Creativity in the age of lockdown

May 1, 2020

Arts and cultural venues, by definition, exist on the basis of mass gatherings of people. But the coronavirus pandemic has made this part of life too dangerous for the time being and many operators are struggling as a result. Richard Dawson speaks to Holli Keeble of Tyneside Cinema and Abigail Pogson, of Sage Gateshead, about the impact of the virus and finds that this resilient industry is finding new ways to entertain

Many organisations across the North East exist to bring people together, none more so than the art galleries, museums, theatres, cinemas, music venues, comedy clubs and auditoriums that make us listen, laugh and love.

The modus operandi for creative companies like these is mass gatherings of people – something that, since March 23, has been banned right across the UK. As such, arts and cultural organisations are among the worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The ease with which the virus can spread from person to person has meant that spaces, which are typically teeming with film-lovers and gig-goers, were among the first to close back in March and could well be the last to re-open when social distancing measures are eased.

Where it may be possible to implement some form of social distancing in schools, offices and shops to prevent people from being concentrated in one space, it could be a longer road back for those cinemas, theatres, music venues and other places that typically host hundreds of people at a time.

Businesses of all shapes and sizes are feeling the pinch at the minute. But it’s particularly tough for those whose primary source of income is derived from welcoming visitors on a day-to-day basis.

Sage Gateshead and Tyneside Cinema are two of the region’s most treasured creative cultural assets, not just because they bring us the latest films and music from around the world but because they are embedded in the community.

Both have warned of the challenges they face in securing their future. The Tyneside launched the #myTynesideCinema appeal, following the sudden impact of having to close its doors and the Sage launched its Coronavirus Resilience Fund, after revealing that more than 50 per cent of its revenue had already disappeared.

The two most pressing problems for these iconic Tyneside institutions are how to cover their costs in the short-term and how to prepare and plan for what is an, as yet, undefined period of being unable to trade.

A new £160 million Emergency Response Package from Arts Council England should be able to help and indeed, both Abigail Pogson, managing director of Sage Gateshead and Holli Keeble, chief executive of Tyneside Cinema, are hoping to access the scheme.

Jane Tarr, northern director at Arts Council England, says: “Our number one priority is to
do everything we can to help individuals and cultural organisations to stay afloat so they can use their creativity to benefit people’s lives once our communities begin to recover from this situation.

“We have therefore initiated £160 million of emergency investment into the arts and cultures sector. Two of these funds have now launched, and we will be opening another one. We have also advanced payments to our routinely funded organisations and relaxed some funding conditions for projects already on the go.”

When combined with the crowdfunding campaigns underway at both venues, this Arts Council England support should help to keep Sage Gateshead and Tyneside Cinema solvent in the short-term. But the long-term picture is complicated by the fact that nobody knows how long the coronavirus lockdown will last.

Without being able to see a route back to market, both Holli and Abigail are still unsure about the future of their venues.

Abigail says: “The key question is how long this is going to go on. No organisation, even a large organisation, would struggle to last six months without access to their core market.”

Holli adds: “There are so many variables but I think no matter how long the lockdown goes
on for, we need to assume that the impact of this crisis is going to last for many years not many months, and that’s what we need to start preparing for.”

Despite the gloomy outlook, both bosses are optimistic that their venues will have the resilience and agility to be able to get through this.

“I keep describing myself as being in triage mode but that’s starting to shift now as we scan
a longer term horizon,” says Holli.

“We need to reimagine what Tyneside Cinema is, what role will we play and what value will we bring?

“I don’t think there’s a scenario where we just put the lights back on and resume normal trade. But cinemas have always thrived in recessions.”

Sage Gateshead and Tyneside Cinema are in a relatively strong position going into this crisis and can draw on some cash reserves as well as raising funds from their vast community of supporters and industry bodies like Arts Council England. But many of the smaller operators, freelancers and self-employed, who make up such a key part of the ecology of the creative industries, do not have such resources.

Abigail explains: “Our sector is held up by freelancers. Most artists that I know are freelance, it’s how they operate, they’re self-employed and you can’t have organisations like us if you haven’t got self-employed people working in the sector.”

The great and many freelance artists, musicians and filmmakers but also project managers, engineers and technicians – without whom there would be no art – will hopefully benefit from the Government’s Self-employment Income Support Scheme. But it remains the case that many will be severely impacted by this punishing situation.

Holli adds: “In the creative industries, sector freelancers and sole traders make up such a significant amount of the workforce. Supporting them through this is essential for the long-term sustainability of the sector.”

It is also this group of creative minds that will help us understand this crisis and reflect on the profound social changes that will no doubt be ushered in as a result of all of this. To paraphrase the esteemed art historian Ernst Gombrich: ‘There really is no such thing as art. There are only artists.’

“There is a social crisis at play here and that means that arts and culture will never have been more important,” Holli continues. “That’s why we need to look after those artists and filmmakers that will see and interpret this odd world from a philosophical, political standpoint in ways that we, who run venues, just can’t.”

One of the most heartening aspects of the current situation is how creative industries are taking advantage of the opportunities that exist with digital entertainment to not only stay in touch with society, but to widen and democratise access to culture in ways that haven’t been seen before.

You only have to look at the One World: Together At Home live-streamed benefit concert to see a resilient industry that is not content to simply sit and wait for better days.

Organised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Lady Gaga, the eight-hour, free digital concert featured performances from The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Billie Eilish, raising $127 million in the process.

It’s an extraordinary example of a trend – which is also evident in the North East – where venues like Sage and Tyneside Cinema are looking at how they can use digital to connect with the community.

Abigail says: “I have been struck by how much creativity, ideas and content people have produced and made available very freely through this period.

“One of the things we’ve done, which has been really popular, is we’ve linked up with 25 other concert halls across Europe and at 7pm every evening, we broadcast the same gig on Facebook Live.

“The first one was from Stockholm and we had 50,000 people tune in.”

While coronavirus has reduced freedom of movement across the world, it has not reduced the human desire to be entertained – a desire that unites all people in all places.

It may be a long time before we sit side-by-side in the theatres, cinemas and music halls, which bring so much joy to so many. But the enormous social value that such venues deliver will continue in one form or another, as we have seen already with the great variety of productions made freely available online.

Tyneside Cinema

Sage Gateshead

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