Panto is back but can it save the show?

11th October 2020

Panto – enough to save the cultural sector?

With anticipated new measures to further lockdown huge areas of England expected this week and much of Scotland already under significant lockdown, there has been a glimmer of good news.  There may be some pantomime this Christmas.  This would be more welcome if the government’s handling of the pandemic so far had not been such a performance.  However, the joy with which the news of National Lottery funded pantomime in ten cities was greeted is symptomatic of a nation desperate for something to do, somewhere to go and some distraction from the grim realities of COVID-19.

Music venues are tentatively testing out the possibility of socially distanced performance to the same rapturous response.  A modest, socially distanced, autumn music programme announced by the Sage Gateshead for example sold out within hours.  Theatres and venues across the country are tentatively dipping their toes in the water of performance, on a limited scale.  Most local authorities have opened up library services, albeit on a reduced basis, providing many local communities with a lifeline both to literature and the possibility of human contact beyond their immediate family.  Local museums have similarly seen a gradual return of visitors, although most report that this is at little more than 30% of usual levels.

While the gradual return of some cultural life is to be welcomed the context of rising infection rates, growing hospitalisations, and the creeping up of the death rate does raise the question as to how sustainable any cultural revival will be.   

The cultural sector more widely has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, with theatre and live music venues closed, the summer festival programme cancelled and cinemas operating on a restricted basis with little new film product.

The sector relies more that most on freelance workers, both in the creative and technical sides of the industry, while many organisations necessarily rely upon significant grant aid, sponsorship and, critically, ticket sales to survive; the so-called three legged stool of cultural funding.

The shift in emphasis over many years in the cultural sector has been away from state aid, as Arts Council budgets are regularly slashed, and has moved increasingly towards philanthropy and income generated through ticket sales.  While this has resulted in some creative responses to funding and income generation in the cultural sector, with a sharpened approach to product differentiation and merchandising, these still rely upon significant footfall and spend at the venue.  Only so much marketing is successful online if you have not seen the show!

As a business model in relatively good times, when there is enough disposable income in the economy, this has allowed the sector to survive, if not always to flourish.  Community theatre, grass roots music venues and local authority support for seedcorn arts projects, have continued to struggle against the tsunami of austerity over the past ten years.  The pipeline of new talent from working class and black and minority ethnic communities, trying to find a foothold in the cultural sector, has suffered accordingly.  Local museums and libraries, often the lifeblood of engagement at a community level, have increasingly fallen victim to austerity as council budgets are squeezed.

The various packages so far offered by Chancellor Rishi Sunak have done little to help cultural workers at the sharp end survive.  Self employed artists and local theatre companies, reliant on commissions from local government, the education sector and the private sector have found the well running dry. Many freelancers did not qualify for individual support while business loans were little compensation to arts organisations uncertain of their future prospects and their ability to meet repayments.  Little in the current packages on offer from the government indicate a significant change.

Whatever largesse the private sector may have found for arts sponsorship is unlikely to be forthcoming for some time, as most retrench and restructure as a result of the pandemic.  Ticket sales will be affected by whatever social distancing measures venues have to observe as well as some degree of audience reluctance, if infection levels are not brought under control.

There will no doubt be protection for the national institutions in the cultural sector.  Will the government allow the British Museum, V&A, Royal Opera, the RSC, Tate Modern and other national cultural icons to disappear?  It is unlikely.

However, while the pandemic has dramatically exposed the fragility of an NHS which has been under resourced for over a decade and has been overwhelmed by a surge in demand, it has also exposed the fault lines in the funding structures for the cultural sector.  The £1.57bn Cultural Recovery Fund administered through Arts Council England, currently dispersing this fund, may address some short term issues but even there demand has very much outstripped supply.

At some point sponsorship will return to the big names and, with greater confidence, so too will audiences.  How much of the sector is left at a local level though may well depend upon the extent to which funding through local authorities can be increased to target cultural activity and support community arts and education. It will take more than a few high profile pantomime announcements to address these issues.

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