plunged the whole world into uncertainty, impacting all industries in an unprecedented and troubling way, including the arts. Across the country, museums, galleries, cinemas, theatres and concert halls have fallen silent.
So, how will Britain support one of their most high-profile and lucrative industries?
For a while there was no clear message from the government. Doors gradually closed and events cancelled over the last few weeks as the virus spread. Glastonbury’s much-anticipated 50th anniversary festival was cancelled, the West-end closed down indefinitely, and the release of the new James Bond film was delayed.
“Theatres did not all shut in the blitz. This is a different thing altogether because performers are endangering everyone,” explained writer and presenter Melvyn Bragg from self-isolation.
Rob Fennah, co-producer of By the Waters of Liverpool, attempted to keep his spirits up: “We’re not going to let this get the better of us. We will relaunch early next year, bigger, bolder and as glorious as ever!”
Smaller independent arts businesses and freelances have been particularly struck by recent closures. There are 5 million self-employed workers in the UK and they are currently only entitled to the equivalent statutory sick pay of £94.25 per week, known as Universal Credit. “Emergency procedures have and will continue to cause a great deal of cancellations for artists,” asserted Marianna Simnett, a British film and performance artist. “My income, and [that of] many others, has taken a substantial hit as a result of the current situation.”
As a result of the crisis, Arts Council England (ACE) announced yesterday a staggering £160 million emergency fund. The crucial response package will prevent cultural organisations, freelancers and individual artists from going bust. Since the announcement of the UK-wide lockdown, the ACE also hopes these funds will encourage creative responses “to buoy the public”.
“None of us can hope to weather this storm alone,” confessed Sir Nicholas Serota, ACE chair. “But by working together in partnership, I believe we can emerge stronger, with ideas shared, new ways of working, and new relationships forged at the local, national and even international level.”
Despite the lockdown, this powerful idea of working together has spread across the country with communities finding new ways to connect with each other virtually.
Online movements are bringing the UK’s fascinating collections into the living rooms of the nation. Established by Sacha Coward and Dan Vo whilst self-isolating, #MuseumFromHome challenges art lovers to make quick videos about their favourite museum stories. PhD student and former Assistant Curator, Alex Jones, created a video explaining how an electrotype cup from the V&A in London ended up on the set of Game of Thrones.
Museums are increasing their online presence, providing virtual tours and daily content for us to consume from home. London’s Tate Modern is streaming a series of live performances by Congolese dance artist Faustin Linyekula from 20-29 March. Linyekula remarked that “it’s like sending energy out to my fellow humans out there and saying, ‘We’re alive’, and let’s remember how fragile it is.”
The arts industry is banding together to support the NHS as well. This week, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford coordinated a collection of over ten thousand gloves, masks and protective clothing to donate to front-line London ambulance workers.
Darren Henley, the chief executive of ACE, concluded that “this is a frightening time for all of us. But, as we distance ourselves from one another in our daily lives, I believe the role of arts and culture in helping to bring us all together will become ever more critical.”