Since the first lockdown – way back in March when all of culture was shut down – I started saving £2 coins in a jar labelled “theatre, gigs, concerts, fun”. I’m five jars in now and on course to fill a few more, as it looks like performance spaces, first to close, will be last to open. It’s hard to imagine a mosh pit now or time spent queueing at the bar in the interval, or a world where we allow someone to shuffle past us to get to their seat in the theatre without accusing them of attempted murder.
For an audience member, life isn’t that bad – we can eat crisps and consume box sets, and for most of 2020 we’ve been able to access brilliant theatre and music on digital streaming platforms at a fraction of the cost of a live ticket. On Sky Arts we saw audience numbers double, so we know there’s a hunger for arts content.
But for performers and the armies of freelance staff who work in myriad jobs behind the scenes in theatres and concert venues all over the UK, it’s an anxious, often heartbreaking time of job losses and uncertainty – and we are in danger of losing an entire generation of talent, as well as losing the momentum the cultural community has built up around diversity and inclusivity. The Office for National Statistics has in fact just published data revealing a drop of 44 per cent of black and minority ethnic women working in the arts and entertainment sector, which is extremely worrying.
That’s why we’ve launched a new Sky Arts Ambassador programme with five incredible artists in different fields – Bernardine Evaristo in literature, Charles Hazlewood in music, Akram Khan for dance, Nadia Fall from the Theatre Royal Stratford East in theatre and Anish Kapoor in the visual arts. Each has been given £30,000 per year for two years to create their own bursary scheme to nurture up-and-coming writers, dancers, artists, musicians and theatre-makers across the country, providing support and mentoring along the way. I can’t wait to see who they work with and I am excited about the hope this initiative can bring.
I never tire of reminding people that arts and culture aren’t a luxury. They have real value; they contribute around £112bn to the economy, more than the car and aerospace industries combined. Our cultural life allows for a more empathetic world as we share our stories, and, of course, the arts contribute to our health and wellbeing. How many of us have taken up a craft, returned to an instrument or rekindled our love of reading during lockdown? And beyond that you only need to look, for example, at the English National Opera’s Breathe programme to help long-Covid sufferers literally breathe better using techniques employed by singers, to see the benefit of the arts. Empirical proof of the prescriptive power of music.
On our own turf, our weekly spin-off of Portrait Artist of the Year, which we ran on Facebook Live during the first two lockdowns, created a global community of amateur artists painting along with professionals painting celebrities in their homes. It became a powerful community – a way to connect when connection was so hard to come by. The programme proved so popular that this community has risen up (via an online petition, not a riot, I should say) during the current lockdown to demand (ask politely for) its return. Turns out painting for company is a powerful thing.
Our mission for 2021 on Sky Arts is to do as much as we can to continue driving this kind of participation and, in the process, find ways to support the cultural recovery – to help dancers dance, painters paint, theatre actors act and musicians musish.
Alongside the Ambassadors programme, we are developing projects to support drama students who graduated into nothing in 2020; we’re hoping to support small music venues that are in danger of going under; and, with our large scale public art project Landmark, we aim to help a talented generation of artists create lasting public monuments across the UK with a final piece getting a permanent slot in Coventry, this year’s City of Culture. We’re also talking to theatre producers about capturing shows in a hybrid model suitable for stage and for screen.
It’s a huge philosophical shift for many who would hitherto only countenance cinema screenings for a shared experience. The pandemic has moved that thinking on considerably and the more imaginative rights holders are starting to embrace these new ways of working.
Over the last year, I have had many conversations with young practitioners across multiple genres in the arts, many on furlough from large institutions and taking the time to think about, challenge and question the perceived wisdoms and structures of these institutions. They are creating a roadmap to some new and interesting ways of thinking from which exciting new ideas will emerge. I am optimistic that there’s a roaring Twenties just around the corner and there will be an explosion of new and brilliant things to enjoy with those £2 coins.
Applications for the Sky Arts Ambassador programme are now open; you can find more information here
Phil Edgar-Jones is director of Sky Arts and Entertainment