Like many, the availability of theatre, films, television series and books was an indescribable factor that kept me sane and occupied during the bleakest months of the pandemic. As we face tighter COVID-19 restrictions, we mustn’t forget about the arts and their importance within the UK.
Think back to mid-March when life took an immediate pause and our plans were suddenly cancelled. We were confined to our homes and we all turned to the arts. In its first week of streaming, Netflix’s Tiger King garnered an estimated 34.3 million viewers, and how grateful I was to be engrossed in the scandals of Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic. It put my mind off the gloom of the growing death rate and forthcoming recession.
Similarly, my perturbed thoughts on the state of our country and its questionable leadership were distracted by the ups and downs of Connell and Marrianne’s relationship in the breathtaking 12 episodes of Normal People. What a blessing! Netflix’s other most streamed shows during the lockdown period included Love is Blind, Floor is Lava and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – all shows that are largely watched for some light-hearted relief. My biggest saving grace during lockdown was undoubtably the luxury that copious amounts of spare time bought me to delve into a plethora of books. I’m sure that you, like me, found solace in at least one form of art during the peak of the pandemic. I believe we as a nation, have failed to return the favours that the arts so humbly gave to us. As I keenly arrived at my local cinema for the opening day of Tenet, I was expecting vast (socially-distanced) crowds of keen film fans who have missed the unbeatable thrill of live cinema. But, I was wrong. The cinema was completely empty. Now, whilst Nolan’s epic cinematic treat has certainly made a decent sum of money, how many people can honestly say they have visited their local cinema since the two months they have been open? Yet, as I went for my post-film Wagamama, I had to queue for an hour because of the government’s Eat Out To Help Out scheme attracting an unprecedented number of visitors. Why is there not a scheme to encourage people to go to the arts?
Whilst the government’s generous £1.57 billion arts donation is welcomed, the singular monetary fund shows little thought or innovation as to how we should get the industry moving again. I fundamentally believe this is largely to do with a flaw in the selection of ministers. Our culture secretary – Oliver Dowden – studied law at university and has worked in politics for almost all of his life, with no evidence of arts involvement. He simply doesn’t know the difficulty that small independent (or large scale for that matter) arts organisations face, and probably doesn’t understand the good that the arts do for communities around the UK.
The array of arts that have been open this summer will be surprising to many. In London, Andy Warhol’s colourful exhibition at the Tate opened, and I was lucky to have caught Ralph Fiennes in Beat the Devil, a poignant play by David Hare about the traumas the past year has given us. Whilst we may feel uneasy about re-entering large indoor spaces, I can assure you that the efforts venues are taking to control the spread of the pandemic are wholeheartedly commendable and frankly rather inspiring.
When I saw a film at the BFI several days before coming up to St Andrews, we were escorted into the cinema in an efficient one-in-one-out system. The Troubadour Theatre in Wembley has also opened the first large-scale theatrical production since lockdown, Sleepless the Musical. This has involved a complete remodeling of the theatre in order to comply with distancing guidelines. Such changes include: reducing the capacity from 1,300 to 400 seats, the entire cast and crew being tested every day, and waiting an hour for the results before performances can start. Even with a full house of ticket sales, they will still be running at a slight loss.
Whilst it is understandable that the arts are not the biggest priority during such a strenuous time, and the NHS and education system should always take priority, the work that the arts have done these last few years is also extraordinary. The National Theatre alone gave 4,000 jobs in 2017-18 and its free streaming service is used by 60% of state schools in the UK. Yet, just 0.05% of government spending goes to the arts despite bringing in a return of £5 in taxes for every £1 invested.
For me personally, I continue to learn more from the arts every day. Michaela Coel’s explosive I May Destroy you (which I was lucky enough to have worked on), gave me a better education on sexual consent than any awkward chat with my parents or mandatory Mapstone Moodle quiz (not to diminish the importance of both of these in addressing an issue which is overwhelmingly precedent). Similarly, documentaries continue to expose and educate people on issues we are unaware of. Netflix’s Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich revealed previously unheard stories of abuses of power and arguably led to the rightful arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell.
Yet the publication this week of an article detailing how the Royal Academy was faced with the dilemma of selling a treasured £100 million Michelangelo sculpture to prevent the loss of 150 jobs highlights the true spectrum of this issue. The reality is that most arts organisations don’t have the stability of an expensive artifact to protect their futures, and over 5,000 staff in the British Theatre industry have been made redundant. As restrictions tighten, this number will only go up.
Fundamentally, we need to be more appreciative of the work that the arts does as we run a risk of losing so many venues that are staples within their communities. Below are some ways we can all affordably do this.
Help support the arts or risk losing key arts venues. Affordable ways to do so:
- Visit your local cinema. A lot of cinemas are offering reduced rates to attract visitors and you may be lucky to catch Rocks which has received rave reviews since its release.
- See some art! By joining Tate Collective you can get £5 tickets to any of their exhibitions in the UK if you are aged 16-25. Alternatively, the Mary Quant has just opened at the V&A Dundee and tickets are just £6 for students.
- Watch some theatre online and donate to that theatre. (https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/stage-shows-musicals-opera-free-stream-online_51198.html) This link has all the shows which are currently available to stream.
- Consider buying one of these prints for your room. All the money goes straight to supporting theatre and entertainment venues. Artists George Wing and Joanna Vestey have both released prints. Wing’s start at £12.49 and Vesteys are more expensive at £200. But, both are stunning and a great way to raise money for struggling venues. https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/830096034/london-west-end-theatres-charityref=shop_home_feat_1&frs=1&bes=1&fbclid=IwAR315BxWbyiJDeDMaO8Jp28dIpGAshqeaagXiqKE53AEGAZrm-6Dr98Bulw