The arts in Britain are in a dire situation. Mighty household names, such as London’s Old Vic and the Royal Albert Hall, have warned that they are close to collapse. The overwhelming majority of British cultural workers – freelance artists, musicians, composers, directors, actors, technicians – saw their livelihoods destroyed in a matter of hours this March. They are hanging on by a thread, notwithstanding government support for the self-employed.
In England, every available penny of Arts Council money has been directed into emergency funds to keep arts organisations alive until September, and the furlough scheme is a lifeline; but some are already disintegrating. Nuffield Southampton Theatre called in the administrators on 6 May. After a decade of austerity, there is absolutely no fat in the British system.
The twist is that the organisations that have been most successful in following a neoliberal-perfumed model – easing themselves away from “dependence” on the state, earning most of their income from bars, venue hire and the like – are the most vulnerable. Yet all organisations are on the brink. Losing them would mean not only losing an extraordinary arts infrastructure, in which so much of British national identity is bound up, but the network of education, social care and community work that the organisations provide.
The situation is especially serious in the performing arts. Music, dance, opera and theatre are in the mass-gathering business, and they will be among the last areas of public life to reopen. Gradually it is being accepted that this is unlikely to occur fully before next spring.
Socially distant theatre is a financial nonstarter. An auditorium with audiences spaced at two metres means playing to a house about 10-15% full; but most theatres need 60-90% to survive. As for the performers, it is hard to imagine socially distant ballet, or an orchestra spread thinly enough to make players safe.
Public museums and galleries are in a slightly better place: there may be a gradual reopening in late summer. Lending libraries and bookshops could reopen even sooner. Museums such as Tate Modern are modelling for 70% fewer visitors than before the pandemic distanced through queues, timed tickets and longer opening hours. Since we have become used to queuing for supermarkets, negotiating such spaces will feel broadly familiar.
In fact, for some museums the experience of visiting could be considerably enhanced for those who actually get in – though the extra hurdles may deter the tentative or first-time visitor, and those in fragile health are likely to stay away altogether. But this kind of model will be financially crippling, especially for museums that depend on being busy, extracting as much spend from each visitor as possible. Income from shops and cafes will plummet.
British artists and arts administrators are nothing if not inventive and resilient. They have had to be, to survive post-2010 cuts. They are fizzing with ideas, plans and schemes, some of them more practical than others, some a more direct response to the crisis than others. The Royal Opera House costume department is running up scrubs; Slung Low, in Leeds, has transferred the kind of organisational skills required to put on a play into delivering meals to vulnerable people.
And how about keeping the show on the road? People are modelling every variation: take it outside, downsize it, spread it out, stream it. Could you stage a drive-through opera? Could a composer write a work for a socially distant ensemble? Can you make an online literary festival attractive to audiences when they can’t be in the same room as the authors?
In Perthshire, Elizabeth Newman, who runs Pitlochry Festival theatre – only 15% of whose funding comes from public sources – tells me she has modelled everything from a socially distant petting farm (without the actual petting) to a Christmas Lapland as potential sources of revenue. But the truth is, none of these ideas will balance the books. What theatres are meant to be is places where people sit together at close quarters, breathing the same air, sharing the same experience. And that’s how they make their money.
Baldly, it is going to take imagination, boldness and serious intervention from the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, along with the devolved governments, to tide the British arts over. The kind of sums required will be, relatively speaking, modest compared with eventual rewards – both economic and societal – of protecting the delicate but precious structure from toppling. It will be easier and cheaper to keep it going now than to attempt to rebuild it from the ashes.
Preventing collapse, though, is only the most basic step. There has been a lot of reflection during the pandemic, not all of it concluding that the arts should pick up exactly where they left off. This may be the moment for structural change. Should orchestras really be packing 90 people and their instruments on to planes for gruelling multi-city tours each year, at great cost to individuals’ wellbeing as well as to their carbon footprints? Should the contemporary art world really be predicated on a globalised system that air-freights sculpture and people around the world on an endless merry-go-round of fairs and biennials? The British arts after the pandemic may need to be rawer, more basic, more plugged into their communities than ever. And that might not be a bad thing.
Comparing the Covid-19 pandemic with the second world war is a perilous and largely ridiculous game. Yet in purely practical terms, the war was the last time cultural organisations ground entirely to a halt. Robert Skidelsky’s biography of John Maynard Keynes notes that the economist liked to say he used the calm of war to reflect on the turmoil of peace. That reflection led to an entirely new settlement for the arts in Britain – the foundation of the Arts Council of Great Britain, forged from a sense that arts and culture were a way of providing healing and comfort to all of society after a national trauma. This was done in the same political breath as the foundation of the NHS.
In a BBC address, Keynes said that, having started with the idea of replacing what the war had snatched away, “we soon found that we were providing what had never existed even in peacetime”. On the heels of the Arts Council in 1946 came the great arts festivals – Edinburgh in 1947, Aldeburgh in 1948. Then came the Festival of Britain and the Royal Festival Hall in 1951. Inventing something undreamed of, something even better than what existed before: that might be the true arts recovery plan, and a political legacy worth having.
• Charlotte Higgins is a Guardian columnist