Taking the first small steps back to normality

May 3, 2021

Helping the cultural sector reopen and recover

The Culture Recovery Fund has now allocated most of its £1.57 billion budget in grants and loans to more than 5000 cultural and heritage organisations and sites throughout the United Kingdom.

The first tranche of financial support was announced last year and totalled more than
£800 million, ensuring the immediate survival of 3800 museums, theatres, performance venues, historic sites and cinemas, which were forced to close or cut back their services as the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

On Good Friday, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden announced the latest details of almost £400 million in new grants and loans. This time, the money is earmarked to help the culture, heritage and entertainment sector reopen and recover in the months ahead.

The news has brought relief and reassurance across the North East, with £8.2 million earmarked for Tyne and Wear and more than £2 million of funding in Northumberland and County Durham.

And they are vital funds.

Whether it is the £3 million loan for The North Music Trust, which operates the Sage Gateshead, and will support operational costs ahead of reopening and enhance its digital programmes, or the £43,254 grant to help Tees Valley Arts, in Redcar, pay their staff.

The pandemic has hit our cultural landscape hard. Theatres, cinemas and museums have been closed to audiences and visitors for the vast majority of the last year, historic sites left abandoned to the elements and tight budgets, and artists forced to seek alternative employment. But help is at hand to ensure survival for organisations across the country. The latest Government support package, in the guise of the Culture Recovery Fund, will enable more than 5000 in the UK to cover losses and support investment in essential maintenance, recovery and reopening programmes. It included more than £11 million investment in the North East’s cultural venues and businesses. Here, Colin Young discusses how this vital lifeline will impact on the region.

The nine museums run by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) should have welcomed more than one million visitors through their doors over the last year.

The Great North Museum: the Hancock, the Discovery Museum, the Laing Art Gallery, Hatton Gallery, Segedunum Roman Fort, Stephenson Steam Railway, South Shields Museum, Arbeia – the South Shields Roman Fort – Shipley Art Gallery, not to mention the vast Tyne & Wear Archives in the centre of Newcastle.

All closed. All silent. All bereft of the visitors and tourists who keep them alive in more ways than one.

And nowhere can the impact have been felt more keenly than in the corridors of the Discovery Museum.

Most of the TWAM staff work in the offices of the old building in Blandford Square, to a background noise and the echoes of the 13,000 schoolchildren and their teachers who visit annually.

Bi-weekly maintenance, cleaning and safety checks aside, the city’s science museum, its brethren and their 1.1 million total collections have been closed to all.

The decision to shut the doors of their nine venues was of course out of their hands.

They were closed in March last year due to COVID-19, and although there were staggered re-openings from late July to October across the venues, they were all closed again by early November when the second wave of the disease started to take hold.

Unable to generate any income through its only self-generating revenue streams, such as cafes, shops and venue hire, while the shutters are down, TWAM has relied on Government support just to survive and hopefully thrive in the months and years ahead.

It received £387,825 in the first round of funding in October, followed by another £190,910 in the second round, which was announced by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden in March.

“Because we were closed, we weren’t able to generate the income we usually raise ourselves, which accounts for 15 per cent of our total budget,” explains head of finance, governance and resources Jackie Reynolds.

“The Culture Recovery Fund has helped fill that gap and meant we could maintain our services.

“It has been an incredibly difficult year for everyone and one of the hardest things for us has been just how much we have missed our visitors, and they have missed us!

“We have such a diverse range of venues and the North East is steeped in culture with local and loyal audiences, as well as thousands of tourists who visit us every year.

“They are as desperate to see us reopen, as we are.”

The coronavirus pandemic closures brought inevitable change in thinking and delivery throughout the sector, and many of the museums’ and gallery experiences have moved online, while the organisation has also collected NHS rainbow drawings and people’s stories to document the impact of COVID-19 for future generations.

As well as expanding its digital output to provide exhibitions online for schools, TWAM’s community work has included a new partnership with Northumbria University to create resources that supports health and social care professionals, enabling them to use the museums as part of their care practice when working with older people.

Still, you have to feel for staff at the Hatton Gallery, as they prepared for the long-awaited ‘Linderism’ exhibition by
the Liverpool-based photographer Linder Sterling, the first spanning the five decades of her controversial career.

Hours and hours of preparation, planning and wall positioning almost wasted because the art gallery was unable to open its doors to the public.

Her radical feminist photomontages could only be shown in an online version of the exhibition in the end and have now been taken down, repackaged and returned to Merseyside.

Then there was the Art Deco by the Sea exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery, which only opened for two weeks before it too departed.

At least Other Worlds: the Art of Atomhawk, at the Great North Museum: Hancock, has survived. This opened briefly in September and will still be open when the museum reopens in May.

Through such adversity, TWAM has found new ways to support the local community, from redeploying staff to work in foodbanks and care homes, to providing activities and resources for children in poverty and for isolated older people.

The scheduled reopenings happen to coincide with the arrival of Sunderland Culture chief executive Keith Merrin, who replaces Iain Watson as the new director of TWAM at the start of one of its most challenging periods.

New chair Phil Kite and three new trustees to the board of its charitable trust, Crystal Hicks, Grant Murray and John Holmes, also start work this month.

More than £1.2 billion of grants and repayable finance has now been allocated to more than 5000 organisations and sites across the country, with further grants due to be finalised in the coming weeks. The awards are made through the Arts Council, as well as Historic England, National Lottery Heritage Fund and the British Film Institute, and promise a future for the industry.

Its impact also promises to be as diverse as the institutions it will undoubtedly support.

They range from Tyneside Cinema, which is to get more than £1 million, to Darlington Hippodrome, which receives nearly half that amount, to Newcastle rock bar Trillians, an alternative music venue which was running an online fundraiser to secure its future and has received a £80,462 injection.

The Customs House, in South Shields, gets a grant of £125,000, which will cover a new roof and boiler repairs.

Sage Gateshead, which faced a £10 million shortfall due to the loss of 80 per cent of its income in the last year, has welcomed the £3 million loan for the North Music Trust and in Northumberland, where £1,171,067 will help 16 organisations, the biggest beneficiaries are Woodhorn Charitable Trust, Queen’s Hall Arts and Vindolanda Trust.

Museums, comedy clubs, music venues, circuses and multi-purpose stages will also be supported in the latest round of funding awarded by Arts Council England.

And the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic England have allocated £44 million to more than 470 heritage organisations, including Bamburgh Castle, which has received £137,400 to help its team prepare for the return of visitors post- pandemic.

Last year, organisers of the Lindisfarne Festival had to shelve plans for the 2020 event, although the majority of acts were rebooked for the rescheduled event in September 2021.

Thanks to the Culture Recovery Fund, Dizzee Rascal and Grooverider have been added to the Beal Farm bill. Lindisfarne Festival founder Conleth Maenpaa says: “We were incredibly grateful to be awarded a grant, which will help to make this year’s event the best yet and give us the confidence to grow in ambition for years to come.

“Like everyone else, the whole team here are absolutely buzzing about the prospect of being able to get together with people again and soak up that special festival atmosphere, which you can’t get anywhere else.

“We can’t wait.”

There is possibly no better example of the positive impact these funds will have than in the Old School House in Framwellgate, Durham, where TIN Arts is based.

Established in 1999, the organisation has been providing dance, theatre and performing arts sessions and workshops in schools, hospitals and community centres across the North East.

They provide particularly vital work for the vulnerable and long-term ill and TIN Arts is also behind a unique initiative at the Children’s Heart Unit in the Freeman Hospital, which provides ‘Clown Doctors’ for youngsters recovering from heart surgery.

The service has recently gone nationwide (and, inevitably, online). Co-founder and executive director Martin Wilson says the £72,285 grant from the Culture Recovery Fund has secured a future for the organisation and its 13 staff.

He said: “We could have furloughed everybody, but we made a commitment right at the start of the first lockdown that we would continue to reach out to people we help and continue the dialogue and relationship with them.

“If we lost staff, we would have lost the capacity to help people and that was more important.

“We have had to be canny and utilise the staff in different ways and at different times to ensure the job retention scheme worked for us and for our staff.

“We could not have large numbers of people being disconnected.

“That would have set them, and ourselves, back years and taken several years to recover.

“The more people we support, the more resilient we have become.

“We had to walk a fine line to deliver but we did not want people to lose the ability to access our services.

“We have had to be creative, by providing iPads for example, or putting content online and making dvds. And much of that will continue as we move forward.”

Museum and art galleries are, at the time of writing, due to reopen to visitors from May 17 in stage three of the Government’s roadmap.

At the Laing Art Gallery, in Newcastle, work has already started to ensure social distancing measures are in place for the safety of both staff and visitors to Challenging Convention, an exhibition exploring four women artists working in the 20th century in a climate of modernism, transformation and increasing emancipation.

The two-metre social distancing stickers on the floors are the obvious indication that the first small steps are being taken to get back to normality…

Outside in
Words by Keith Merrin, director, Tyne &Wear Archives & Museums

“The Culture Recovery Fund has been a lifeline for cultural venues after routes to raising income disappeared overnight and for the first time in living memory, we closed our doors for almost a year.

“Museums and galleries are at the heart of communities and contribute to the North East on so many levels – socially, economically and to individual wellbeing.

“It is vitally important they are supported through these challenging times so they can continue to have a positive impact.”

Outside in
Words by Martin Wilson, co-founder,TIN Arts

“The furlough scheme is brilliant and crucial for places like us, but it would have held us up.

“You can’t progress, you have to stop.

“The Culture Recovery Fund has enabled us to continue, to keep our staff on and ensure, when this is over, we can continue to deliver, not play catch-up.

“It has allowed us to keep everyone on and crack on.”