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Government shielded the arts during the pandemic – now we must help them recover and thrive

Victoria and Albert Museum

3 min read

This time last year, our cultural institutions were staring into the abyss. Covid had forced all of their doors closed; my officials had given me the chilling warning that up to 75 per cent of our theatres, galleries, museums and other cultural institutions were at risk of being lost to the pandemic.

Centuries of the finest British art, culture and enlightenment were set to be wiped out within months. As culture secretary, I couldn’t stand by and let this happen. 

We immediately began working with the Treasury to secure emergency support. On 5 July 2020, we announced the single biggest funding injection in heritage and the arts in UK history: a now £2 billion Culture Recovery Fund (CRF) that has allowed 5,000 organisations and sites across the country to survive the biggest crisis they have ever faced. Put simply, this fund saved the arts from decimation. 

It has protected internationally renowned sites such as the V&A Museum and the Cavern Club, favourite of the Beatles. But crucially, 70 per cent of grant revenue funding has been to regional gems outside of London - protecting places like the Walsall Art Gallery, the Hepworth Wakefield and the Newcastle Theatre Royal. I’ve spoken to countless MPs about how these organisations are the hubs of their communities, adding vibrancy and life to their towns. 

This isn’t just about bricks and mortar. The CRF wouldn’t serve its purpose if it didn’t help the performers, technicians and countless others who make British arts and culture the envy of the world. So the fund has also gone to people in organisations like the Northern Ballet and the London Symphony Orchestra, while hundreds of thousands of other creatives have benefited from the government’s furlough and self-employment schemes. I do not deny it has been an incredibly tough time for workers in the arts, but thousands upon thousands jobs have been saved by our unprecedented intervention.

The CRF has enabled organisations and artists to survive while the doors remained closed. Now, as we follow the roadmap into recovery, it is helping them to turn the lights back on and welcome back millions of people across the country.

It’s impossible to overstate how important art, culture and our wider creative industries are to this country

I was delighted to be the first in the queue when galleries, museums, theatres and others flung open their doors on 17 May. I reopened the National Gallery and then took in both the Tate Modern and the English National Ballet - and it was such a joy to see culture springing back to life - and for that life to be breathed back into our towns and cities as a result. And there’s still a third round of CRF funding to come, with £300 million to be awarded to organisations around the country. 

But I don’t just want these organisations to survive; to operate in a watered-down, half-full existence. I want them to positively thrive in the years to come - to be packed out to the rafters day after day, as they were before COVID. For that to happen, we need to safely move to Step 4 - and that’s what makes our Events Research Programme so important. The government has put on nine mass events (and counting) over the past two months to explore how we can bring back crowds safely, from fans at the BRITs to the Crucible Theatre. No other country in the world has conducted such a large and innovative live study of COVID transmission.

It’s impossible to overstate how important art, culture and our wider creative industries are to this country. Together, they form a cultural powerhouse that contributes £112 billion to the economy every year, while enriching all of our lives in innumerable ways. We simply couldn’t afford to lose them - and thanks to the CRF, we haven’t.

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