The UK Government’s £1.57 billion aid package for culture, arts and heritage institutions was extraordinary and hugely welcome news. To give a sense of scale, it is roughly twice the annual budget of Arts Council England. Or only 1.4% of the £111.7 billion annual GVA of the UK’s creative Industries. It is a clearly lot of money; but for a sector that is now so large, also not so much.
The question now, though, is how is it going to be spent?
The Government, rightly, didn’t wait until all the details were sorted before announcing the funding. The cultural sector needed to know help was on the way. But that means, so far, details are scant.
So what should it be spent on?
At the front of everyone’s minds is saving what we have got. The funding is a response to the very real risk that existing cultural organisations won’t make it through the present crisis. Clearly, that has to be a major and immediate priority. The things we value must be saved.
But looking to the longer term, a time of crisis is also an opportunity for renewal. Here are our priorities for shaping a New Deal for the post-COVID cultural future:
- Redefining community engagement. One positive of the COVID-19 crisis has been a refocussing on communities. We have been more connected to the place we live; in touch with family and friends; connecting virtually with communities of interest. And, running alongside the pandemic, Black Lives Matter has brought a global call for justice for communities suffering discrimination. Now is a decisive moment for cultural institutions to shift the dial on their engagement with the communities they serve.
- Reconfiguring the cultural ecosystem. It is striking that the £1.57 billion is for “institutions” when so much of the cultural sector is micro-businesses and individuals. COVID-19 has revealed the vulnerability of cultural supply chains. Many cultural workers are reliant on a few big institutions and vulnerable to even short term down-turns. That insecurity had already excluded talented people from less well-off backgrounds. During the pandemic, it has threatened the whole system. The resilience of the supply chain requires more financial security for artists, freelancers and micro-businesses. That benefits not just individuals but the whole cultural ecosystem, including the big cultural institutions and funders like the Arts Councils.
- Accelerating digital. With no physical audiences, cultural institutions moved quickly to increase and improve their digital offers. The pandemic has driven real innovation. But, when compared to the music, games or television industries, venue based organisations still have much more scope to ramp up digital engagement. The crisis has supercharged what was already the biggest trend in consumer behaviour and cultural organisations need to keep pushing their digital boundaries.
- Prioritising climate action. COVID-19 took the planes out of the sky, let us hear the birds and breathe clean air. The environmental emergency never felt so real. Climate action is the planet’s top priority and it needs to be culture’s priority too. Buildings and infrastructure need to be sustainable; globe-trotting cultural programming must watch its carbon footprint; artists and cultural leaders should be evangelists for the health of the environment.
Smart, targeted investment in each of these areas - a New Deal - could be transformative for the UK’s cultural and creative sectors.