#SluggerTV After lockdown, can the arts return to health without a vaccine? (John Hewitt Digital Festival)

A recent article on The Stage magazine website noted that “big tops are being built up across the UK”.

“With sidewalls raised and seats spaced out, tented circuses are resuming summer tours. Heavy theatre doors, meanwhile, remain shut. But there’s a simple solution to opening up with socially distanced productions. Theatres should take to tents.”

A trip to the cinema this week – I’d recommend Saint Frances out of the poor fare currently being screened – was a lonely affair with five people spaced out across the raked seating. Theatres are a bit more cramped and the economics of opening traditional theatre spaces to a third full audiences don’t look promising.

But perhaps The MAC should be teaming up with Tumble Circus and getting the big top back in Writer’s Square opposite St Anne’s Cathedral (before the developers move in)? Or perhaps the Lyric should be erecting a tent in Botanic Gardens to get performances underway?

Normally, we take Slugger TV out of the NvTv studio and on the road to film a holiday episode in front of a live audience in Armagh, but this year the John Hewitt International Summer School had to morph into the John Hewitt Digital Festival of Literature and Ideas.

Earlier this month, I chaired, recorded and edited a panel discussion around some of the issues facing the arts sector in Northern Ireland. Spoiler alert: After lockdown, can the arts return to health without a vaccine? was ultimately inconclusive in unearthing a silver bullet.

In the two weeks that have passed since recording, the Department for Communities and the NI Executive have been relatively silent about whether they will accept the moral imperative to pass the £33m Barnett’s Consequential funding derived from an investment in English cultural activities onto museums and the arts in Northern Ireland.

At the time, Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín promised: “I will be making strong representations to my Executive colleagues at the earliest opportunity on how this money should be spent to ensure the short term and long term sustainability of the sector.” Those representations certainly haven’t yet resulted in quick, visible action …

I was joined online by Roisín McDonough (chief executive, Arts Council of Northern Ireland), Maureen Kenelly (director, An Chomhairle Ealaíon / The Arts Council of Ireland) Mary Nagele (chief executive, Arts and Business NI) and John Campbell (economics and business editor, BBC Northern Ireland).

If government spending along with National Lottery funding is compared across the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Arts Council England, Creative Scotland and the Arts Council of Wales – calculated per head of population, using 2016/17 figures published by the House of Commons Library – then Northern Ireland (£6.06) spends less than half what is spent in England (£12.97), Scotland (£12.39) or Wales (£13.29).

DCAL was deconstructed and subsumed into DfC. It’s hard not to include that Culture, Arts and Leisure are Cinderella sectors in Northern Ireland.

Towards the end of our discussion, John Campbell chipped in on how value is applied to the arts. He said that he had “a real aversion to trying to apply economic value to the arts”, adding that “it was a bad and dangerous path that the sector had been forced down [by] receiving public money [and] therefore we must demonstrate that we are growing the economy”.

One of John’s earliest pieces of published journalism was a dispatch from a Hewitt Summer School!

“You get these slightly sketchy impact assessments which make all sorts of heroic assumptions about the economic value of your work, which I think is dangerous because you know, on the kind of most optimistic readings of what does the creative arts add in pure GVA (Gross Value Added, similar to GDP) it’s only about 3%.

“Of course, it creates jobs and people work in it, but I don’t think that is where the value of the arts lie … The model I would prefer to look at is the kind of stuff Richard Florida has talked about in The Rise of the Creative Class, where you say, if you want to have a vibrant, city economy, which is full of young people, doing exciting things and technology and the creative industries and other things, you must have a vibrant art scene.

“So you’ve got a good cafe culture. You’ve got places for all these young people to go to and thrive. And so the arts is part of that. You create this kind of virtuous circle … to apply individual impact studies to individual organisations or productions is a bit of a fool’s errand in comparison. I know that that the Richard Florida model is much criticised now as a kind of high priest of gentrification, but I still think it has some value and is better than the alternative of the slightly hooky impact assessments, which people are forced to do.”

Food for thought. But in the meantime, it won’t put food on the plates of some people who normally work in the creative sector but have no work in sight, no auditions to attend, no sets to build, no bars to staff, no festivals to promote, no money to save for house deposits, fewer ways of providing entertainment and joy to audiences.

You can find out more about the John Hewitt Society’s 2020 programme in a preview post from earlier this week or by registering for the free events and tuning into their YouTube channel. This episode of Slugger TV will also be broadcast on NvTv,