Curtain up on London: how the city’s arts sector can recover and thrive

It’s probably for the best that Line of Duty has just ended in a disappointing departmental restructure. Because after more than a year of relying on the telly to keep us going, even the country’s most popular drama might struggle to retain its viewing figures after indoor entertainment venues open on May 17. The hunger to see things – whether it be a film, a painting, a play or a gig – in person, and as part of a collective experience, is palpable.

Which is encouraging, because it has been a hellish year for the arts. Many organisations emerge in a parlous financial state, and without state-backed insurance, for some the risks of restarting business are still too great. The plight too of freelancers – a workforce disproportionately relied upon in the arts, yet woefully under-supported – has been starkly highlighted.

London is a world-leader across the creative sector. There is huge hope as we come out of this lockdown, but there is also much to be done. This month’s Evening Standard recovery board, of leaders in arts and culture, business and transport, focused on how the arts can recover and build back better, while encouraging Londoners back into the city.

Out of disaster has come creativity, especially in the way that the industry uses technology. The moment is ripe to develop this further and London has the capability to be at the forefront, says Sir Kenneth Olisa OBE, founder and chairman of Restoration Partners, “but there is an air gap between that capability and what I’ll call the establishment. We’ve got this huge pool of talent and energy, and we’ve also got an enormous pool of technological capability. And when those two things come together magic happens.”

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<img src="" alt="<p>Sir Ken Olisa OBE

Sir Ken Olisa OBE

The embrace of innovation will also attract funding, says philanthropist Sir Lloyd Dorfman. “Everyone in the philanthropic world has been inundated with approaches. You get drawn to the more innovative ones and those which through technology will amplify the access and the enjoyment of people have appeal.”

During the pandemic, separate sectors of the industry have discovered how much they have in common, says Axel Rüger, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, “in terms of whom we want to reach, how we want to do it, our problems, our frustrations.” He wants to see a much greater connection and collaboration across art forms.

Sir Peter Bazalgette, non-executive chairman of ITV and chairman of LoveCrafts, suggests reaching out to other affected industries, with a register of London restaurants willing to host out-of-work performers to entertain their diners. ‘Freelance Fandango’, anyone?

“We cannot talk about recovery without talking about freelancers,” says Chinonyerem Odimba, artistic director and chief executive at tiata fahodzi. The theatre sector alone is over 70 percent freelance, many of whom have fallen through the gaps of available funding. More research needs to be done into their needs, and on how the culture sector shores up those shaky foundations.

Chinonyerem Odimba, artistic director and chief executive at tiata fahodzi

<img src="" alt="<p>Chinonyerem Odimba, artistic director and chief executive at tiata fahodzi

Networks will be important, says Alex Beard, chief executive of the Royal Opera House. “We may be the largest employers of artists in the country, but there are three times as many freelancers who work with us every year and that network has been under massive stress.” Support networks that last beyond the crisis, such as Freelancers Make Theatre Work, Opera UK’s network of practitioners, or the ROH’s Engender network of female creators in opera, will be key.

Public institutions must engage with young audiences in a way that fosters creativity. Gus Casely-Hayford, director of V&A East, wants his museum “to be a crucible of dream realisation” – and thinks that young people will demand it. Black Lives Matter and climate change protests indicate “a moment of demand that cultural institutions change and actually address the needs, hopes, and aspirations of the young in ways that we haven’t in the past” he says. That generation wants innovation, dynamism, interactivity and customisation. “They want us to listen.”

And not just listen, but help. “There is 40 percent unemployment currently amongst young black people,” says Odimba; “that’s not a figure you can walk away from.” Arts organisations must consider how to actively support young people to enter an industry that is already difficult to access, she says.

Pre-pandemic, significant advances were being made in diversifying the work that appeared in London’s galleries and on its stages – that momentum must not stall.

Says Odimba: “we have got to trust artists to tell the stories that need to be told and not the stories that we feel comfortable with [or] that may bring in the most money.” It’s also important to recognise the work that has already been done, investing not just in the next new thing but celebrating “those who have put in the hard work already. They may be the key to attracting a younger workforce and cultural ambassadors for this city and this country”.

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