Britain’s beleaguered arts and heritage sectors have been promised £1.57bn of help in a long-awaited rescue package described by the government as the biggest one-off investment in UK culture.
After weeks of desperate warnings that the UK was facing an irreversible cultural catastrophe without targeted support, ministers announced a package that it said would protect the future of the country’s museums, galleries, theatres and music venues.
The playwright James Graham, who has spoken passionately about the urgent need for investment, said the money appeared to be more than most people in the arts had dared dream of.
“Let’s drill down into the detail but my first reaction is absolute relief and gratitude,” he said. “I think it is a surprisingly ambitious package, especially when you compare it to some of our European neighbours.
“If this package is as ambitious as it looks, then conversations within our sector will now need to turn to what our recovery might look like in terms of protecting any gains made in recent years over inclusion, representation and diversity, and how this support can reach who need it most, particularly outside of London.”
Boris Johnson said arts and culture were the soul of the nation. “They make our country great and are the lynchpin of our world-beating and fast-growing creative industries,” the prime minister said.
“I understand the grave challenges the arts face and we must protect and preserve all we can for future generations, ensuring arts groups and venues across the UK can stay afloat and support their staff whilst their doors remain closed and curtains remain down.”
The package includes:
A £1.15bn support pot for cultural organisations in England, consisting of £270m in loans and £880m in grants.
£100m of targeted support for England’s national cultural institutions and English Heritage.
£120m of capital investment to restart construction on cultural infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England paused because of the pandemic.
Extra money for devolved administrations, with £97m for Scotland, £59m for Wales and £33m for Northern Ireland.
The package surprised most people in the arts, especially since the mood music from the Treasury had appeared to signal reluctance to intervene too heavily.
Vicky Featherstone, the artistic director of the Royal Court theatre in London, praised the rescue package. “It is an extraordinary amount of money and it means that they have really listened to all the incredible people who have been putting forward the arguments about what is needed and why it is needed,” she said.
“Now we must ensure that the brilliant freelancers that make our theatres are properly supported and that we all get back to making productions for our wonderful audiences as soon as possible.”
Andrew Lloyd Webber, the theatre impresario, said: “It is absolutely critical that Britain’s cultural sector is restored to health as soon as possible, and I look forward to seeing the details of the rescue package and working further with Oliver [Dowden, the culture secretary] and the government to get all of Britain’s theatres – both large and small – open as soon as possible.”
Tamara Rojo, artistic director of English National Ballet, said: “The arts contribute so much to the social and economic fabric of our society. There was an urgent need for action and I am delighted and relieved that the government has listened and responded. This package gives our sector a fighting chance of survival.”
While hugely welcomed, it comes too late for the highest-profile arts casualty, with administrators for Nuffield Southampton Theatres last week announcing permanent closure, bringing the curtain down on six decades of theatrical history.
The shadow culture secretary, Jo Stevens, said that while the package was “a much needed injection of cash”, it was “too little too late” for many.
“It needs to reach theatres teetering on the brink fast – especially those across the towns and small cities where venues and arts orgs are so vital to local economies providing many interdependent jobs,” she said on Twitter.
Industry experts said it was too soon to say whether the package would stave off the threat of redundancies already announced by theatres in both the commercial and subsidised sector. They include the West End producer Nimax consulting on making a third of its workforce – 130 people – redundant; Manchester Royal Exchange contemplating the loss of 65% of its staff; and Theatre Royal Plymouth warning that a third of its 340-strong workforce could go.
Decisions on awards will be made by the government working alongside bodies such as the British Film Institute, Historic England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England (ACE).
ACE’s chair, Sir Nicholas Serota, said: “We greatly welcome this very significant investment by the government in the future of arts and culture in this country and look forward to working with them on next steps.
“I know our amazing artists and creative organisations will repay the faith that the government has shown by demonstrating the range of their creativity, by serving their communities and by helping the nation recover as we emerge from the pandemic.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Alex Beard, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House. “This is a vital next step on the road to recovery for the industry and will help to support and sustain the UK’s vibrant arts ecology through the crisis,” he said. “There is much to achieve over the coming months and this package will be a catalyst for unlocking the extraordinary creativity embedded in the UK’s world-renowned creative industries.”
The announcement follows what has felt like a white-knuckle ride of tension and fear over the future for the country’s arts and heritage sectors. The pandemic has brought theatre and music venues to a cliff edge at a time when they are most needed. Tom Morris, the artistic director of Bristol Old Vic, had warned of the danger of British theatre being destroyed by accident.
Industry leaders had cast jealous eyes at nations such as Germany, which promised, early in the pandemic, €1bn to a fund supporting theatres, museums and other organisations to “open their doors again as soon as possible after the forced break”.
Cultural institutions including London’s Old Vic, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Albert Hall had all said they were on the brink of closure without an investment package.
Julian Bird, the chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, has led industry lobbying for investment to save theatre from ruin. He said the package was “hugely welcome”.
He added: “Venues, producers and the huge workforce in the theatre sector look forward to clarity of how these funds will be allocated and invested so that artists and organisations can get back to work as soon as possible.
“Our industry’s united ambition is to be able to play its vital role in the nation’s economic and social recovery and this investment will allow us to do so.”
Performing arts venues have seen their income fall to zero and warned that they do not have the money to reopen with physically distanced audiences. The investment package will allow venues to stay afloat while the doors remain closed.
How soon they can reopen remains to be seen. Boris Johnson said on Friday that a timetable would be published in the coming week.
Dowden said the investment package was “unprecedented and world-leading. Our arts and culture are the soul of our nation. I said we would not let the arts down and this massive investment shows our level of commitment.”
While theatres and concert halls remain closed, galleries and museums in England will this week start slowly reopening. The National Gallery opens its doors to the public on Wednesday, with visitors having to book time-slots in advance. Once in, they will follow three one-way art routes, but people can take their time should they want to.
In many cases it is costing more for museums to reopen with fewer visitors than it would to remain closed. The rescue package will go some way to alleviating those concerns.