The State of the Arts
by Lee Reynolds, conductor
The arts sector in the UK is bleeding out. We have been calling for help for months now, and still none comes. We are starting to fear that the ambulance may not be on its way.
The Covid-19 pandemic, and the need to keep our distance from each other, means that performances cannot take place in a way that is remotely sustainable, and nearly every branch of the arts sector is affected. This article focuses on the challenges facing opera and classical performance — this is not to ignore the hardship of other sectors, but simply because I am far less qualified to write about those areas. The problems below are not exclusive to classical performance.
This is not an article I wanted to write — nobody would. However, the problems we face can be found everywhere, and we cannot pretend everything is fine.
Social distancing rules mean that most venues are able to use roughly one audience seat in five. Any company that suddenly brought in only 20% of the sales revenue it had expected would quickly collapse.
Public Health England put a limit of eight woodwind and brass players playing together at the same time. I am told that this decision was made — almost unbelievably — by simply taking some research done into how breath is expelled by athletes exercising, and copying it across as if it were to apply to someone playing an oboe, or a horn, or singing. Detailed research has since been carried out into how musical activities might spread viruses, with results showing that nearly all ways of making music pose no greater risk than speaking at a normal volume. And yet the restrictions have remained in place, despite their crippling effect on the livelihoods of musicians.
The distance required between players has made making music in large ensembles nearly impossible. In recent months we have tried to perform complex orchestral works — a highly specialised skill at the best of times — spreading players at two metre intervals over distances of 30 metres or more. It is just not possible for musicians to hear one another, clarifying how this is not how orchestras are designed to function; the spontaneity and life of live performance are all too easily replaced by caution and micro-planning.
Many companies are doing their best to innovate to accommodate the new restrictions, not knowing how long they will last. However, these problems fade into insignificance when faced with the problem of money. The inescapable problem is that now, all live professional performance is even more wildly loss-making than in normal times, and it cannot last for long.
Let’s talk about the way the cultural sector runs in the UK, because it is not widely understood. Take an independent professional symphony orchestra, where the players are not salaried but are paid per ‘call’ — per rehearsal, per performance, per recording session, and so on. For this orchestra, a standard concert in normal times (including a conductor, probably one or more soloists, and a programme requiring a full symphony orchestra) simply cannot generate enough money from audience revenue to cover the costs of mounting the performance. It is just not possible. This is not because the performers are all paid lavish fees; most performers make a moderate living far out of proportion to their extensive training, skill and expertise.
Many such orchestral concerts, taken in isolation, will be budgeted to lose tens of thousands of pounds, even with every ticket sold. The shortfall is made up by grants from public bodies like the Arts Councils of the UK, from philanthropy, and from other smaller revenue streams (advertising, fees from recordings, etc). It will come as little surprise that opera, therefore, is even more expensive, given that as well as a full symphony orchestra, there is a cast and chorus, plus the extra costs of the production — scenery, lighting, stage management, theatre technicians, stage directors, movement directors, and many more.
Put simply, in normal times companies need to sell as close to maximum capacity as possible to minimise what is still a hefty loss, but hopefully a manageable-enough loss for the fundraising team to pull it over the line and stop the company going bust. Fundraising teams now face a triple challenge: they are now fundraising:
1) facing the urgent risk of the company’s very imminent collapse,
2) in order to fill a hole in the budget many times greater than normal, and
3) at a time when the UK as a whole is in a recession orders of magnitude deeper than any on record.
As a comparison, in Germany around 80% of the running costs of the country’s cultural organisations are covered by public money. In the UK, that number is around 20%. While UK companies should be applauded by fiscally conservative thinkers for developing a business model far less reliant on public funds than in other countries, this Conservative government are instead punishing them for it. Performers, who are always asked first to provide their services, their talents and their energies free of charge in times of national celebration, are the first to be abandoned in times of national hardship. As Dominic Cummings reportedly said on a video call about the arts emergency, “the fucking ballerinas can get to the back of the queue”.
The question that lies at the heart of this is: does something which does not make money deserve to exist? The answer in this case is (and shall always remain) YES.
There was, of course, the government’s widely-touted £1.57bn ‘rescue package’. Very little of this money has made it out of HM Treasury, through various funding bodies, and into the hands of arts companies yet. Furthermore, I learned recently, the ways in which it may be spent will mean it is of minimal impact in helping these companies create work — current understanding is that this money must be used to aggressively ‘mothball’ the organisation in order to prevent it being disbanded altogether; it will not help generate work for performers and creatives during these times of need.
So what does this mean for the future of the arts in the UK? Below is a bleak description of what will happen if nothing is done — and this is not a nightmare worst-case-scenario, but simply the only available outcome if the situation does not change quickly:
Once the furlough scheme ends in Autumn 2020 (which the Chancellor has stated will not be extended for the arts, nor any other sector), companies will have 100% of their overheads and their permanent staff to pay, and no way of bringing in nearly enough money to do so. Companies will face three options:
1) undergo the aggressive ‘mothballing’ of the company, making most staff redundant — to close the doors, ride out the storm and hope that they still exist when the storm is over.
2) If they determine they can continue creating some output at a loss, it will require shrinking the companies to a fraction of their former sizes — smaller projects, less often. This too means redundancies for permanent staff, and that the companies will be in a much more precarious financial position once the crisis is over, because they will have needed to chew through whatever financial reserves they had.
3) Other companies will determine that the hole is simply too deep to dig out of, and they will close.
None of these solutions includes a return to work at anything approaching sustainable levels for freelance creatives and performers. The overwhelming majority of the people who create the performances are freelancers, brought in only for the duration of the project they are working on — very few are salaried full-time positions. While there is no work for these people, they continue to have rent to pay and families to feed, so many artists will be forced to abandon the arts and to start doing other things. Once these ties between companies and artists are severed, they cannot be easily restored — the people will have moved on out of necessity. They will be in other jobs, trying to climb different ladders. The sector will be permanently impoverished.
After all the talk we've heard in recent weeks and months about enterprises which are supposedly “world-leading”, the UK’s arts and culture sector is one of the very few areas which is truly world-leading by objective standards. To let it atrophy in this way will be nothing less than cultural vandalism, done knowingly and despite the warnings of the consequences.
The only alternative that artists will find is uprooting their lives, if they can, and moving to a country where the cultural sector is more resilient and better-supported than in the UK. This dreadful necessity comes just at the moment when the right to move and work visa-free across the EU has been removed. Losing this right, which many of the performing community were born with, which will have informed their decision to work in the arts, and which will have probably been the difference between their choice being viable and not, would have hobbled many careers even if Covid-19 had never happened. The combination of the two is truly dire. In all scenarios, Britain will face an artistic brain-drain.
It does not have to be this way. If you don’t want this to happen, the artistic community needs your help, now. We need you to join with us in being angry, and we need you to shout as loudly as you can, as often as you can. We know you are out there: to borrow an example from the National Theatre: 200,000 people watched the live broadcast of One Man, Two Guvnors in April 2020, then subsequently it was streamed by 2.5m people — enough to fill the house every night for nearly seven years. Live performance brings joy, meaning and fulfilment, which people crave more than ever now. When Churchill was asked to cut the arts budget in order to fund the war effort, he reportedly replied — “then what would we be fighting for?”
Nothing about the situation detailed is inevitable — other countries have found workable solutions — but it requires a change of approach from the UK government.
It requires acknowledgement that if pubs and planes can be packed with people, there is no scientific logic behind ordering the opposite for live performance. Germany just declared that full audiences for classical music performances are safe, provided every audience member wears a mask. Germany's overall rate of new infections is lower than the UK's, but it shows that a targeted, thoughtful and evidence-based approach is possible.
It requires an acknowledgement that if some sectors are prohibited from getting back to work with a viable business model, despite how much we would dearly love to, then those sectors require further support. The innovation that is possible — outdoor performances, broadcasts and so on — is hugely welcome, but is not a big enough solution for so huge a problem. We at VOPERA like to think we are at the forefront of the innovation that is possible in extremis, so please don’t think that this assertion is borne of an unwillingness to adapt and try new things. But there is nothing that we, nor our colleagues in larger organisations, can do that would be enough to solve this crisis.
We at VOPERA wanted to create a project which would provide an outlet for performers and creatives, a new production for audiences to enjoy, and a way of documenting this distressing time. We have worked tirelessly, from a standing start, to fundraise in order that everyone involved is paid something, recognising that this work has real value. We want to use it as a platform to let everyone know what is going on in the arts industry, and to gather a tribe of people who want to see a different outcome from the one described above.
Please join us. We are not messing about. This is urgent.