Blog Post: Culture Response Unit – An update from Erica Love

Well, it has been an ‘unprecedented’ (to coin a phrase) few months to say the least, a time where we are all facing uncertainty, anxiety, loneliness, grief and myriad other emotions, with each of us finding our way through this ‘new normal’.

I wanted to start this update with an acknowledgement of the different places we all find ourselves, all with different struggles, hopes, challenges, opportunities and reflections.

There is no question that the arts and cultural sector is one of the worst affected.

It’s been awful to hear about the closure of Artrix in Bromsgrove, Square Chapel in Halifax, and Nuffield Southampton. It is heartbreaking to see the significant hardship facing our freelancers, and the sadness and uncertainty of colleagues being furloughed.

This is further evidenced by the research from our first survey of the impact on the sector, which makes pretty sober reading. You can see the full Executive Summary here.

On average, two-thirds of organisations are looking at losses of 75% or more of earnings compared to last year, coupled with approximately 60% of those responding who would have no or very limited reserves/savings within 3 months or less. 62% of organisations have furloughed a significant proportion of their workforce.

One key point is that although many people understand the government schemes, take-up has been quite low, which we believe is due to a combination of a lack of clear information, and people and organisations in our sector simply not being eligible. It will be interesting to see whether this changes at all, now the application processes for both the job retention scheme and self-employed scheme are open.

There is limited confidence about an immediate return, but increased confidence that things will start to recover within the next 3-6 months.

On a positive note, on average 80% of individuals and organisations have discovered positive opportunities or lessons from this crisis.

We have now published round two of the survey, and would really encourage you to complete it.

I believe that although this might feel repetitive and we all have a bit of survey fatigue, we really need this information to be able to make our case to Government, and all of the ‘powers that be’, as well as to understand what we can do to help where we can.

The aim of the survey is to create a full sector picture of the West Midlands arts and cultural landscape, including freelancers and every type of arts and cultural organisation. This data does not exist elsewhere, trust me, we have looked high and low for similar research.

We will repeat the survey every 2-3 weeks, and will share the results with you all, as well as passing them to DCMS as WMCA authority, the Local Enterprise Partnerships and Local Authorities, Arts Council – and anyone who wants it.

As a sector we are often self-deprecating and grateful for the limited funding and recognition we receive, but right now, we need to SHOUT as loudly we can that our sector has taken a huge hit. There’s (quite rightly) plenty of talk of hospitality and tourism, both in Government and in the media, but we need arts and culture to be part of that same conversation, with the message that our sector needs support to get through this period. We need to work together to show that arts and culture are VITAL to the recovery of both our economy and our communities.

Having this data and the voice of everyone in the West Midlands Culture Response Unit can help amplify that message, so please take ten minutes to contribute and share

To poach from Russell Howard, it’s not all doom and gloom though.

I have been so humbled to see so many of you come together, to share your knowledge, expertise, time and resources to help others. To see such generosity and spirit of collaboration makes me very proud to work with each and every one of you.

As I am chatting on, I thought an update about what we are doing might be useful.

We have an amazing team in place, with people from across the region joining forces to create action groups leading on advocacy, research, coordination, communications and advice and support.

In the short time since the WMCRU came together, I have been able to make our case to the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street and Minister for State Caroline Dinenage MP, as well as feeding into a number of national groups. Later today I will be on a call with a number of European Cities to find out about the support and recovery packages for their cultural sectors.

We had an unbelievable reaction to The Comeback film, with sector and regional news stories, and tens of thousands of views across all social media platforms.

There has been such beautiful work and opportunities shared through our Facebook group, which now has over 1400 members, supporting and connecting in ways that I have not seen before.

We have brought artists, producers and creators from across the region together to talk about how we continue to create art for people, and ask how we come together as a region to share moments, and find the connections with our communities.

And we are working together to think about the responsibilities and practicalities of creating socially distanced arts and culture.

As you can see in the newsletter, we have found a shared space to showcase the amazing work that is happening online. Our next job will be to start sharing that more widely with audiences, and we now have an amazing comms team working on our collective messaging.

It is essential that the WMCRU is representative and inclusive. In the speed of things and a need/sense of urgency, it can sometimes be lost, so we now have an access champion working with us to make sure this is front and centre. We are still hoping for someone to advocate for and challenge our processes around inclusion, so please get in touch if you want to chat that through.

Something that has been so inspiring to see during this time, is freelancers, independents, small and large companies are coming together to talk on an equal platform, finding connections and exploring how we can work together, now and in the future – this must be a model we take into any of our future working.

The crisis, although devastating, has been a catalyst for some good things – and this is what I hope we can hold onto as the inevitable challenges occur.

This is just the start of what we know is a long journey to normality; to plagiarise Tyrone Huggins, a man of eloquent words:

“The cultural sector is like the canary in the mine, when we are once again allowed to be shoulder to shoulder together, we will know it is safe”.

Our aim as the Culture Response Unit is to make sure that we can emerge alive and bright on the other side. I know that the will is there, and the strength we are building up by working together, will mean that we can have a damn good go at it.

Erica Love, Culture Central Director
14 May 2020

Find out more about the West Midlands Culture Response Unit, and how you can get involved.