A lifeline for culture but the battle isn’t over - By Bob Kerslake

A lifeline for culture but the battle isn’t over - By Bob Kerslake

 By Bob Kerslake 

When we think of the economic potential of the Northern Powerhouse and levelling up, we often talk about industries such as advanced manufacturing or green energy. However, there is another sector that has the power to transform people’s lives and that is the cultural and creative sector.

It’s a substantial and fast growing sector ranging from major organisations to individual artists, that makes up a significant part of the Northern economy as well as enriching our lives. Without it, the North would not be the place we know and love.

In Sheffield, we are blessed to have Sheffield Theatres, one of the artistic gems of the North, which I now chair. In the twenty three years that I have lived in the city I have have been fortunate to see many productions of outstanding quality on its stages. To take just three recent examples, who of those lucky enough to see Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Life of Pi or Standing At the Sky’s Edge could ever forget their power and brilliance? All of these have or will transfer to the London stage.

Sheffield Theatres though is about so much more than individual Crucible productions. It is three venues in one, combining our own productions, music, and touring shows. Fantastic educational work is done with our local schools across the city nurturing/ creating the artistic talent of the future. A huge effort is made to include every one of Sheffield’s communities. The artistic success is matched by commercial success. Nearly 90% of the Theatres income comes from ticket sales and other commercial income. A similar story would be true for other theatres across the North. In the last decade our theatres have risen to the challenge of austerity and reduced public subsidy.

However Sheffield Theatres is now facing a threat that is greater than anything is has experienced in the nearly 50 years of its existence. As a result of COVID 19, the theatre closed its doors on 16 March. We don’t know when we will reopen for public performances again and are currently awaiting advice on whether the World Snooker Championship in August can go ahead with a limited audience or must be behind closed doors. At a stroke, our main income sources have ceased. The very commercial success of the Theatres has become our greatest vulnerability.

Without support from the Government, Arts Council England and Sheffield City Council, we would have already had to shut up for good. The support given so far, including accessing the furlough scheme, will carry us through to the autumn. The additional £1.6bn recently announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak for the Arts is enormously welcome and we keenly await the details of this. Even with this support though, savings will need to be made.

Why would the Chancellor, with huge number of competing demands for money he has faced, have agreed to such a sum? Well in part it is down to the huge lobbying campaign by leading figures in the Arts and organisations such as the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Theatres, of which I am Vice Chair. Well over a hundred MPs and Peers from across the political spectrum signed our open letter to the Prime Minister.

But there is another compelling reason why the Chancellor agreed this – the devastating impact on the economy and jobs if they were allowed to close. UK Theatre and the Society of London Theatres estimated that ticket sales in its members’ venues amounted to £1.28 billion in 2018. It also calculated that 70% of the 290,000 jobs in them were at risk. Rightly, the Chancellor concluded that at a time when unemployment is likely to rise sharply, this was a risk he could not afford to take.

When thinking about the terrible impact of this pandemic on the arts, the maxim of Friedrich Nietzsche comes to mind ‘What does not kill me makes me stronger’. There is no doubting the economic and human damage that COVID 19 has wreaked in the country as a whole, including the North. But it has brought with it a real determination on the part of local leaders, business and the community to ‘Build Back Better’. The Arts and our theatres must and will survive to be a part of that renewal.


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