O n 17 May, arts and cultural venues may reopen; indeed commercial galleries, by virtue of their status as shops, were able to open on 12 April. The public will be able to visit museums and art galleries, and book tickets for concerts and theatres. And they may do so with confidence: venues have become adept at putting safety measures in place and managing numbers to limit the risk posed by Covid-19. It will be a wonderful moment: audiences are hungry for art that is not flattened into a screen; for transporting live experiences in the company with others; for the miracle of real works of art, seen in person.
But these undoubted pleasures will mask the fact that the cultural sector of the UK economy – a growth area before the pandemic – is in trouble. This can easily be glimpsed in the latest figures released last week by the Office for National Statistics. These show that job vacancies in arts and entertainment, in the period January to March 2021, were down 79% on the equivalent period in 2020. It is by far the worst hit part of the economy, well ahead of even hospitality at 70%, and soaring above the average across all industries of 23%.
The government has rightly apportioned emergency funding to arts and heritage institutions – money that was welcome, arresting the plunge of many of them into bankruptcy. But it failed to support individual creative workers, most of whom are freelance, and many of whom are ineligible for government support. The government has also failed, despite repeated pleas, to help arts organisations with a scheme to support insurance for them – as it has rightly done for the television and film industries. This has led to a bizarre situation, especially for summer festivals. Events are being mothballed, despite being perfectly entitled to go ahead, because of the risk that government guidance could change and force their cancellation at the last moment, leaving them exposed to financial ruin. Industry figures warn that the current trickle of such cancellations could soon become a flood.
The loss of much-longed-for summer festivals is sad for audiences, but catastrophic for cultural jobs. For every festival that is not going ahead there will be artists and technicians no longer working – not to mention front-of-house staff, security guards, cleaners and bar staff. Amid all this, the workers affected have of course adapted – driving vans, stacking shelves, taking teaching work.
As the veteran folk singer Peggy Seeger has recently pointed out, that’s no trivial matter: art is a daily practice and discipline, not something that can be dropped and picked up at will. According to those on the right, all this is absolutely fine: it’s simply market forces at work. Some even talk of a welcome winnowing down – if the pandemic sees the weakest go to the wall, then so be it. This view is careless, and despicable. You can judge a society by the respect accorded to its artists, and there’s something going badly wrong in a country that lets someone who’s trained half a lifetime to achieve a pitch of miraculous skill unable to use it.