Frances Salter examines how we can take the opportunity to address the UK art scene’s class crisis
The moment the theatre lights dim; the underfoot stickiness of your local pub as the band starts to play; and the sound of soft footsteps in a gallery. These are some of the things I’ve missed most during lockdown, and while clearly they’re not essential in the way loo roll and pasta are essential — nobody’s going to stockpile orchestral scores or brawl over DJ decks in the supermarket aisle — they help make all this other nonsense worthwhile. For people outside the South East, where arts and culture institutions have been most heavily impacted by COVID-19, the reality is that without significant intervention, these things may never truly return to normal.
Whatever way you cut it, it’s been an absolutely terrible time for the regional arts, with each week bringing news of another key venue on the brink: Plymouth’s Theatre Royal proposed making its entire artistic department redundant, meaning it would no longer produce its own work; iconic Manchester music venues Gorilla and the Deaf Institute teetered on the edge of permanent closure; and the Birmingham Hippodrome intends to lay off almost half of its staff.
Obviously, it’s hugely depressing as an arts fan outside of London, knowing that your favourite venues may never be the same again. But, beyond having to find an alternative way to spend Saturday nights, why does it matter whether regional arts scenes flourish or fold in the wake of coronavirus? Well, for one thing, the failure of regional arts is a social mobility issue.
The UK arts scene was not exactly socioeconomically diverse before coronavirus, with a 2017 report finding that just 16% of actors come from working-class backgrounds, and a 2018 study showing only 18.2% of people working in music, performance and visual arts grew up in working-class homes. As much as we might love some of the private-school voices of Britain’s post-2008 cultural landscape, such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Florence Welch, it’s hard not to feel that the further we drift towards monoculture, the more tempting it is to throw yourself under a horse at Ascot, out of sheer boredom.
So what does this have to do with regionality? A key reason for the lack of arts sector diversity is that the bulk of UK arts jobs are still found in London, where the cost of living is notoriously higher than in most parts of the UK. For people who cannot afford to move to London in the first place, or to live on typically low arts sector wages once they get there, this is an obvious barrier.
Lauren Walsh, part of Plymouth’s Theatre Royal artistic team facing possible redundancy, has spoken of the difficulty of getting a foot in the door of the theatre industry, and of the problems posed by pandemic-related redundancies for those without family finances to fall back on. “Unless you’ve got family income to help you, or a supportive family home you can go back to and live in for free, the chances are you’re going to have to find other work,” she says. “When you have a secondary job, it’s that much more difficult to take theatrical opportunities because you don’t have that flexibility. So once you need to take on another job, it’s hard to get back into the industry.”
Yet, with an increasing percentage of young professionals choosing to move away from the UK’s major cities, now could be the perfect time for the arts sector to invest in diverse, regional talent — which could, in turn, help boost diversity. “Regional theatre seems to me to do a better job of helping people from different backgrounds than theatres in London,” adds Lauren, who credits a bursary placement from Jerwood Arts with helping her find her current position.
So what changes could be made? On a national level, the government must ensure that its £1.57 billion support package for arts and culture is focussed on regional and grassroots organisations, rather than solely protecting landmark institutions and those that benefit the tourism industry — thereby protecting and creating jobs outside of London.
At the level of individual organisations, as employers begin rehiring and are faced with an even larger pool of candidates thanks to recent mass redundancies, they must seriously consider their hiring practices to ensure equal opportunities for socio-economically and geographically diverse candidates. For example, employers should consider a degree of flexibility for those who need to maintain second jobs to subsidise their arts work; and have faith in the value of transferable skills, to ensure that unpaid internships are not the only routes into permanent, full-time jobs.
“Make sure that the language of job ads is not only understandable to people who already work in the arts,” advises Lauren. “There are lots of people who’ve got the right skills, but they’re put off by the wording of the ads. And when you’re interviewing, make sure you’re taking a chance on people that are a bit different to you — there’s sometimes a tendency to hire people who you think will ‘gel with the team’.”
Rebuilding the arts scene after coronavirus will not be an easy or quick task. However, it is a chance to create a sector that works in the interests of the majority of people in this country — and to come back stronger than ever.