Life

'Companies Will Have Gone Bust' – How Coronavirus Is Slowly Killing the Arts

Four creatives across music, art, theatre and film reveal the impact of the pandemic on their industry.
November 27, 2020, 9:45am
Sola Olulode​ and Scottee
Sola Olulode and Scottee. Photos: Alice Black and courtesy of Scottee

We can safely say that the COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous for individuals, families, organisations and industries alike, having brought life as we knew it to a stand-still. Many of us have tried to adapt, taking work and social life digital or trying to recreate them through socially-distant means. But for some industries, that simply doesn’t translate.

The arts, in particular, have been dealt a heavy hand. Artists, performers, entertainers, technicians and the like witnessed their streams of income dwindle within weeks, while UK theatres have been draining their reserves dry every month. Some, like Nuffield Southhampton Theatre, have closed their doors for the last time and gone into administration. 

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Over in the nightlife scene, clubs and music venues have been shut for over half a year with no reopening in sight. While we can’t yet fathom the full magnitude of this ongoing pandemic, we spoke to four people from different parts of the arts world about the impact COVID has had on their careers, their industry and what they think the future holds for them.

ART: ‘I STARTED DOING SMALL PRINTS FROM MY BEDROOM… BECAUSE I NEEDED THE INCOME’

“I work in figurative painting and all of my work features mostly women and non-binary people. Back in March, a show that I was doing at the time got cut short, with the last two weeks cancelled, so it was a pretty disappointing end to it all. The weekend that we went into lockdown, I was meant to move studios as the building I was in was shutting down, so the day everyone was at home, I was at the studio trying to move my stuff into storage.

“Having worked so hard at the beginning of the year building up to these big changes, I just really wasn’t in the mood to move my practice home – and frankly, I couldn’t because I work large-scale with a lot of different materials that I can’t do in my bedroom. So I kept busy but also took some time out for myself and later on in lockdown, I started doing small prints from my bedroom, effectively adapting my practice because I needed the income.

“At the start, I wasn’t sure how [the government] were going to be supporting artists and self-employed people, so I took the advice to sign onto Universal Credit, which I had never considered before. Initiatives like the Artist Support Pledge were also a lifeline for myself and many artists as a way to get sales but also support other people in the same position. 

“Mentally, I was exhausted by the time we were in the first lockdown. I tried not to dwell on the situation too much and be a bit optimistic, viewing it more like it was a momentary lapse. By the time we were told to get back to work in the summer, I was able to get into my new studio and start making pieces.

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“Across the year, I’ve been able to keep exhibiting my work, but online. It was great that the artwork was adapting to COVID and rethinking things, which I think has been a good thing for the art world. We’re actually speaking about how to make our work more accessible.

Sola Olulode in her Studio Visit

Sola Olulode: "No one really wants to look at a 2D image." Photo: Alice Black

“We’re only now considering online exhibitions, viewing artwork via video, accompanying texts, online lectures and talks online for free so that everyone can access them. [But] with there not being the same capacity online, there isn’t the same engagement. I guess I don’t know if anyone is actually looking at these online exhibitions or galleries. No one really wants to look at a 2D image. For me personally, my work doesn’t translate well as a flat image because of the textures and detail that go into it.

“Eventually the government did come out with the self-employment support scheme, but it was capped at a very little amount. Even though I was signed up as self-employed, I only really had income from the last year, so the amount I received was minimal to last me such a long period of time.

“My hopes are that we do keep this mindset of making artwork accessible because we do need to keep thinking about people who cannot come into the gallery space. I’ve also seen a lot more DIY and initiative taken by artists during lockdown – I hope that continues. 

“I fear, however, that the arts are hugely undervalued and when it comes to cuts, the arts are one of the first things to go. I worry that my job as a fine artist is going to be somewhat irrelevant in a few years.” — Sola Olulode, painter and visual artist 

Bradley Thompson

LIVE VENUES AND MUSIC: ‘A LOT OF COMPANIES WILL HAVE GONE BUST AND MIGHT NOT COME BACK’

“Broadwick Live is a live entertainment business with a focus on interesting structures and venues, working in a fixed environment and from week to week, having changing experiences, cultural events, corporate gigs and more.

“The pandemic has had a dramatic impact on us, with our revenue having taken a massive hit. Before March, on a given weekend day, we could have between 15,000 to 35,000 people attending our different venues. We could be employing between 750 to 1,500 freelance staff directly or indirectly through our suppliers. The impact isn’t just on our business and our livelihoods, but also the entire supply chain and all the people we bring on.

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“Beyond Broadwick, the impact is huge. From the artists who play our events to the actual attendees who come out to engage with live music and culture, the ramifications are felt all around. Live venues were among the first ones to really close and it’s likely that we’re going to be the last ones to properly open.

“The real difficulty is not having a particular date to work towards. If we knew that our doors were opening on 1st Sept 2021, it would be a case of working backwards from that date. Right now, it’s guesswork. It might be March, it might be September so then you’re spending time, effort, resources changing things around, renegotiating leases and rents and then you have to do it all over again.

“We took advantage of the furlough scheme which was great, but as of now, we have had no government support, unfortunately. [It’s] a somewhat difficult pill to swallow when you look at how much is being given out by the arts and culture funding through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Both us, as Broadwick, and our customer base feel like the work we’re doing is extremely culturally relevant. It’s not a great feeling, to be honest. 

“I’m Australian so I’m pretty optimistic, still. Ultimately I think that, providing we can survive, things for us and organisations like us will get back to normal because people will want that live physical engagement and interaction with other people. The main difference will be that a lot of companies will have gone bust and might not come back.” — Bradley Thompson, managing director of venue lab Broadwick Live

Laura Kirwan-Ashman

Laura Kirwan-Ashman: "It’s starting to pick up slightly but nowhere near where it was." Photo: courtesy of subject

TV AND FILM: ‘OVERNIGHT, THEIR SETS WERE JUST SHUT DOWN’ 

“As a writer-director, I basically write for TV, film and audio and my work focuses on Blackness, queerness, female experience, and centring joy, love and hope. Career-wise, I was kind of lucky because I didn’t have anything in active production. All of my projects are at the development stage, so nothing got shut down in that sense, but it has caused a massive backlog. 

“People aren’t buying new ideas because they have a backlog of stuff to develop, whereas usually, they’re buying ideas all the time. It’s starting to pick up slightly but nowhere near where it was. 

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“I was working part-time in a shop which happened to close down in February, so I gave myself a grace period to find a writing job and then lockdown happened. I was frankly very lucky that an audio job came along out of nowhere because that’s literally been my only income this entire year. Thanks to that job, I’m able to pay my rent which is great, because at least I’m getting my money’s worth now that we never leave the house. 

“On a personal level, I was sort of a bit more prepared than most people because I live alone and was already a bit of a hermit. I did, however, really notice not seeing my best friend who lives five minutes away. Both of us have shitty immune systems, so we were really careful in the beginning and didn’t see one another for a good two months.

“While I haven’t been too directly affected in terms of production, I know a lot of people who were working on things that were in production or work on the crew side of things. Literally overnight, their sets were just shut down. They were told to go home with no one knowing how long for. If you’re having a normal film shoot and the location falls through or someone’s ill, every day you get delayed you’re essentially haemorrhaging money, because you have to pay all the crew, for the equipment and more. 

“With government support, I kind of fucked myself and then the government fucked me. I wasn’t registered as self-employed – I have an absolute phobia of taxes so I just avoided it, especially because I hadn’t made enough income over the past few years anyway. So when it came to registering, I put down the wrong date for being self-employed and then when it was announced who was eligible to get help, I didn’t count. That was fun.

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“The bottom line of the industry is that it’s a business. I fear that the gradual shift we were seeing towards more inclusive storytelling, hiring and crews will be seen, as they are already in some circles, as an untested risk. The classic ‘Black stories don’t travel abroad’ and stuff like that, despite statistics proving every time that inclusive storytelling does better at the box office. My worry is that the progress we’ve seen so far might start to fall because these companies will start being really selective about the stories they pick up and how ‘safe’ or ‘risky’ an investment they are.” — Laura Kirwan-Ashman, screenwriter and filmmaker

Scottee

Scottee: "How do you make digital work if you don’t have access to your own personal space at home or even broadband?" Photo: courtesy of subject

THEATRE: ‘I KNOW ARTISTS WHO HAVE COMPLETELY HAD TO ABANDON THEIR PRACTICE JUST TO SURVIVE’

“I’m an artist and co-founder of a company called Scottee & Friends, a collective making national touring theatre and performance works alongside participant-led community art initiatives.  

“At this moment, I should be on the third tour of a show called Class […] We’d just come back from Canada and were about to do a whole UK tour. Then the show just got cancelled. A similar thing happened with a participant show called Fat Blokes that we were going to take on tour as well. We’re now looking at moving the tours to potentially May next year, but it’s like, is that even going to happen?

“Because I’ve got this slight cushion of this company, it means that, in comparison to some people, I’m doing a little better. I have a profile within the sector that gives me a privilege. With that in mind, something that I’ve always made sure I do is mentor working-class, queer and newer artists and share skills with [them]. However, what I’ve realised during the pandemic is that there is nothing that I can give or share with these artists that is going to do what our government should be doing for them. 

“The government and the sector were really slow to respond. There was a huge focus on making digital work, but how do you make that work if you don’t have a laptop? How do you make digital work if you don’t have access to your own personal space at home or even broadband? What about the artists whose rent is paid by doing front of house or box office jobs which have been completely scrapped by venues? I know artists who have completely had to abandon their practice just to survive. It infuriates me.

“One of the jarring things about the sector is that right now, everyone wants a response to COVID – they want artists to dig deep and be creative. Meanwhile, artists are struggling financially, mentally, physically, in all manner of ways. I’m dealing with the fact that I grew up in poverty while watching my next-door neighbour stockpile. That’s having an impact on my eating disorder and growing up poor. I’m too preoccupied at this moment to be creative. 

“All of this asking artists to do something for money – just give the industry the money and don’t ask for anything in return. The very little we’ve got at Scottee & Friends, we’ve tried to share. There’s only three of us and we had £4,000 to share, but we shared it in the very first month. Why is capitalism so important at this moment that everyone is determined to try and get something in exchange for 50 quid?” — Scottee, performer and artistic director of Scottee & Friends 

@paulaakpan