The coronavirus pandemic has badly impacted the UK cultural sector. Diverse activities from live performance and theatre productions, to exhibitions and galleries, have seen their revenues fall dramatically as venues have closed their doors and gatherings have been prohibited to maintain social distancing. According to the Office for National Statistics, the arts and entertainment industry saw a 44.5% reduction in monthly gross domestic product (GDP) output (according to gross value added (GVA)) in the three months up to June 2020 compared with the three months earlier, making it one of the sectors worst hit by the pandemic, as exemplified in the table below.

Image shows a table displaying data on the impact of coronavirus on the different sectors, for example construction, art and entertainment, and accommodation and food. The data show that from the arts and entertainment industry saw a 44.5% reduction in monthly GDP output (according to GVA) in the three months up to June 2020 compared with the three months earlier. This information was collated by the ONS.
Source: Office for National Statistics, ‘Monthly gross domestic product by gross value added’, 12 August 2020. Note: Statistics should be read in accordance with caveats provided in the original dataset.

The impact on employment in the industry has been similarly marked. Approximately 70% of workers in the arts and entertainment sector were furloughed under the Government’s coronavirus job retention scheme (CJRS), the second highest after accommodation and food services.

Image shows a table displaying percentage of employees furloughed by sector, showing that 70 percent of those employed in the arts, entertainment, recreation and other services sector have been furloughed.
Source: HM Revenue and Customs, ‘Coronavirus job retention scheme statistics: August 2020’. 21 August 2020. Note: ’Unknown and other’ category omitted. The data used includes claims submitted to HMRC by 31 July 2020 (the final date for CJRS claims for the period to 30 June 2020).

Some commentators such as Samuel West, chair of the National Campaign for the Arts (NCA), have argued that the impact of the pandemic has exacerbated underinvestment in the UK cultural sector, pointing to evidence provided by the NCA’s ‘Arts Index’ that shows public investment in arts per head of the population in England fell by 35% in the last decade. At the same time, the index shows earned income by arts organisations from revenue streams like box office ticket sales increased by 47%. The NCA argues this shift from subsidy to private income has left arts organisations and venues particularly exposed to the loss of income caused by the pandemic.

What has the Government done?

In October 2019, the Government had already announced a culture investment fund worth £250 million for the cultural and creative sector. Ministers contended this investment was “the biggest one-off government investment in cultural infrastructure, local museums and neighbourhood libraries in the last century”.

During the course of the pandemic, the Government announced a range of further support measures arts and entertainment organisations can access for support, including the self-employment income support scheme, the job retention scheme, business rates holidays, and an initial £160 million emergency response package provided by the Arts Council.

On 5 July 2020, the Government went further, announcing a £1.57 billion rescue package for the UK’s arts, culture and heritage industries. The measures included:

  • £1.15 billion support pot for cultural organisations in England delivered through a mix of grants and loans. This will be made up of £270 million of repayable finance and £880 million in grants.
  • £100 million of targeted support for the national cultural institutions in England and the English Heritage Trust.
  • £120 million capital investment to restart construction on cultural infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England, which was paused due to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The new funding will also mean an extra £188 million for the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland (£33 million), Scotland (£97 million) and Wales (£59 million).

Is it enough?

Announcing the changes, the Secretary of State for Culture, Oliver Dowden, said:

Our arts and culture are the soul of our nation. They make our country great and are the lynchpin of our world-beating and fast-growing creative industries. I understand the grave challenges the arts face and we must protect and preserve all we can for future generations. Today we are announcing a huge support package of immediate funding to tackle the funding crisis they face.

However, Mr Dowden also acknowledged this support would not be enough to safeguard every organisation or job in the arts and entertainment sector:

Sadly, not everyone is going to be able to survive and not every job is going to be protected and sadly, I will have to be honest with you, of course we will see further redundancies.

The support package has been welcomed by organisations across the sector, including the Arts Council England, the Royal Opera House, the Music Venue Trust, the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre. Arts Council chairman Sir Nicholas Serota said the funding was “a very good result”, and that it was now up to the arts organisations and the Arts Council to “make best use of this money and bring the arts back into communities across the county”. He added, this announcement “gives us the tools to help build a recovery”.

However, there has been criticism that the funding is a one-size-fits all model which does not take account of how some aspects of the industry work—for example, small comedy venues which remain closed.

A more tailored approach?

The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has also said the funding has come too late to save many organisations. The committee questioned the desire to return live sport—particularly football—ahead of theatre and performance:

Each year, more people attend the theatre than go to a league football match, yet while considerable effort has been made to resume professional football, the Government’s roadmap for when theatres will reopen has been vague and slow-coming. We welcome the Government’s announcement of a £1.57 billion support package for the arts, but it was too late for many in the sector and on its own will not be enough to stop mass redundancies and the permanent closure of our cultural infrastructure.

The committee called for a sector-specific deal for the performing arts that includes:

  • An extension to the furlough scheme for affected businesses until mass gatherings are permitted under the Government’s and devolved administrations’ Covid-19 guidelines.
  • Continued workforce support measures, including enhanced measures for freelancers and small companies.
  • Clear, if conditional, timelines for when they will be able to reopen, and technological solutions to enable audiences to return without social distancing.
  • Long-term structural support to rebuild audience figures and investment in an uncertain economic climate. This should involve new, sector-specific tax reliefs as well as an extended VAT cut for the sector.

The committee was also critical of the response of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to the pandemic across the board:

Finally, we examine how effectively DCMS has advocated for the sectors under its remit during this crisis. With many vital Government support schemes due to end, or not sufficiently covering those working in these sectors in the first place, we argue that DCMS’s position within Government, and a fundamental lack of understanding about how DCMS sectors and their workforces are structured, has hampered the support provided by Government during the outbreak.

A staged return

Since the committee published its recommendations, from 15 August 2020 socially distanced indoor and outdoor performances have been able to take place in adherence with updated government guidance. Classified as ‘stage 4’ of a roadmap to reopening—with stage 5 being a return to full capacity performances—the move has provided some relief to the sector and been welcomed by organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company. However, Jon Morgan, director of the Theatres Trust, contends that it will not be economically viable for many theatres to reopen when operating at 30 or 40 percent of their capacity.

Photo by Felix Mooneeram on Unsplash.