Cultural life is back in Europe. In the UK, they talk of collapse

  • >>Alex Marshall, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-07-03 14:12:12 BdST

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A photo provided by Edward Borlase shows the auditorium of the Theater Royal Plymouth, viewed from backstage, in Plymouth, England. (Edward Borlase via The New York Times)

Adrian Vinken, chief executive of the Theater Royal in Plymouth, England, steeled himself on June 22 and then loaded up Zoom.

About 240 of the theatre’s staff members were waiting online, he recalled in a telephone interview. Those included “people who’d worked for us 30 years and given us everything,” Vinken said, as well as young workers who had only recently nabbed a job at the three-stage venue, one of Britain’s largest outside London.

He then said that almost a third of the theatre’s jobs were at risk, and that many employees would soon be laid off. With the theatre closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, it had lost more than 90% of its income.

“It hurt like hell,” Vinken said.

For weeks, prominent actors, including Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Judi Dench, had been warning the government that Britain’s cultural venues were at risk of collapse unless it threw them a lifeline.

Last Thursday, it seemed as if help might come. That evening, Oliver Dowden, Britain’s culture secretary, announced a road map to reopen performing arts venues. The plan set out five stages, eventually including indoor shows with limited audiences, then, later, larger crowds. But disappointment soon set in when Dowden gave no target dates or promises of financial aid.

Soon after the announcement, it was being mocked on social media. “It was an entirely pointless exercise,” Vinken said.

Britain’s cultural sector increasingly stands alone in Europe. It has been the slowest to reopen after a lockdown, for a start. Museums in Britain can reopen starting Saturday, although most will return gradually over the next few months; some theatrical performances and concerts have also been announced for the summer, but only as drive-in events. (“Six,” the hit West End musical, announced a six-week car-park tour on Monday.)

On the Continent, museums have been open for weeks (in some cases, months), orchestras are performing again and theatres are announcing their coming seasons, albeit in venues with social distancing.

In France, Germany, Italy or Belgium, where the arts are heavily subsidized by the state, performing companies and museums can survive with reduced ticket sales. But in Britain, where government funding is much lower and organizations rely on commercial income, most are unprepared for a future in which they can admit only a fraction of their usual audience.

As in many European countries, workers in Britain’s culture sector are covered by economywide job protection programs. But, so far, the government here has yet to announce a specific rescue package for the arts.

In May, President Emmanuel Macron of France announced that all cultural workers who lost their jobs or couldn’t find work would be covered by a national unemployment plan until August 2021. In June, Germany’s culture minister, Monika Grütters, announced a 1-billion-euro fund to get the country’s culture sector back up and running, on top of generous support already provided by Germany’s regions.

For months, Britain’s cultural stars — from conductor Simon Rattle to the organizers of the Glastonbury music festival — have been arguing and, at times, almost begging for action from the government.

Acting in a coordinated media campaign, actors and theatres have called for the government’s job retention program, in which it pays about 80% of furloughed workers’ wages, to be extended until venues can reopen without social distancing. As a backup, they are calling for a huge government loan program to help them stage work in half-empty halls.

In a statement June 19, endorsed by some of the most prominent British names in classical music, Rattle said, “We really, really do not want to be left behind here, and have our world-class industry fall by the wayside, whilst European cultural institutions are being protected.”

Ed Vaizey, a former culture secretary and member of the governing Conservative Party, said in a telephone interview that comparing Britain with France or Germany was “slightly invidious”: Those countries have always given more to the arts. But, he added, “at least in France and Germany, politicians are not embarrassed about the arts; they support them and understand their importance.”

A spokeswoman for Britain’s Culture Ministry said, “We are working with the sector to get it fully back up and running as soon as possible.” She declined to answer a list of questions.

Katie Mitchell, a British theatre and opera director who also works on the Continent, said that the differences between Britain and its neighbours were stark. “As soon as the pandemic hit, I thought, ‘Well, it’s going to be really hard to earn a living here for at least two years,’” she said. “Whereas I was certain that I would be able to work in mainland Europe soon, because I felt that the sector would be very, very protected.”

Indeed, she is working on confirmed productions at theatres in Germany, Switzerland and France, she said. There had been no talk of layoffs at any of the playhouses in those countries, she added, although she was asked to stay “strictly in budget.”

In contrast, a play Mitchell was going to direct at the National Theater in London in October — “Outline. Transit. Kudos.,” based on novels by Rachel Cusk — has been cancelled. She was uncertain about the future of a planned opera at the Royal Opera House, she said. Both venues were expecting to lay off staff members, she added.

The leaders of more than a dozen British arts organizations all said the government had reacted well at the beginning of the pandemic by offering the furlough program.

Arts Council England, a major funding body, also reacted quickly, many administrators said. In March, it announced it would award 160 million pounds (about $200 million) in emergency grants to keep venues afloat until the fall. Another body, the Heritage Lottery Fund, had announced 50 million pounds ($62 million) to help others, including museums.

Those snap actions reassured arts leaders in the short term, but as the lockdown dragged on many felt the government had become more focused on developing guidelines for reopening than dealing with the financial gloom ahead. In May, Dowden formed a nine-member “Cultural Renewal Task Force,” made up of industry leaders from sports, the arts and entertainment, to “develop creative solutions” for organizations to get back to work.

“We’re great in the UK at setting up a committee, but what we need is action,” said Cindy Sughrue, director of the Charles Dickens Museum in London. “I’ve been surveyed to death,” she added.

What institutions need now is money to prevent “catastrophic” layoffs, said Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the English National Ballet and a member of the Cultural Renewal Task Force. But the committee had not been discussing financial support she said; that was not its remit.

Dowden has repeatedly promised that a rescue package is coming. “I am not going to stand by and see our world-leading position in arts and culture destroyed,” he said in an interview with The Evening Standard newspaper on June 8. “Of course I want to get the money flowing,” he added.

But how much the government allocates is out of his hands: It will depend on Britain’s Treasury, led by Rishi Sunak — known as a “Star Wars” fan, but not an arts aficionado — and, ultimately, Prime Minister Boris Johnson. On June 24, The Financial Times reported that the prime minister’s office was working on a rescue package, but quoted unnamed sources who said it was “not imminent,” and “likely to be on a significantly smaller scale” than requested.

But many remain hopeful something will emerge. “Although it’s taken much longer than it’s taken in Germany,” said Nicholas Hytner, a former artistic director of the National Theater, in an email. “I believe that there will be a big rescue package here, and I believe it will happen soon.” The government understands that Britain’s cultural institutions are an economic success story, he added, generating more in taxes than they take, and drawing tourists to the country.

Vinken, director of the Plymouth theatre, said extra funding was needed as soon as possible to prevent further layoffs. Without additional government intervention, he would have to make more in October, he said, and would have to consider mothballing the theatre not long after that.

But he said he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. “You have to have hope, don’t you?” he said. “We’re in show business here. It’s all about turning dreams into reality.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company