Should arts venues hibernate or adapt in order to survive?

Growing up in East Manchester, concert halls were a haven – a home away from home. Some of my happiest moments were spent in concert halls – singing in the Hallé Youth Choir on stage at the Bridgewater Hall for a recording of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, hearing Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite performed live for the first time at the RNCM Concert Hall, taking a youth orchestra field-trip to the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall for pianist Kathryn Stott’s 50th birthday concert and feeling totally inspired as the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Natalie Klein performed Giovanni Sollima’s Violoncelles Vibrez! as part of a 10-piece cello ensemble alongside Sollima himself. My emotional attachment to concert halls runs deep.

Now, years later, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels perhaps ironic that concert halls, that symbolised so much joy and happiness from my early years, now represent a barrier to the future of producing art. As lockdown measures begin to ease, and arts organisations such as orchestras and other performing ensembles continue to find ways of reaching audiences within the constraints of social distancing guidelines, arts venues remain dormant. A dividing line is beginning to appear.

Understandably, the financial liability of maintaining bricks and mortar and the desperate need for arts venues to reduce costs (given the significant loss of all earned income) has driven the decisions taken since nationwide closures in mid-March. First, the decision to furlough or not to furlough staff, and then throughout the subsequent months as it became clear that we were all in this for the long haul, redundancies followed in their masses as arts venues streamlined their staff structures in an attempt to continue to weather the storm.

At the beginning of July it suddenly felt as though we were beginning to emerge out of the other side of this pandemic: the Government announced a £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund and there were announcements permitting outdoor performances from 11 July and indoor performances with socially distanced audiences from 1 August (marking Stage 4 of the five-stage roadmap). Then, as quickly as it felt the tide was beginning to turn, following warning signs that the virus may be rising, indoor performances were delayed until 15 August forcing venues such as Snape Maltings and Wigmore Hall to cancel their Autumn concert programmes announced just hours earlier. This enforced u-turn just 10 days before applications opened for the Recovery Fund, and the prospect of being stuck in a constant toing and froing between limited-capacity opening and complete closure, will no doubt shatter confidence at a time when organisations will be making decisions about the direction for the coming months that will shape the future of the arts. The timing could not have been worse.

Amid this backdrop, what are the options available to arts venues, upon which so much of the industry relies, when they find traditional spaces not fit for purpose within social distancing guidelines? Will hibernation or adaptation be the best long-term survival strategy?

The cost of continuing to produce nothing, and the impact on artists and audiences

At present, the default position appears to be to produce nothing – remain closed, batten down the hatches, and hibernate until we can do things exactly as we did them before. As mentioned, for arts venues with significant overheads this of course makes the most financial sense. In fact, this is a perfectly possible approach as the Recovery Fund does not contain any conditions or incentives to re-open and produce activity. However, whilst remaining closed remains the most financially viable option for venues based on existing business models, there are much deeper, long-term repercussions for artists and audiences. But, in a precariously interdependent model of venues, artists and audiences, this also means there will be a knock-on effect, ironically, on the very venues that are continuing to produce nothing in order to survive.

The impact on Artists

Freelance artists have been hit hard with loss of income as a result of the pandemic. For those who depend on arts venues for employment, venues mothballing until they are able to operate exactly as they did pre-pandemic means no employment for the foreseeable future. In addition, along with many other self-employed professionals, freelance artists have fallen through the only available safety net as a result of the eligibility criteria of the Government’s COVID-19 Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. Even those that have been eligible face an inevitable financial support cliff-edge when the scheme runs its course at the end of August. At worse, freelancers, particularly those at the earlier stages in their career, may relocate out of the sector in search of alternative work.

Last month, the UK Council of Music Makers submitted an open letter calling on Government and Arts Council England to “enable venues to reopen with music, not remain silent” and argued that “funding mothballing of institutions serves to be counterproductive”. Others may understandably make the counter-argument that until venues can open safely, and there is public demand and confidence, re-opening venues is a non-starter. However, this doesn’t change the fact that freelance artists are without livelihoods and therefore supporting “economic and musical activity, not inactivity” is sorely needed.

I know from conversations with artist friends that they are desperate to produce work in any way they can. Perhaps the slight saving grace is that Arts Council National Lottery Project Grants are prioritising freelance artists who will be able to apply directly. But, whilst venues receive a much-needed financial bailout, with no strings attached, freelance artists will need to demonstrate specific artistic output in order to receive their financial injection. Even then this is only a lifeline for those that are able to secure funding. Again, from speaking to artists, it is clear that this is changing the relationship dynamic between artists and venues.

The impact on Audiences

When audiences were welcomed into venues for the final time during that life-changing week in March, little did we know how long it would be until audiences would be welcomed back again. Without audiences – the people for whom we produce art, to entertain, to enrich, to inspire – art cannot exist. However, prolonged venue closures mean that these audiences, on which art depends, will be less engaged with than ever. There are many estimates for when venues may re-open. April 2021? September 2021? Whenever it turns out to be, engaging with an audience after anything from 12 to 18 months or more will be an incredibly difficult task when many may have shifted loyalty to those that are finding ways to adapt their work and engage audiences with live physical performances in a safe environment.

Beyond venues’ immediate audiences, my bigger concern is the wider public perception regarding the value of the arts. When I use the term value I’m not talking about the arts in terms of GDP or any of the other economic arguments. But, quite simply, at a time of recovery when the public need the arts more than ever, how will the public respond to a financial bailout that appears to have no tangible output in terms of activity? Of course, the reality of the situation is much more nuanced than that, but there’s often little space within succinct media headlines to convey complex situations. There will come a time when venues need their audiences just as much as audiences need venues right now. It’s a two-way street.

Waiting until we can do things the ‘old way’ will be a very long wait – in a recent Government press conference Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, made clear that “we have probably reached near the limit, or the limits, of what we can do in terms of opening up society”, confirming that we may not return to Stage 4 of the five-stage roadmap for some time, let alone a return to normality represented by Stage 5. News that efforts for a COVID-19 vaccine are progressing might fill some with confidence, but even the Prime Minister and the World Health Organisation have said a vaccine could take one to two years, if one is even developed at all. It is painful to imagine venues and their complete operations remaining closed until 2022 or beyond, standing empty like monuments of an arts sector that once was. Without finding a way to employ artists and engage audiences now, will artists and audiences be there if venues sit it out until they can do things the ‘old way’. We have to find a way.

Thinking outside of the (literal) box

Continuing to produce nothing carries the risk of harming the longer-term survival of arts venues, the employment of artists, and the engagement of audiences. Therefore, we must do something to keep art alive. Whilst the Recovery Fund guidance does not include re-opening as a grant condition, the guidance is clear that organisations can apply to “cover costs that will help organisations remain open or to reopen/restart their operations… (in line with Government’s advice on COVID-19)”. This might include costs to help organisations “prepare for re-opening and re-starting [their] work”. Arts Council England CEO Darren Henley also pointed towards this approach in a recent blog post: “While the funds that have been open to cultural organisations since the crisis hit have thus far been about survival, National Lottery Project Grants should allow them to return to making work and reaching the public…” and “…Furthermore, in the autumn the fund will be open to applications from National Portfolio Organisations looking for investment to make new work, which should create further employment opportunities throughout the sector.” But with COVID-19 safety regulations hindering the re-opening of venues, how might arts organisations that operate traditional venues re-start their work?

Arts organisations that operate venues can be too easily confined by the box of the concert hall or theatre. For art to survive in the long-term, we need to separate the art from the building, and think outside of the literal box. Rather than settling on a strategy to preserve bricks and mortar, the strategy also needs to include producing art. We need a new business model driven by art, and it starts by asking ourselves this:

If we were starting from scratch how would we approach what we do?

Some venues may already be considering this, and the answer to this question will be different for every venue, but the answer begins in the same place. Firstly (as I explored in my previous blog) by ensuring the right people are contributing to the conversation. This doesn’t mean the most senior people in an organisation, but those with the ability to dream up new solutions. Secondly, be prepared to turn a venue inside out. For the time being at least, we need to be prepared to separate art from physical bricks and mortar, and turn the building inside out. If arts venues are no longer fit for purpose, we need to venture outside of traditional venues, utilise alternative spaces, more embedded within the community (be it schools, community centres, youth clubs, or cafes. When the time is right, venues will want to open and bring people back in. However…

we need to reach out now, in order to bring people back in when the time is right.

In addition to being a necessity, this is a huge opportunity to address many of our pre-COVID aspirations to engage with those who feel that arts venues are not for them. Lastly, we need to appreciate that size doesn’t matter. Often in the performing arts, we think that bigger is better – big international symphony orchestras, large scale opera productions, and ambitious pop shows. To remind ourselves of what is really important, we must revisit our organisational missions. This is where the mission becomes crucial. When a change to the business model is required, the mission sets the parameters for change. The mission statement doesn’t say we have to produce large-scale work, it simply dictates what we need to achieve more broadly. We can still achieve this mission whilst delivering smaller scale (and lower cost or cost neutral) work. Size doesn’t matter. What does matter is producing something, rather than continuing to produce nothing.

There is nothing I want more than for venues to welcome audiences and provide them with unforgettable experiences such as those I experienced growing up in Manchester. Therefore, it is crucial for arts venues to think outside of the box and adapt. My fear is that if venues don’t, then as performing groups and other forms of entertainment fill that void and continue to engage audiences, venues will be left behind and become irrelevant. This is not about creating division between venues and artists, but simply facing up to the harsh reality that COVID-19 is forcing venues to change, arguably for the better. Change is inevitable and we must not resist it. Then, in a post-COVID-19 world, the arts might just re-emerge renewed, with a multi-faceted model, simultaneously producing ambitious, large-scale international work whilst being embedded within the communities of those we are here to serve. This is the perfect hybrid model and should be the ultimate goal of any survival strategy.

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This is an extraordinary piece Toks! really brings out a very nuanced bigger picture including all the key and interconnected contributors of artists, audiences and venues. I’m so glad you address separating art from the bricks and mortar, and underline the difference of expectations from artists and venues in the financial packages. It is crucial now for us to return to the ‘why’ of our sector. This hinges on the creators – and only then can the where we do it follow.
Thanks very much for this.

Congratulations on this strong piece, Toks. The understandable fetish of the concert hall (which I share) is a hindernis to navigating our way out of this crisis.

Thinking, and *performing* “outside the box” seems to be the way forward.

I have put a proposal into the UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) Covid-19 research call to use my laboratory ( to explore using multicasting technology to enable performances, performers and audiences to be shared between spaces, thus enabling some sort of Covid-safe way of having live performances in a potentially financially-viable way – with all the advantages that such a technology offers. Let’s see whether UKRI takes up the challenge!

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