The end of the beginning

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First published: by Arts Council England, 1 May 2020

Arts Council England CEO, Darren Henley, writes about what comes next for culture and creativity in England, as we emerge from the initial shock of the Covid-19 emergency and look to the future. 

It’s now nearly six weeks since the UK was placed under lockdown. In the days since, we, like the rest of the country, have been coming to terms with the initial shock. It’s come as no surprise to me that the responses of the cultural sector during this time have been marked by their generosity just as much as their speed and ingenuity.  Artists, arts organisations, museums and libraries around the country have pivoted to produce content that we can access and enjoy in our homes. And they’ve shown just how important a part of their communities they are: I’ve seen libraries checking in on older or isolated users, arts centres repurposing their cafes to make meals for vulnerable community members, and costume departments manufacturing PPE for local hospitals.

For our part, at Arts Council England we’ve been working as quickly as possible to deliver our Emergency Response Package of £160 million. The first two funds, for individuals and organisations outside our portfolio, have now closed. We received around 14,000 applications across both funds, we began to inform applicants about our decisions for the first funds last week; we’ll be announcing more decisions on a rolling basis over the coming days, so don’t worry if you’ve yet to hear from us. We know we haven’t been able to help everyone who applied, and we’re truly sorry for that – but we hope that, collectively, this emergency funding will have done enough to prevent the fabric of the cultural sector from unravelling immediately.

But as the shock and dislocation of those early days has subsided, and we’ve grown accustomed to our radically altered environment, a bigger, more complex question has begun to present itself. What comes next? All the indications are that we will have to find ways to live with Covid-19 for quite some time, continuing to practice social distancing as scientists work towards a vaccination. This means the cultural sector must begin to consider how to deal not simply with a massive but time-limited financial shock, but with a long-term change to its economic circumstances; and how to adapt to new and constantly shifting ways of working and engaging with the public. And it means that, having launched a series of emergency funds to deal with the first wave of this crisis, the Arts Council’s job is far from done.

But what we have now, which we lacked in March when the crisis first struck, is notice. Thanks to the experiences of countries who encountered Covid-19 ahead of us, we have an emerging sense of what the months ahead may look like, and consequently a chance to prepare. It’s vital that we seize that chance. So now, the Arts Council is moving into a new phase of planning for the longer-term: to help our sector to find stability where possible, to reopen as and when it’s safe to do so, and ultimately to reset, as we consider how to realise the ambitions laid out in our new strategy, Let’s Create. The world that we emerge into when this crisis is finally over will inevitably look very different from the one into which our strategy was launched, and all of us will need to find new ways of operating within it. But I passionately believe that, in the wake of our experiences of Covid-19, Let’s Create’s fundamental commitment to creativity, culture and the collective power of communities will be more important than ever.

What we do will be informed by wider government planning to support our economy and to lead us safely out of the lockdown.  I am extremely grateful for the responsiveness of DCMS ministers and officials and their counterparts at HM Treasury. We know from data we’re collecting that government support is making a significant and positive difference to our sector already.  We’ve found that DCMS colleagues have open ears and we’re continuing to have productive and regular conversations with them.

As well as active conversations about these issues with local and national government, our planning also involves gathering as much evidence as possible about the effect of this crisis on our sector and audiences, and as a result we’re gaining a far clearer understanding of the differing needs of different parts of our sector.  A key question we need to understand the answer to is when the cultural sector itself is able to bear the financial risk of reopening. This in turn depends on when visitors and audiences will feel confident to return.  We recognise the very different challenges that different parts of the cultural sector will face and therefore that different types and timing of support will be needed.

We will soon be publishing findings from a survey we’ve been conducting, which shows how organisations and individuals have experienced the impact of the crisis on their work. The data suggests that some organisations are more at risk than others, and over different timescales. For instance, we know some of our independent museums, who have large sites to maintain and who rely on commercial income, are particularly exposed now. For other organisations, such as some theatres, the threat will be far greater in a few months’ time. But the moment of need will come at different times for different organisations. The survey indicates that there’ll be significant challenges down the line if lockdown continues, as well as a new set of costs and impacts at the point when it begins to end.

While the need is different in different places, what is absolutely clear is that need does exist, in a way it never has done in living memory. When we announced our Emergency Response Package a month ago, we said we would do all we could to help. We have, and we will.  But in no sense do I wish to suggest we are through the worst.  The Arts Council does not have the resources to secure the income of individuals or the future of shuttered organisations through an extended lockdown, nor the ability to support the costs of reopening under changed circumstances. We hope that we have secured the sector’s immediate survival, in the face of an existential threat, but we know the hardest part comes next.

So, in summary, over the next weeks, we will work to gather data and get answers to some key questions; we will produce a plan for the stabilisation and reset of our sector; and we will continue to engage with government to help inform their thinking as they develop plans to get the economy moving and to rebuild communities in villages, towns and cities across England.   As always, we will do this in partnership with our stakeholders, and we will continue to listen carefully and closely to you in order to fully understand the challenges you’re grappling with as we develop this work. 

Image: Unload/Unplug, Pell Ensemble at Frequency Festival 2019 Photo: (c) Electric Egg
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