Millie Bloom describes the impact of Covid-19 on the arts, and the ways the creative industry has been forced to adapt to meet this new challenge.
Coronavirus has devastated the arts. With venues closed and ticket income falling many have found themselves without jobs or adequate support. Despite this, the importance of the creative industries has never been more obvious than during the last few months. An essential part of lockdown life, Coronavirus has demonstrated the value of the arts, while also threatening it. Education, entertainment and escapism are just some of the benefits the arts have provided during these unprecedented times. It would be difficult to find anyone who didn’t spend at least some of lockdown relying on creativity. Whether watching Netflix, spending hours on Animal Crossing, reading fiction or listening to music, we turned to the arts in our droves.
In response, organisations adapted rapidly to growing demand. The National Theatre’s free Youtube streams were a huge success, with the showing of ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ pulling in two million viewers – the equivalent of 224 sold out shows. In April, Soho Theatre made their stage recording of ‘Fleabag’ available with donations going to Coronavirus projects. With a nation of schoolchildren learning at home, the BBC provided 14 weeks of educational programming. It is clear that during exceptional times the arts have provided both a practical and emotional lifeline.
Contrary to popular belief the arts industry is not a pursuit of the privileged, and the contribution to our economy is colossal. They are our second fastest growing sector, and bring in £10.8 billion a year. They also support an estimated 3.2 million jobs. Live music alone added £4.5 billion to the economy in 2019. The arts do not encompass just actors, but also those in lighting, transport and publicity, contributing hugely to ancillary employment in hospitality and tourism. Not to mention the soft power and influence the UK exerts through the successes of its artists, actors and musicians.
However, Covid-19 has seriously threatened these benefits. Growing up with arts professionals as parents I have been privileged to be immersed in this world from a young age. But I have also been acutely aware of the precarious nature of my family’s careers. Jobs in the arts are notoriously unstable and have been particularly affected by Covid-19.
Their nature means that while other industries have been able to adapt to home working, without theatres, venues and sets to go to, many arts professionals cannot work remotely. This has dire consequences for venue survival. While established spaces like London’s galleries might be able to weather the storm caused by months of closure, smaller venues are in a more precarious position – as are the people who rely on them for work. The Save Live comedy campaign estimates that 77% of UK comedy venues will close by the end of this year with huge job losses as a result. It is undeniable that the creative industries face unique challenges.
This is all particularly damaging for those, like me, who are just starting out their careers. After a terrible stint as a child actor I have recently branched into writing and stand up comedy. The cancellation of the Edinburgh festivals has hit me and other new acts hard. These festivals are a rite of passage for gaining exposure and experience – if you can spend all day flyering in the rain only to perform to one friend and a confused tourist you find out just how far your love for the arts really goes! Newer actors, writers and technicians will miss out on valuable opportunities as a result of the cancellations. Rowan Atkinson and Phoebe Waller-Bridge are among many famous faces who started out at the fringe; it is devastating to think of the new talent that will go unnoticed this year.
So what is the government doing to support the creative industry? When the furlough scheme was introduced, freelancers and the self-employed were conspicuously left out. 5.02 million people are self-employed in the UK, with creatives making up a vast proportion of this. However, many found themselves unable to qualify for financial support because their self-employment income made up less than 50% of their total earnings or they had only become self-employed in the 2019 tax year. Once again this significantly disadvantages new arts professionals who are still working in other industries to make ends meet.
Even as lockdown eases, theatres and music venues will be unable to operate profitably, with the cost of staging productions to reduced audiences outweighing monetary gain. This is dire news for an already starved sector. After the 2008 financial crash public funding for the arts plummeted, while local government support dropped by 43%. Arts organisations have adapted to become reliant on profit made from ticket sales and venue hire rather than external support, making them even more vulnerable to the effects of Covid-19. Creative industries have also faced issues from the championing of STEM subjects in schools, throwing their future further into doubt. While careers in STEM are massively worthwhile, discouraging students from creative qualifications and jobs overlooks the huge economic and emotional contribution these industries make. After all, where would we have been without the reliance on the arts over lockdown?
At this point, you would be forgiven for thinking that the future for the arts is bleak, but things are slowly starting to open up again. Entire casts and crews are bubbling together for weeks in order for TV to film once more, plexiglass sales are rising as actors now have to kiss through screens and just last week the first socially distanced gig took place in Newcastle with 2500 fans seated in 500 separate pens. This is a far cry from the usual experience, however it proves that despite cuts and even a pandemic, people’s love for the arts will not wane and the industry is finding innovative ways to cope. After all, the show must go on.
Artwork by Martyna Grądziel.