Let's use this breathing space wisely

Take a breath.

Two weeks ago, I was talking with friends in the local café about the worsening situation in Italy, and thinking that the International Community Art Festival in Rotterdam might be cancelled. Ten days ago, I wrote a post about how I thought Arts Council England could protect cultural life as theatres and galleries started to close. Today, the British government is building a 4,000 bed emergency hospital in a London conference centre. The number of (known) coronavirus infections rises like a rocket. The number of deaths is much smaller, but follows the same trajectory. Soon, more of the world’s population will be staying at home (if they have one) than those who are maintaining the services on which all our lives depend.

Take. A. Breath.

The speed and scale of what is happening to us is incomprehensible. TV screens and websites show glimpses of it – deserted landmarks and empty streets, overworked health services, politicians at their podiums – but we only know our small patch of the world: a flat, a garden if we’re lucky, a few familiar paths we can still use. We are physically isolated, alone or in small family groups, but socially connected (no wonder the instruction to practice ‘social distancing’ has been so unhelpful). We talk all the time, sharing jokes, hopes and reassurance, but uncertainties and fears too. Strangely, given that we’re working from home or have lost our work, there seems to be so much more to do. I finish 10 or 11 hour days exhausted but guilty for the things I haven’t completed. Who knew that reorganising our lives could be so time consuming?

Take a deep breath…

Last night, Arts Council England announced a £160 million package of support for cultural organisations and the freelance workers on which they depend. It took ACE 10 days. Ten days to understand that everything had changed, to assess where dangers might lie and how to mitigate them, to set aside legal processes and precedents established over decades, to negotiate with government, and plan how to communicate proposals to thousands of people with different needs and expectations. Ten days, much of it working from home, with children and vulnerable loved ones to care for. I’ve known the Arts Council for decades, mostly from outside, but also through years as a trustee (2005-13). I’ve often argued against its ideas, processes and decisions, but I have also admired many of those who work there and I’ve seen it transformed in recent years into a much better organisation. I’m often met with scepticism when I say as much to friends and colleagues whose work depends on its decisions. What ACE has done in the past ten days makes me think my assessment was not wrong, and the people who have made this happen deserve the respect and gratitude of everyone who cares about the cultural sector.

What has been announced – like every decision made by ACE – is open to question. It will not please everyone. There are some choices I personally might have made differently. None of that matters. Faced with an existential crisis, an institution whose responsibilities inevitably make it cautious has acted intelligently, decisively and fast. It has provided the resources to prevent an imminent, catastrophic collapse of the public cultural sector in England. But it has not solved the crisis, which is much greater than what is happening in our small part of the world. The funding ACE has brought forward amounts to about two months of lost box office income for the NPO sector. It is an emergency rescue package that can achieve only one thing: buy time to regroup and prepare for what must surely be different – and difficult – times to come.

ACE is very clear about why and how it has acted, and the effect of its decisions on future plans:

This funding has come from reallocation of National Lottery Project Grants, Developing Your Creative Practice and our Development Funds for the 2020-21 period, and uses up almost all of our reserves

Arts Council England website 24 March 2020 (emphasis added)

In the accompanying press release ACE says that:

‘This package is focused on dealing with the immediate crisis. To secure the long-term recovery and reboot of the cultural sector we will need to work closely with the government and other partners on further actions.’

ACE has bet the farm on this package. It has held nothing back, which means that there is only one chance to get this right. Now.

Take a breath.

Because speed is critical, ACE will publish guidelines for applications to the new funding within a week, on 30 March. Anyone wanting to apply will need to register by 3 April on ACE’s web portal. What happens then will probably not be pretty. The need is huge, and the resources are limited. People will be making applications under immense pressure, rethinking long-held plans in the light of current events. People assessing applications will be operating new systems with different criteria, working from home and dealing with their own pressures. Frustration and error are inevitable in these circumstances. Some applications will fail that should not. It would require the wisdom of Solomon to avoid it.

The Arts Council has bought the public cultural sector a breathing space, rightly but at great cost to itself. If it is true that this package will exhaust ACE’s reserves – and there’s no reason to doubt it – there will be only one chance to get this right. What that means will be different for every theatre, gallery, museum, orchestra, dance company, community art group and all the individual artists who create work with and through them. Each of us must decide what to do now, and how best to protect the people and the work we cherish. ACE has given us a breathing space. There will be disagreement about how to use it – the arts world is disputatious and all the better for it – but we must keep the bigger picture always in mind.

We must see the cultural ecosystem in which every person, every organisation, every cultural expression, has a legitimate place. We must prize mutuality and solidarity above sectarian interest. We must use what resources we still have, whether we lead a great institution or a neighbourhood arts group, to protect the most vulnerable. Those with the broadest shoulders should take more of this burden, and that might mean some redistribution to help those on freelance contracts and minimum wages, those on the margins, whose voices have not been heard, those who have always had less easy paths to the work, the stages and the funding. Let’s live up to art’s inclusive values. We have one shot. Let’s be our best.

And we must also make the difficult leap to imagine what our organisation and our work might be in three or six months’ time. It would be a mistake, I think, to imagine that we will come out of our homes, reopen our venues and pick up where we were in February 2020. The economic recession that has already begun will be only the most obvious force reshaping the post-pandemic world. I’ve no idea what is coming, but not expecting it to be what was before is the only way to prepare for it. This really changes everything.

Thanks to Arts Council England, we have a breathing space. Please, let’s use it wisely.

Ensuring the people and organisations that make up our arts, museums and libraries are protected during the Coronavirus crisis is our number one priority.

Arts Council England 24 March 2020

Take a deep breath. Good luck.

For the sake of transparency, I should say that I’ve never had a grant from ACE, though I have been commissioned by organisations who have and I’ve done occasional consultancy work for it in the past, though not for many years. I won’t be applying for support from its fund for freelance artists.