Will the arts survive COVID19?
Last week more than 300 theatres, live music and events venues took part in a ‘red alert’ protest, illuminating their buildings in red to highlight their plight as the Coronavirus’ impact puts many at risk of closing for good. In Manchester, hundreds marched for the ‘forgotten’ workers of live events while several high-profile musicians such as Leona Lewis have voiced their support. The nature of the Coronavirus has been particularly devastating for live music, theatre performances and arts venues as they rely on crowds and have struggled to adapt their business model to a socially distanced world.
Can cultural venues open?
Museums, galleries, and cinemas are now once again allowed to open – though this does not necessarily mean that all are open. Several beloved London museums have already re-opened such as the National Gallery, the Tate, and the Royal Academy, with social distancing, mandatory mask wearing, and pre-booking in place. However, a number of other museums remain closed such as the National Portrait Gallery and the House of Illustration and will not re-open until 2021 and 2022 respectively as they choose to complete redevelopment before opening once again.
Summer festivals have been completely off the cards, and while outdoor music venues opened last month, re-opening indoor music venues has been more of a protracted affair. They were initially slated to re-open on the 1st of August, but this was delayed due to a spike of COVID cases, so they have now reopened on the 15th. Yet as concert goers remain wary about health concerns and the atmosphere not being the same with social distancing, venues are warning they could go bankrupt if they reopen too quickly.
Can venues adapt to social distancing?
Social distancing is a huge challenge to live music venues, not only because this would reduce revenue, but because the physical limitations of amenities such as toilets and bars makes this even more difficult to implement. The Music Venue Trust has stated that two thirds of venues will not be able to reopen with social distancing measures in place. It is simply not viable for many venues to comply and remain profitable – a government subsidy will be required, and in July the government pledged £1.57 billion in public funding for the arts after a prolonged campaign by fans and venues.
Theatres are also struggling to adjust to the new normal – August is usually the period where panto rehearsals begin, but most venues have called them off. The Christmas panto is a major revenue generator for theatres, the profits from which usually fund other performances. Many pantos have already been cancelled, as social distancing measures will likely make them unworkable. Consumer confidence is being touted as the defining factor in how quickly show schedules will return to pre-Corona levels. There are concerns that cancelled performances may mean people get out of the routine of going to the theatre and will not return when the shows begin again.
What is the future of the theatre, live music, and the arts?
In the short term, government funding will tide some grassroots music venues over, but others are launching crowdfunding campaigns to ensure they can continue to remain open as eligibility has been by no means universal. For example, the government is keen to spread funding across the country, but the high concentration of venues in London means that all may not receive adequate support.
A government pilot of a socially distanced Frank Turner gig was held on July the 28th, but it has been acknowledged by the organisers that the event could not create a viable blueprint for a socially distanced music scene. The gig which featured just 20% of Clapham Grand’s 1250 capacity was not deemed to be economically viable, as it did not cover the venues’ costs, let alone the artists’ fee. It also featured teething problems related to entering the venue safely, QR codes and other elements. This is naturally worrying for venues, musicians, and all the freelance staff who rely on the industry in the long term.
Worse still – the uncertainty regarding a second wave is keeping music goers away and venues which are already struggling in limbo. However, despite all the potential doom and gloom, the solidarity between venues, famous and aspiring artists, and the industry as a whole has already shown results in securing funding both from the government and the general public. As the Financial Times states, “[..] has some good come of this crisis? Yes, cautiously, yes. There’s a great generosity, and sense of responsibility, about.” The public visibility of the arts with free content over lockdown, drive through operas, the red alert campaign and crowd funding means that they will not disappear without a fight.