Arts funding in the time of coronavirusEleanor Morum 30th April 2020
In February, I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a novel that jumps back and forth on a timeline before and after a pandemic that wipes out much of the Earth’s population. Even pre-lockdown and social distancing, it felt a little too pertinent to be a comfortable read.
One of the book’s few hopeful takeaways is its certainty in the re-emergence of Shakespeare and orchestral music, re-enforced by the refrain ‘survival is not enough,’ a quote borrowed from Star Trek.
In our own pre-apocalyptic timeline, Rishi Sunak announced our 2020 budget on March 11, a week and a half before the beginning of lockdown. On initial glance, the budget looked remarkably positive for arts funding, including a £250m fund for local, small museums and libraries, as well as a £90m Cultural Development Fund for outside of London. There is a new allowance of £25k for every primary school to invest in ‘arts activities’, and the DCMS will see a rise in their budget from £1.6bn to £1.7bn.
And, overall, this feels incredibly positive. It’s a surprising turnaround from several years in a row of cuts to arts and cultural funding. And, while not wanting to look a gift horse in its mouth, I did ask why there should be a change of heart now?
At the time, I thought these developments must reflect the changes incurred by Brexit – back when that was the all-consuming story. I assumed the budget was taking into account the sizable loss of funding from the EU at the end of the year. Most significantly, our government announced their withdrawal from Creative Europe, a €1.46bn fund for arts and heritage institutions around Europe, which has been worth €74m to 334 organizations in the UK since 2014. (Our withdrawal seem to be driven purely by nationalistic politics, given that 13 non-EU states happily participate and benefit from the Creative Europe fund.)
But now, I wonder if neither regret for the years of budget cuts, nor preparation for the loss of EU funding explains the sudden investment in the arts. Instead, can this funding have been a moment of foresight from the government? Looking to future needs, I wonder if the 2020 budget had identified how Britons would turn to the arts in the coming days of lockdown.
In the boredom and desperation of lockdown, Britons and the world are need in information, education, and entertainment like never before. Every guide to coping with the present situation seems to suggest taking this time to learn – whether it be knitting, art history, or a new language, and it is our cultural institutions who are stepping up to provide. Despite the decrease in funding in recent years, our museums and cultural institutions have adapted and stepped up to distract and guide us through isolation. The kinds of adaptations needed to continue work require new technology and funding, the kind of which they have lacked in recent years, and yet, they have managed.
Chinese museums were the first to lead the charge in making their collections available online. British counterparts are now delivering too. The Courtauld Gallery’s virtual tour is seeing 723% more visitors than before lockdown, and the British Museum’s daily average online visitors have increased from 2000 to 75 000. Its own funding status uncertain, the BBC has stepped up in new ways to inform, educate, and entertain, just as its founding DG had hoped. Artists, having lost all security, are adapting, developing online shops, and exhibiting their work for free on Instagram, uniting and collaborating with the hashtag #isolationcreation. Art, culture, and education are clearly what we are craving at the moment.
The cultural funding announced in our 2020 budget, facing this level of need, is already overextended. In recent days, the Arts Council has pledged £160m to artists, venues, and freelancers who are facing total loss of income. The Heritage Lottery Fund has announced an emergency fund of £50m for heritage organisations, as well as its Digital Skills Fund to help organisations adapt to new, distanced circumstances. All of this still pales in comparison to Germany’s extraordinary €50bn emergency cultural fund, already being compared to a 21st century New Deal. Speaking last month Germany’s cultural minster said, “Our democratic society needs its unique and diverse cultural and media landscape in this historical situation, which was unimaginable until recently. … The creative courage of creative people can help to overcome the crisis. We should seize every opportunity to create good things for the future. That is why the following applies: artists are not only indispensable, but also vital, especially now.” In short, survival is not enough.
The real question, though, is what happens when we come to the end of emergency funding and the end of the global pandemic? Will we revert back to our usual patterns and behaviour? In our rush to repair the economy, will the artists and heritage institutions who adapted, created, and entertained be forgotten?
Even if not for their help in guiding us through a period of boredom and anxiety, or their perennial social benefits, the arts are simply good for the economy. I’m loath to justify them this way (for loftier reasons for arts funding, see this report from the Institute of Public Policy Research). The Arts Council, though once “justified in its own terms”, now publishes an annual report of the arts’ contribution to the UK economy. In 2019, the sector grew £390m, now contributing £10.9bn to the economy overall.
The 2020 budget, then, seems a small thanks for an industry that not only takes care of us when ‘survival is not enough,’ but all the rest of the time too. One of most important takeaways from Covid-19 may be clarity on how we value workers, and what brings joy and purpose. Too much of past government funding has been made to look foolish by the pandemic: it should not take such dire circumstances to recognise the value of those in the NHS who protect us, or of those in the arts and cultural sectors who educate, entertain, and enrich us.
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