London’s cultural scene has been decimated by coronavirus. Our national museums have been closed, our West End theatres have gone dark, and our performing arts organisations have had no one to play to. There is no doubt that the government’s infusion of £1.57 billion in emergency funding has made a huge difference in ensuring these dormant assets can live to fight another day.
I have also been delighted that a much wider range of organisations received support, such as music venues, independent cinemas, and other parts of our cultural and creative industries which have traditionally not received state funding. With luck, a precedent for a much wider state-supported cultural ecology has been set.
Responding to the pandemic
There are some caveats to this enthusiastic endorsement. Many in the arts world feel that they were left behind as re-opening began – none more so than theatres. The vital importance of freelancers in the arts network has been highlighted time and time again, and the relative lack of support for them has been keenly felt. But as we look to re-emerge from the pandemic, the focus must be on the future.
There is a great debate about whether the pandemic has left behind permanent changes. Some of these are indirectly linked to the health of the arts. Responding to the pandemic has clearly exposed what we already knew – that the arts support a huge range of industries, particularly bars, restaurants, and clubs, which often depend on arts patrons coming into the centre of London. And the great work-from-home conundrum will also have an impact. If office workers don’t come in, then fewer people will be around to stay on in the evening to take in a show. The one silver lining to all of this, of course, was the realisation by arts organisations that there is a digital audience out there that is keen to engage. NT Live attracted viewers by the millions, which has resulted in some donations, but also important commercial partnerships. My own company, Digital Theatre, saw a huge explosion of interest from schools and colleges in accessing their content for their students. Digital can no longer be an after-thought or a bolt-on.
The arts need greater recognition
How will the London cultural scene recover? Part of me thinks that it will “snap back”. I believe that audiences are keen to re-engage (I recently attended a rammed Iran exhibition at the V&A). But on the basis that there is no point in wasting a crisis, there are lessons to be learned.
We need to put the arts in London on a sustainable financial footing. The arts budget has always been tiny, and it has recently come under pressure in London on the misplaced belief that London gets “too much”. Of course, our national museums are just that: many have a physical presence outside London, and all of them lend to and support museums around the country. That work should be recognised, as well as the role our museums play in both London and the UK’s global soft power and attracting inward investment. Our theatres play similar roles, of course, touring their productions or live casting them around the country. The government could and should agree to a long-term core budget for the arts.
Pre-pandemic, there was also talk of a tourist tax. To impose one now would be madness, but some sort of cultural levy should be considered in the long term. At what level and how it could be raised are matters of debate. But the explosion of services like Airbnb means that there is an opportunity to raise funds for the organisations that are the core of London’s attraction to tourists. A tourist tax would be akin to a licence fee – there would be an element of independence from the vagaries of government funding, and it would be levied on those that enjoy the benefits of London’s arts infrastructure and can afford to pay it.
Engaging with new audiences
Digital engagement will also be vital. Many museums recognise that coronavirus requirements to register before a visit mean that they have learned a lot more about who is coming through their doors before they even arrive. This must continue post-pandemic. Over time, digital tools that allow audiences to engage cleverly with exhibitions and shows will ensure that arts organisations adapt to how people interact with their content. More importantly, there will be huge opportunities to reach out to audiences when they cannot come physically, and there will, I believe, be more willingness from global audiences to pay for content that is cleverly curated and tailored to their interests. A lot of this much-needed digital revolution will require much deeper collaboration across the sector, as the kind of talent needed to create the products that would help make this leap, is expensive and in huge demand.
Of course, at their core, all of our arts organisations want to engage with their audiences live and in person. And this means carrying on the work that was happening before the pandemic. We still need to push onwards in terms of diversity, ensuring not only that we have much more diversity amongst performers, but also much wider and diverse audiences. This is every organisation’s responsibility.
Remember also that London is a patchwork of villages. While we have globally known, national institutions, the pandemic has forced us to relearn the lesson that many audiences are local. That means engaging as much as possible with local health, education and criminal justice stakeholders. In particular, London’s schools and universities should be at the vanguard of this new approach.
London’s cultural infrastructure has been damaged. But it is resilient. There is now an opportunity to reflect on what it was like to be without our vibrant sector, and to consider the best ways to ensure it is robust in the future. This means long-term, significant funding, a proper embrace of digital tools and audiences, greater collaboration, and much more in-depth engagement, from the global, to the local, and to the many different communities that make up the world’s most exciting city.
Ed is a member of the House of Lords, where he sits on the Communications and Digital Committee. He was the UK’s longest-serving culture minister, holding the post in David Cameron’s government from 2010-2016, and was responsible for the UK’s national museums, such as Tate and the British Museum; the Arts Council; and heritage policy.