Opinion

Save the arts!

Megan Lee: Less Retraining, More Respect

Let’s set the facts straight: when asked in an ITV interview whether those working in the arts should “go and get a different job”, Rishi Sunak replied “that’s exactly what we should be doing.” Like all people, politicians can misspeak, but Sunak didn’t exactly mince words.

The outrage from people who enjoy the arts (read: everybody) is understandable. Our Chancellor has disregarded the immense social, cultural and emotional value of Britain’s arts sector, based mainly on its lowered income in a socially distanced world. But he’s mixed messages: in July, the government announced a £1.5bn pay-out to support the arts. How can we rationalise this glaring discrepancy?

The difference between the £1.5bn ‘rescue package’ and the chancellor’s comments is that one is aimed towards the institution, and the other towards the individual. Unlike other nations, Britain has an arts system built on freelancing. Our artists, musicians, actors, composers, cinema projectors – the list goes on – are employed in the gig in literally a gig economy. When our institutions receive the government cheques, they have to gather a backstage crew, audition actors, book comedians, or commission artists before any of that money filters back to the individual. And this creates a problem when, having missed months of work, artists are struggling financially. The whole process is further compounded for small venues, especially outside of major cities. That’s why Sunak can talk out of both sides of his mouth – yes, there is additional funding for the arts, but it’s not getting to the right places.

Who has the resources, time, and effort to pursue a career in the arts when they have to scale all these walls? That’s right – the wealthy. Sunak is encouraging a hobbyisation of art at a time when it desperately needs to be returned to the people. Before COVID-19 covid struck, the arts were already in a precarious position. The most valued art forms were those which required years of expensive training. Let’s take our friend Fatima, now enjoying her career in ‘cyber’. Her parents have probably been sending her to private ballet classes since childhood. Maybe she then went to the Royal Ballet School, where fees are £19,509 per year. If Fatima had been a talented but socio-economically underprivileged young person, she likely would not even have made it to a ballet company, in time to be told to retrain. If the arts are not properly funded and respected, only the already wealthy can access them. It’s a vicious spiral. Not only does this gentrify an increasingly inaccessible sector for up-and-coming young artists, it also damages the financial viability of arts institutions. If our venues are full of pieces by privileged artists, the audience will not see their own experiences reflected. If this happens too often for too long, ultimately, audiences won’t come back.

It’s often easy to criticise policy without offering a solution, but here, it’s simple. Rishi Sunak’s comments on the arts, the government’s ridiculous retraining scheme, and the DCMS’s stamp on the tone-deaf cyber adverts, all boil down to a lack of respect for the arts. One of the few things that Britain can genuinely claim to be appreciated for the world over is our wonderful arts sector. This government needs to start appreciating it too.

Jake Caudwell: Completely Artless?

‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber. (she just doesn’t know it yet)’

Fair enough, you might think. These are difficult times, many people are out of work, and any prospect of employment could be considered a light at the end of the tunnel- but it’s this phrase, superimposed onto an image of a ballet dancer as part of a government campaign, that has provoked a decidedly unimpressed reaction from the artistic community this week, and it’s easy to see why. Coming close on the heels of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s comment to ITV News that going out and finding ‘different jobs’ is ‘exactly what we should be doing’, it serves as further fuel for the fire rapidly spreading amongst members of the arts community; a fear that they have been hung out to dry by the government in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

Many industries have suffered, but the arts more than most; social distancing regulations and the problems of running large expensive productions for the benefit of far smaller audiences have ensured that theatres are struggling to reopen, whilst actors, dancers, and musicians, mostly self-employed, find themselves fighting to make ends meet. Often excluded from government support schemes and with no prospect of a return to work any time soon for the vast majority, it’s not unreasonable to think that this could be the final curtain for many. Small recompense for an industry which contributed £10.8 billion to the UK economy last year, and which has played a vital role in keeping the nation’s spirits up through the long months of lockdown. Is it fair to tell the actors and directors, dancers and choreographers, producers and stage managers and musicians and comedians who’ve waited months to walk back on stage that they may never do so again? Is it fair to tell people who have spent years developing their skills that they should simply abandon the result of their hard work and join the throng in seeking out jobs at supermarket checkouts or in packing warehouses?

No, this is not a fair situation. There will be thousands of people across all sectors losing jobs through no fault of their own or of their employers, but engineers and computer scientists have, in general, benefitted from the government’s job retention schemes to a greater extent than members of the creative industries. Perhaps due to oversight, perhaps to chance, but it seems nevertheless to be symptomatic of a wider view which regards the arts as being somehow lesser, or as an easy alternative. A theatrical production may not be considered so important as the production of a new website, but the ability to perform on stage should not be considered less valuable than the ability to perform in the boardroom. Perhaps it’s time we recognised how much we owe to the arts, started to pay a little back, and realised that if Fatima wanted a job in cyber, she wouldn’t have bothered with all those early morning rehearsals.