Lockdown restrictions on many leisure pursuits are lifting tomorrow. If you want to avoid the anticipated crowding in your local pub, or can’t get a restaurant reservation, can you enjoy your local cultural venue instead? Unless you live in London, where large venues such as the National Gallery and The Royal Academy of Arts are reopening next week, the answer is probably ‘no’.
Over the last couple of decades, public funding for the arts has all but dried up. Most venues now devote as much time and energy to business ventures as they do the culture they provide. Today we learned that the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London will go bust before its 150th birthday in March, if it can’t raise sufficient funding.
Locally, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park has confirmed that it will not be reopening tomorrow. It raises 80 per cent of its running costs from catering, car parking and shopping. For such venues, the lockdown has created a catch-22 situation. Without the commercial arm generating income, staff cannot be brought out of furlough. This means there is no one to open the gates.
The cultural sector has been one of the hardest hit parts of the economy during the last few months. This is mainly down to the mixed revenue streams they have been forced to adopt, as public money was cut and cut. Many smaller galleries and museums are now facing insolvency. Help for the sector has been slow in coming. Not all are eligible for the emergency grants on offer, even if they have the staff to make the funding applications.
The arts are vital to help us think differently and to understand other perspectives. They are essential for our mental health and success in all part of our lives. They give us the space to suspend established ways of seeing, triggering innovative ideas and a capacity for change. Never in our lives, have these traits been more important. And on a practical level, the creative industries sector contributes a massive £111bn to the UK economy every year (compared with fishing, for example, which only contributes £1.4bn a year) – much of which is now at risk.
The Peace Museum in Bradford is primarily funded by educational visits. Its collection of peace and protest artefacts is contemporary. It includes items relevant to the dilemmas of modern life. A Kindertransport suitcase from a child refugee fleeing Nazi Germany stimulates children to think what they would take if war disrupted their lives. The pandemic has driven change and innovation, but without a creative spirit of enquiry generated by the arts, a whole generation will miss out.
The Art Fund, a national charity, is unlocking ‘respond and reimagine’ grants worth £2m. And the public funded Arts Council is making Covid emergency response funds available to keep venues open. But many small and independent museums and galleries who survive on their entrepreneurial income will not last the course.
The Peace Museum, along with many other venues, is waiting until September before reopening. “No one knows whether the public will visit or whether we can go into schools. It’s impossible to plan, the uncertainty is scary” says Jack Lynch from the Peace Museum. “Once the flurry of emergency funds dry up, six months down the line who knows what will happen”.
The Peace Museum has a call out for contributions to a new exhibition on the global impact of the pandemic on communities across the UK and beyond.