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A plea for the arts

An open letter to Mary Wakefield, asking for essential support for the cultural sector

Dear Ms Wakefield,

I’m writing out of desperation. You were able to help Ella Davis in her request to open up support bubbles for single parents and I hope that with your understanding you might be able to come to the aid of my musical and theatrical colleagues.

We’ve tried everything: emails and tweets to Oliver Dowden; letters to MPs; petitions; various hashtag campaigns. We’ve reasoned that the cultural sector makes billions; demonstrated that our cultural industries influence the world with their soft power; explained how important the arts are to our identity; and pleaded for the hundreds of thousands who stand to lose their livelihoods, across every area. Yet we hear nothing.

So I write to you reaching beyond logic to emotion, using a thought experiment. Imagine driving through London on a sunny morning in 2022. We go past the Royal Albert Hall, which is now the headquarters of a powerful international sect – the iconic building that was once home of the BBC Proms (jewel in the country’s musical crown) and host to legendary pop, jazz and rock concerts.

Royal Festival Hotel c.Ariane Todes

We drive into town, where the Southbank Centre (once visited by the world’s great orchestras and soloists) is a luxury hotel and the National Theatre (founded by Laurence Olivier, the stage on which many modern classics had premieres and a training ground for Britain’s world-leading theatre tradition) is the head office of a foreign bank. The market stalls and restaurants along the Southbank have closed, and the area is as dead and forbidding as it was when I was growing up in the 80s.

The losses are even more significant as we go outside London. Across the country, local theatres and concert halls are closed (Nuffield Southampton Theatres has already fallen). Historic venues are derelict and full of squatters, or they’ve been taken over by Wetherspoons. Orchestras, choirs and theatre companies have ceased to exist, their members unemployed or working in different sectors – lifetimes of training and hard work come to nothing. The audiences who need them are sitting isolated in their homes, listening to old recordings.

I understand that you are a musician, which gives me hope that you know the fear that musicians feel about not being able to play, and how desperate music lovers are to enjoy the communal experience of live music again. As we watch football players tackling each other and drinkers crowding pubs, maybe you can empathise with the horror we feel as our favourite orchestras, choirs, festivals and music venues are drowning, and not waving any more.

In your lovely Spectator article about the power of children’s imaginations you wrote: ‘Even tiny children quite naturally both narrate a story and inhabit the characters they invent; they endow socks, rocks and trees with personality and see things from their point of view.’ Children do indeed have wild imaginations, and theatre and music stimulate and focus them. Where will they go for this inspiration when all these organisations have shut or had to scale back dramatically? What will happen to the amazing educational work these companies do, drawing out young personalities and offering them vital skills to take into adulthood?

It’s not just children who need their imaginations encouraged. As we come out of the worst of lockdown, we all need theatre and music to help us process this difficult time. You know as well as I do that the arts aren’t just a pastime for those who can afford them: they make us all better; they make society better.

Of course, there will still be music, drama and comedy in some shape or form. Some organisations will adapt and thrive, and maybe positive changes will emerge. But in the arts, the surviving fittest are not necessarily the best. With so many closures, there will be less choice for audiences and fewer opportunities for young talents to hone themselves and their work. The teams and systems behind orchestras and theatres, which have taken generations to refine, will be disbanded and lost. Everything will be grim and a little bit mediocre, while the ghosts of our great traditions haunt the repurposed theatres and concert halls.

Is this how you want the country to be in 2022? Do you want your family to exist in a society where people can go to the pub at 6am but our great orchestras, musicians, actors, comedians, choirs, chamber groups, ensembles, bands, the many who support them and the businesses that service them are left to fend for themselves?

The immediate need is to be allowed to reopen venues to audiences, even at small scale, with social distancing and sensible precautions, including mask-wearing if necessary. At least that way orchestras and theatres can start making money again, just as cinemas and museums can, and as is happening around the world. These organisations also desperately need a comprehensive support package to avoid the dark future I‘ve outlined.

You wrote that Ella Davis’s letter helped you understand the predicament of single mothers. I hope that I have offered at least some insight into what’s at stake here for everyone who works in the cultural sector, and for society as a whole. I don’t know what you did last time to help, but I – and hundreds of thousands of others – beg you to do it again.

Yours faithfully,

Ariane Todes

[Emailed to Mary Wakefield]


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