Peak culture

Arts Council England (ACE) has now closed its first two emergency funds, worth £70 million, for individuals and for organisations outside the national portfolio. Grants are being awarded, though it will be impossible to help all 14,000 people who applied. A £90 million fund for regularly-funded organisations (NPOs is the Arts Council term) will open shortly. ACE has calculated that a month of closure costs its NPOs roughly £80 million. It’s obvious that, even with cost savings and furloughed staff, organisations who rely on box office income will find it harder to keep afloat with every passing week. It is a bitter irony that those who’ve adapted best to 40 years of government demands to be more entrepreneurial are now often the most vulnerable. Darren Henley, ACE’s chief executive, has taken this moment to reflect on what has been achieved and what is still to come. His assessment is clear-sighted and honest, and should be read by anyone concerned for the future of cultural life:

‘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.’

Darren Henley, Arts Council England, 1 May 2020

For all its measured, careful language, this is a grim warning. In recent weeks, I’ve swung between thinking that everything is going to change and telling myself not to catastrophize. I honestly don’t know which is right. Perhaps we will muddle through somehow, and get back to some version of how things were. It’s not impossible, but some things seem beyond doubt:

  • These weeks of lockdown, stress, worry and grief will not leave us untouched. We will need time to heal and recover (and in different ways because we are experiencing this crisis very differently, too).
  • We will be poorer, individually and as societies. Many jobs and good businesses will be lost. The cost of this crisis and its effects on national economies far outstrip the 2008 crash, and it is hard to see policies that failed last time being accepted now.
  • Social distancing will remain in place for months, perhaps years to come. It will affect everything from public transport to night clubs, and people’s tolerance for it will vary greatly.

More speculatively, I have the impression that people’s values are changing, and that we will place new importance on community solidarity and social contact unmediated by technology, at least for a while.

Things will become clearer as we start moving out of lockdown, but it’s hard to see how these things won’t matter. And if they do, they’ll have a profound effect on how we create, share and enjoy culture. The gathering of large numbers on which the performing arts especially depend – from concert halls to festivals – looks impossible in the absence a Covid-19 vaccine, but when might that come? I hear optimistic forecasts, but we’re still waiting for a vaccine for HIV. The arts and culture sector has expanded immensely during the course of my working life. There are far more people working in the field than in 1980, far more organisations, institutions and venues, far more media technologies and outlets, and far more product looking for consumers.

More than 20 years ago, I asked a grandee of the arts world how much art was enough. In full lobbying mode, he didn’t even try to think about the question. The cultural economy has expanded hugely since then, and the scale of supply has made art a buyer’s market, on its way to becoming a subscriber’s market. There really is an unimaginable quantity of novels, films, plays, pictures, music and other creative stuff. Is this ‘peak culture’, the point at which we reach the maximum production of cultural goods and experiences?

That isn’t a complaint – well, only a mild one. Overproduction in culture is less damaging to the environment and to humans than it is in most sectors of the economy. Culture is often transitory anyway, and what doesn’t find an audience fades away (at least it did before the unforgetting Internet). Culture has been recycling and renewing since the dawn of time. But if the crisis is going to change artists’ existing business models, then it would be good to start imagining how to make art that is economically, environmentally and socially sustainable now. Darren Henley says that the Arts Council’s new 10 year strategy, launched two months before the crisis, will be more important than ever now. I believe he is right, if it can fulfil its promise to:

‘Value the creative potential in each of us, provide communities in every corner of the country with more opportunities to enjoy culture, and celebrate greatness of every kind.’

Sir Nicholas Serota, Let’s Create, ACE 2020

We might be forced to change, but there are always choices about how to do it.