Key questions remain over government support package for culture

The money may arrive too late to save some job losses, while the distribution process and support for freelancers are among the other issues yet to be resolved
Jonathan Knott
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A reenactment at Hampton Court Palace. Historic Royal Palaces is in talks with staff and unions over a restructure
A reenactment at Hampton Court Palace. Historic Royal Palaces is in talks with staff and unions over a restructure Historic Royal Palaces
The cultural sector breathed a sigh of relief following the government’s announcement of a £1.57bn emergency rescue package last week. But even as key details await clarification, it is clear that major challenges will remain for the foreseeable future.
The package includes £1.15bn of grant and loan support for organisations in England, as well as £188m for the devolved administrations in Scotland (£97m), Northern Ireland (£33m) and Wales (£59m). There is also £100m of targeted support for national cultural institutions in England and the English Heritage Trust, and £120m for capital projects in England.
The news was welcomed in the museum sector. A joint statement from the National Museums Directors Council, the Museums Association, and the Association of Independent Museums said the funding was “a signal that the government is committed to supporting our essential national and regional institutions through this challenging time”.
But while amount promised is a lot, it will have to go a long way. DCMS-funded cultural organisations generated significantly more - a total of £2.6bn - themselves through fundraising, admissions, retail and other means in 2018/19. (This includes grant-in-aid funded organisations within Arts Council England’s (ACE) national portfolio). With their income-generating activity either stopped completely or greatly reduced, these arts organisations will not see their earned income return to this kind of level any time soon.
And museums will be applying for a share of the funds alongside theatre and performing arts organisations, which are facing longer delays before being able to reopen.
Jobs still at risk
The culture secretary Oliver Dowden admitted in an interview with the BBC that the support will not be enough to save all organisations, saying: “Sadly, not everyone is going to survive and not every job is going to be protected”.
And ACE’s chief executive Darren Henley wrote in a blog this week: “I want to be honest: there are some truly tough decisions to make and difficult times ahead. And I fear that not everything that we want to save, can be saved.”
With some cultural organisations already consulting on redundancies, the speed with which the funding will be made available is critical. Prospect, a union representing tens of thousands of workers in the heritage, cultural and creative sectors has warned that unless money is made available immediately there will be further knock-on effects. The union’s general secretary Mike Clancy said: “We have been warning government for months about the catastrophic effects that dealing with coronavirus was having on the whole cultural sector. It seems like the government has finally decided to act, but the devil will be in the detail. “The government must start to pump money into organisations in the sector this week if we don’t want to see more job losses and employers folding. There can’t be any more foot dragging. Unions like ours still stand ready to work with government to get this right.” However, the government has briefed that the funds will not arrive with organisations until the autumn. This timescale was questioned in parliament this week by the shadow DCMS secretary, Jo Stevens. Similarly, Labour’s Lord Stevenson said: “The arts bodies we are in touch with are already in substantial need, and further delay may push several into bankruptcy”. Freelance workers Another issue raised by several MPs was the plight of freelance cultural workers, many of whom have been excluded from government support schemes. Stevens said she was “concerned that the department does not understand the nature of the work in this sector” and the SNP’s John Nicholson warned “we risk losing a generation who cannot afford to survive without income”. Caroline Dinenage, minister of state for digital and culture, responded in parliament that the key to supporting freelancers was “supporting the supply chains that feed them”.
Darren Henley’s blog also makes clear that the focus of this support package will be on organisations – whether or not they have buildings – rather than individuals. “By investing in organisations across our rich cultural ecology, the government investment will help to support the people who work for and with them,” he says.
He says that when ACE reopens its National Lottery Project Grants later this month, it will focus on supporting artists and individuals, adding “we are urgently thinking about what else we can do to strengthen our support for freelancers in the coming months”.
The Museum Freelance Network has welcomed the support package, and hopes the funding will stimulate more opportunities for freelancers. But the group says “we remain concerned about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the thousands of freelancers working across the cultural, arts and heritage sectors, many of whom are ineligible for the government's self-employed support packages and have had months of work and income cancelled or postponed indefinitely.
“As a result, we face the very real prospect of losing highly skilled and experienced freelancers from our sectors’ workforce because they have no choice but to look elsewhere for work and income to pay their bills.”
It is urging museums and other sector organisations to “visibly and robustly stand up for freelancers who they frequently depend so greatly on”.
Distribution of funding
Concerns have also been raised about the distribution of funding, with Stevens saying it is vital the money “does not just get hoovered up by the biggest venues with the loudest voices” and other politicians seeking reassurance that diversity will be supported in terms of organisations, workforces and audiences. Dinenage said that “one of the key criteria for allocating the money will be about supporting small cultural organisations that may be the only theatre or museum in their town”, echoing Dowden who has said the government wants equally to protect the nation’s cultural “crown jewels” and “little local venues”.
In a response in the House of Lords, the DCMS minister Baroness Baran has said that “funding decisions will look at organisations’ track record of inclusivity”.
The government has not yet provided details about how the money will be allocated. Its announcement says only that decisions will be made “working alongside expert independent figures from the sector” including ACE, Historic England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the British Film Institute.
Opportunity for change
The cultural commentator Francois Matarasso points out that this process could be used by the UK government for a “significant new seizure of decisions historically taken at arm’s length from party politics”.
But there may also be an opportunity for positive change. Tom Wilcox, a senior partner at the arts management consultancy Counterculture says the sector has a lot to do to remain economically viable.
“The cultural sector must seize the opportunity of this unprecedented financial package to make changes in its business models; investing more in digital tools to support income generation and marketing to broaden audiences, as well as creating better economies of scale through mergers, partnerships and shared services,” says Wilcox. 
“This is the moment to abandon much of yesterday’s organisational practice to maximise resources invested in producing and presenting great art.”
Matarasso is also calling for organisations to act boldly, by making open-ended commissions to creative individuals in order to spark new approaches.
“I’ve thought for months that the programmes planned before the lockdown wouldn’t make sense afterwards. We’re not the same people and the things that spoke to us then might just sound tinny now. So use this time when nothing else can happen to create,” he writes in a blog. “What do you have to lose?”

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