The £1.57bn emergency arts fund announced by the government has come too late to save cultural institutions from going bust and hundreds of people from losing their jobs, industry figures have said.
Nuffield Southampton Theatres (NST) announced it was to close permanently last week after potential buyers were unable to agree a deal with administrators.
Joint administrator for the NST, Greg Palfrey, said that if the government’s support package had come a month ago the outcome might have been more positive, but at present there was no way to reverse the 86 redundancies.
Arts organisations have been appealing to the government for months to step in and help the industry during the coronavirus crisis. “If this package would have come out four weeks ago things might have been a bit different,” said Palfrey.
While other institutions in the sector praised the government’s aid package, they said it would not necessarily prevent more redundancies or closures.
The National Theatre said that although the package from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was “hugely welcome” there was still uncertainty over what level of support would be available to it and as a result “some reduction in our workforce will be unavoidable”.
A spokesperson for the theatre said that was because it was not yet clear when live performances could start again, and it expected the pandemic to have an impact on its earnings heading into 2021. On Friday, the NT announced that 400 staff, including 250 front-of-house workers, would not be kept on beyond August.
The Manchester Royal Exchange said it was too soon to say whether the emergency funding would stop the redundancies it announced last week, which could affect up to 65% of its permanent roles. It is currently consulting with staff.
Palfrey said clarity on when organisations might be able to reopen was almost as important as money. “If you were a retailer you got to know when you were going to open some time ago, if you were a restaurateur or a publican you knew you could open from last Saturday. Regrettably with theatre, it’s still extremely difficult because they don’t know when they can reopen.”
Concern that many institutions would not be saved by the government’s intervention came as campaigners and unions called for the army of freelancers who make up the majority of Britain’s cultural workforce to be at the front of the queue to receive money through the arts recovery package.
Christine Payne, general secretary of the performers’ union Equity, said the impact on its members had been huge with about 30 people a week applying to its hardship fund.
“It is all well and good having fabulous buildings but if you have no-one to work in them, to perform, whether it is the National Theatre, the Mill at Sonning, the Bolton Octagon or a club in the north … you need people.
“This isn’t whinging, it is an honest plea that you don’t lose the people doing the work. It is fantastic they have places to work in, but please don’t take the workforce for granted.”
About 70% of the theatre workforce was freelance “generating a massive, expanding income stream for the Treasury”, he said. “What people don’t know is that a really high proportion of these workers live below the poverty line, or at least with very unstable income, even before the pandemic hit.”
Many did not meet the criteria for either furlough or self-employment schemes, Rickson said. “We must ensure that this package is able to stabilise the freelance community with its range of egoless workers like stage managers, set builders and wig makers, as well as the more visible creatives – all of whom struggle to subsist anyway.”
The actor Samuel West, who chairs the National Campaign for the Arts,
said freelance theatre workers had seen “their professional livelihoods crash over a cliff.”
“I don’t think this should be reduced to a fight between buildings and people but we have got to do something. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they think the arts are shows and not people. They’re not. Theatres are not buildings, they are the people who work in them and the people who go and see the shows.”
The activist artist Scottee said he was worried arts organisations would be primarily concerned about self-preservation. “That is not going to save artists,” he said.
Many artists were already abandoning their practice and seeking other jobs, he added. “To the institutions I say – the money has to be shared.”
Stella Duffy, co-founder of Fun Palaces, said: “The government still thinks that trickle-down economics works. They think that if you support the big guys then the big guys will support everyone else. Well the big guys haven’t done that yet and I don’t know why they would start now when they are apparently at death’s door.”