£1.57bn: Getting out of this arts hole

The £1.57bn ‘rescue package’ (as it was described by Chancellor Rishi Sunak) announced by the government clearly offers some hope to arts organisations, venues and institutions, including those in Hull, who were facing a rapid descent into oblivion, closing their doors and winding up their operations. Thousands of people in the arts are facing the threat of redundancy and I don’t want to see any organisation going out of business and their staff thrown on the scrapheap so let’s hope they all get the urgent help they require so that the show goes on.

As a freelance, I’m used to living a perilous, hand-to-mouth existence and never knowing where my next source of income is coming from, so it’s clearly important that those that might provide this stay in business. Yet, looking at the amount on the table and the battle ahead, £1.57bn, which on the surface looks like a tremendous amount of cash, won’t go too far for too long once it’s divvied up. It will clearly enable many organisations to stay operational but, with so much uncertainty regarding what ‘normal’ might be when we return to it, I’ve got serious concerns about how much of that money may, or may not, trickle down to those of us that bounce idiotically from project to project.

For context, in the couple of decades that I’ve worked in the arts, it’s been a game of diminishing returns. While commissioning fees have generally moved upwards, there’ve been less and less commissions, and a declining amount of scraps thrown our way. Despite guidance on fees and payments to artists, often artist’s fees are palpably laughable when you consider how much time it might take to, in my case, write a piece of work. So, in real terms, income was already getting smaller and I know, because I talk to lots of other artists, that this was already the case for lots of us way before Covid-19. So, with the dramatic changes to life, and the arts only just hanging in there, the real concern is that things will get worse and it will be decades before everything recovers and we can get back to the business of being underpaid at the same levels as previously.

Like many artists, I have some revenue streams that I’d have the audacity to regard as ‘regular income’ – projects and work that are stable enough to allow me to plan long-term, pay some bills and buy food to eat. Yet even that work is under-threat right now and is serious cause for concern. If other industries are fighting for survival (which they are) and employees in other sectors are facing redundancy (which they are), then this amount of support for the arts sector is nowhere near big enough because, if the choice is between putting food on the table for kids and paying the rent or mortgage or buying a ticket for a gig, or an armful of books, or getting lost for two hours in an immersive performance, or going to see a play, we know where that’s going. 

Naturally, I’d be looking at the big arts organisations in Hull to take a lead once they’ve steadied their own ships but they also need to consider this changing landscape, rather than pick up where they left off. It’s time for them to reset and reimagine their purpose and role in the community. If the many freelance and self-employed artists that this city has, who do so many wonderful creative things, are to survive, then this resetting and reimagining also needs to factor their talent in and conversations going forward need to include them. We need to smash some of the old hierarchies apart in order that we’re strong together and to ensure that we’re all doing something that’s relevant to the city that we serve. Hull Truck, Artlink, Absolutely Cultured, Freedom Festival, Hull Jazz, Back To Ours, all good organisations who do good work, need to continually consider, and reconsider, how they work with freelance talent and grass roots artists as we all battle to get out of the other side of this mess.

I’d encourage freelancers to share their homework right now. I’ve spoken to a few other writers about their many concerns and fears for the future, what they’re doing for work, how they’re generating income, if at all. Lots of us have fallen through the gaps, that’s the nature of freelance work and life, and many have not been eligible for the Government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, or found applying for the Arts Council’s Emergency Response Fund too difficult, and welcome the re-opening of Arts Council’s project grants but are already in fear of form-filling and rejection. We have to face the sad fact that some freelance artists, and other freelancers who make arts and cultural events happen, will turn elsewhere in order to survive and leave this industry which, even at the best of times, offers little in the way of security and stability.

I’ve spent time in the last decade reminding influential people whenever I can of the importance of investment in the arts sector, through the What Next? movement and during other conversations, so reminding politicians of the need for ongoing investment and support in the arts is nothing new, even in these unprecedented times of emergency. The argument for investment in the arts is an easy one to make and win but, sadly, the case has to be made with infuriating regularity. It’s always worth reminding ourselves of the numbers – the arts contribute £10.8billion a year to the UK economy and the sector contributes £2.8billion a year to the Treasury via taxation, and generates a further £23billion a year and 363,700 jobs. For every £1 of funding in the arts, the government recoups £5. Not my figures, those of the most recent report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research based on ONS stats. More broadly, the wider creative industries contributed more than £111bn to the UK economy in 2018, which is almost £13mn every hour of the day. Suddenly, £1.57bn looks like small change, doesn’t it? There’s no further case to be made here, no sob story, it’s a proven model of success.

Personally, I’m worried about what a future working in the arts might look like. But I’m not going anywhere. I’m a working class Hull kid who was encouraged to find his voice, battled hard to get it heard and wants to help others to do the same. I’m not in it for the riches – there aren’t any to be had, most of us just get by – but because creativity is the only way to make sense of an increasingly confusing world. The arts have never been more important than right now.

Missing people

There seemed to be a large, and somewhat banging, gathering of people last night somewhere behind the house. And who can blame them? Seeing other people is important for mental health reasons and, judging by the amount of fucking shouting going on, they were all at a cautious and state-approved public distance from each other. It was rather nice to listen to.

Earlier in the day I’d sent a text to a mate of mine. “I’m at the missing people stage.” The response was rapid. “Why don’t you come to the garden for a socially distanced beer next week?” Which was nice.

Not sure, though, that socially distanced meeting up will quite have the desired effect. If I’ve learned anything these past *sub, please insert the correct number of weeks here, I have no idea how long it’s been. But it feels like another lifetime ago since I sat in a beer garden wishing I could escape from the horrors of being in other people’s company because, ultimately, I don’t know how to behave appropriately in the company of other people, and return home to do nothing* few weeks, it’s that I’m rather tactile. I like a hug. I like to give a hug. I fucking adore a group hug. Without that tactility, it’s just talking/shouting/acting like Brian Blessed at someone two metres away.

Anyone that does creative things for a poor excuse of a living and/or that is on the autistic/artistic socially awkward ‘do we have to go out?’ spectrum will no doubt have found themselves convincing themselves of late that they have been preparing all of their lives for this moment in history. We live in our heads, we like our own company, we don’t like to get dressed and washed, there’s nothing better than escaping into our blank canvases and filling them up with the madness that runs through our minds.

There is that but if, like me, you mostly string words together in the hope that they might resonate with other tortured souls, kindred spirits and rather odd people you wish didn’t come see your work and email you feedback afterwards, it’s always useful to get out and about at some point (even if you don’t get washed first). If nothing else to fill up a notebook, like the thieving magpie that you are, with overheard conversations from beer gardens, cafes or public transport. And to keep your finger on the pulse of what people are worried and concerned about, or who they’re fucking. That kind of thing.

Mornings are usually productive for me. By 1pm, on a writing day, I’m usually throwing in the towel and pondering where to go and have a cold one and stare at and eavesdrop on other humans. With that out of reach, I’m now obsessing about who the dirty cereal bowls belong to at the side of the sink, or ordering shit I don’t need with money I don’t have from ebay. It’s not a healthy state of mind, is it? It’s insular and tedious and there’s only so far I can dig inside myself to yank out terrible memories before I realise I’ve already mined that seam for all that it is worth.

Anyway, it is Mental Health Awareness Week, which might never have been more important than this moment in time, as I imagine that we’re all suffering to a lesser or greater degree with anxiety, stress, depression, hopelessness and my favourite of all the French words, ennui. You’ll get more sense out of other people than me on the subject of mental health but, if it helps, I’ve rebooted the filing system that exists in my head on two separate occasions after total mental collapse and I can tell you that, however down you might be, however nonsensical and difficult life might appear right now, the light will shine on you once more. As Leonard Cohen wrote, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. So hang in there. Other people can’t wait to see you again.

So, yes, I’m at the missing people stage. That’s not to say I’m not seeing anyone else – luckily there are a couple of important others around me right now (most definitely their bowls sink-side). Sadly, my mum died in the early hours of April 5th, passing away to a dreadful and tasteless soundtrack of Aled Jones which, I hope, made her laugh in her final moments in her care home. We were not with her as she danced her way towards the afterlife to whatever tune she’d selected from her inner playlist to drown out the sound of the disgraced Songs of Praise presenter. I imagine the Glenn Miller Orchestra or something more kick ass. Yes, I’m missing her. She made me laugh. A lot. And encouraged silliness at every turn in life. And not being able to give her a hug at the end, and having to attend a funeral with only seven other mourners, has added to the surrealness of losing someone that meant everything.

I don’t write the above paragraph for any sympathy – I’ve had some tremendous and meaningful support, love and affection thrown my way so don’t feel in need of any more – but to serve as a reminder that, behind all of our closed doors, people are dealing with the normal pain and twists and turns of life right now. You included. All of us have shit going on and some of it is unbearable.

Life is more real and raw than ever. Yet, these moments are so much more difficult to deal with when our support networks are only reachable via Zoom, Skype, Whatsapp or by standing at the garden gate, flicking open a letterbox with a long stick and shouting at each other. People are losing other people, and not just to coronavirus, and realising that grieving is so tough right now; access to children that don’t live with parents is impossible; people are losing work; incomes are shrinking and bills are piling up; people are realising that those essential payment holidays will make living as hard as fucking nails on the other side of this; people are suffering, collapsing, feeling fragile, at a loss; so many people are falling through the net and have no support at all. And to think, we thought the only thing we needed to do was stock up on toilet roll and order a facemask off the internet.

So, yes, I’m missing people. Because people, and being there for other people, these are the only things that matter. In Mental Health Awareness Week we need to think about others and to work out how to best help them out. Don’t be like the shoddy state, who were willing to sacrifice some of us because they’re fucking inhuman, self-serving Eton educated toffs. Be the very best human you can be because, come the great day when we can enter the new ‘normal’, having each other’s backs and giving a shit might be the only thing we have left to sustain us as a species.