The £1.57bn rescue package for the arts that the UK government announced on 5 July was both absolutely necessary and rightly welcomed. The funds ought to be sufficient to sustain Britain’s artistic and cultural infrastructure until the spring. Had they not materialised, institutions such as the Royal Opera House would have faced collapse by Christmas.
Yet theatres, concert halls, opera houses and arts centres are only the pipes through which art flows. While it is clearly important to keep this infrastructure functioning, it is of absolutely no use on its own. Indeed, the purely physical infrastructure is, by and large, the problem in terms of Covid-19, since it presents the issue of mass gatherings indoors. It is the work – art made by freelancers – that matters, and that audiences pay to see.
Freelancers, however, were missing from the announcement, and absent from Rishi Sunak’s supposedly jobs-focused summer statement. The overwhelming majority of the cultural workforce in Britain is freelance, more than 70% in theatre alone: self-employed set designers, artists, musicians, technicians, actors, directors, composers, sound engineers, stage managers and many more kinds of creators and skilled workers. This compares with 15.3% across the whole economy. The government’s support scheme for the self-employed judders to a halt at the end of October (and as many as one in three in theatre, and the same proportion of musicians, is anyway ineligible for it.)
So far, rhetoric around cultural freelancers’ prospects has centred on getting venues working again. But theatres and concert halls have no idea when they will be allowed to reopen, and when they do will not be permitted to operate at full capacity. Those in the performing arts face a potentially grim future, effectively prevented from working after most other parts of the economy have begun to function again.
There are ways to alleviate the situation. Venues could be quickly allowed to open such that freelancers can be employed again – but that is clearly dependent on the government’s wider success, or otherwise, in grappling with the pandemic, and cannot happen until it is absolutely safe. Plenty of artists are willing, even desperate, to bring forward inventive new ways of making work and taking it more safely outdoors, into communities, on to streets – an option now open in England, where outdoor, socially distanced performances are permitted from Saturday. Organisations receiving emergency funding could be obliged to commission and facilitate work beyond their own walls, rather than to use the money to mothball themselves; or a portion of the emergency funds could be funnelled towards freelancers.
Doing nothing is not an option. It is freelancers who make art. It is art that has public value – that brings benefits for civic cohesion, education and wellbeing. It is art that will contribute to the economic recovery from the crisis. It is art in which audiences find solace, provocation and joy.