London Rising: How the arts can build back better post-lockdown

Nick Curtis
·10-min read
<p>Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s show at Tate Britain</p> (Getty Images)

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s show at Tate Britain

(Getty Images)

Although lockdown has been disastrous for London’s creative industries, with many forced to leave the business and a year’s worth of work, audience development and income lost, there’s been one upside: time to reflect. After more than a year of darkness, arts bosses have been turning their minds to how things should look when the lights go back on.

Two branches of the sector have had particular cause to examine their navels and their consciences. As keepers of the narratives that nations tell themselves and each other, our museums and galleries – along with the heritage sector – have become embroiled in what people keep calling the culture war around representations of gender, race and Empire.

Theatre in London and the wider UK, meanwhile, has reasons both to congratulate and chastise itself. It often pioneers change that eventually seeps through to opera, ballet, film and television. There would be no Bridgerton without the pioneering colourblind stage productions of the Eighties, for instance. But progress has been slow and piecemeal, and the cost and challenge of a visit to the theatre still excludes large swathes of the population.

Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte in BridgertonLIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX
Golda Rosheuvel as Queen Charlotte in BridgertonLIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

Both sectors, too, are facing up to the impact of a long-term hit to international tourism, and the difficulty of luring older, wealthier UK residents back into an enclosed space full of strangers. “One of the big changes that was already in the works is the question over the sustainability of the blockbuster model,” says Dan Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the author of The Brutish Museum: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, of the big shows that bankroll museums and galleries. “In the Nineties, the idea that arts and culture could be instrumentalised for tourism shaped what our big international institutions became. But are we ever going to see the visitor numbers we used to again?”

Hicks foresees a decentralisation and “humanisation” of the way artefacts are shown, with less “hyper-concentration of art and culture and funding in London” and local communities co-opted as co-curators of regional collections, “which is a move away from the traditional model of the white, male, English curator”. He adds that it’s “hard to think of a publication that has dated faster” than A History of the World in 100 Objects, in which the former director of the British museum, Neil MacGregor, “had all the answers and knew all the history, used the objects to illustrate it but didn’t really need them”.

Questions of how we address our imperial past resound at the British Museum. The culture department of Germany’s foreign ministry recently pledged to return to Nigeria bronzes looted from Benin, while Lambeth Palace confirmed it was “currently in discussions” about returning two of the bronzes that were given as a gift to then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie almost 40 years ago (though it has since been pointed out that they were almost certainly made in the Eighties, and not looted at all). The BM is forbidden by law from restoring “their” Benin Bronzes or the controversial Parthenon Marbles (Hicks also points out that the vast majority of its collection is not even on display).

One of the plaques in the collection of the British MuseumPA
One of the plaques in the collection of the British MuseumPA

“Inclusion and diversity have always been at the heart of what we do,” a British Museum spokesperson responds. “Work on the Museum’s masterplan project has continued to develop during lockdown and provides a unique opportunity to reconsider the display of the collection, broadening the diversity of voices present in the interpretation of objects in the collection. We have already started to do this through our exhibitions programme.” The statement adds that the institution continues to work with “community organisations in our home borough of Camden and beyond, with museums in this country and across all continents”.

At Tate, too, the pandemic has arguably accelerated changes to working practices that were already underway. “The diversity of museum workforces has been slowly improving for years, but everyone understands that a more significant shift in mindset and gear change is urgently needed across the sector,” says Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern. She adds that the organisation’s Race Equality Taskforce is working to make Tate’s workforce “reflect the diversity of London today”. She stresses the gallery’s links to the local community and points out: “Our exhibitions, commissions and solo displays have been 50/50 gender balanced for years, deliberately shining the spotlight on lesser known female artists, demonstrating unequivocally that generations of great women artists have been unfairly discriminated against.”

Frances Morris, director of Tate ModernDave Benett/ Getty Images for Debrett's 500
Frances Morris, director of Tate ModernDave Benett/ Getty Images for Debrett's 500

The director of Tate Britain, Alex Farquharson, says: “Art has the power to lift our spirits in these tough times and I believe it will play a crucial role in bringing society back together after the pandemic.” His gallery, which will shortly reopen with a show by British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, distributed ten bursaries to artists during lockdown, and the work they generated showed “a noticeable interest in the idea of care… care for oneself, or care for each other and the community one identifies with, often in the face of hostility, threat or vulnerability. I think everyone can relate to that right now.”

In the theatre world, slow progress has been made over several decades to improve representation, access and diversity. The past year alone has seen some encouraging signs. The National Theatre reopened its Olivier auditorium in November – and closed it again the same night when the second lockdown began – with Death of England: Delroy, a one-man show performed by black actor Michael Balogun. That felt like a very positive line drawn in the sand, as did the subsequent appointment of the play’s black director and co-author Clint Dyer as the National’s deputy Artistic Director. Looking forward, Cush Jumbo’s Hamlet has been confirmed for the autumn at the Young Vic, while Nabhaan Rizwan will star alongside The Crown’s Emma Corrin in Anna X in the Harold Pinter Theatre’s Re:Emerge season in July.

Clint DyerPhoto by Dave Benett
Clint DyerPhoto by Dave Benett

The director of the Royal Ballet, Kevin O’Hare, recently told the Standard that “diversity, race and gender” were the most important issues his organisation has to deal with (not to mention finding ways to work around a spate of lockdown pregnancies and new births among his dancers). In the commercial sector, Andrew Lloyd Webber has made the Theatre Royal Drury Lane as accessible to those with issues of mobility or hearing as its Grade 1 listing allows, during refurbishments before Disney’s musical Frozen moves in.

Things have definitely improved, according to Stephanie Steel, Chair of the campaign group Act for Change, which has argued for greater representation on stage and screen since 2014. “It feels like the debate on diversity ended 18 months or two years ago,” she says. “You can no longer say, ‘yeah, it’s rubbish to be diverse’ unless you want to end up sounding like Laurence Fox, being contrary and provocative for the sake of it.” But even if the argument has been won (see Bridgerton, again) it can take a while for change to work through in a meaningful way. “George Floyd’s death and the elevation of Black Lives Matter to a really mainstream narrative means we’ve got to stop talking about this and start doing it,” Steel says.

A first step towards how this might be achieved was the creation of an “anti-racism rider” developed by the theatre companies High Tide, New Earth, Eclipse and English Touring Theatre. It’s effectively a practical toolkit that ensures prejudice is removed from every aspect of a production, from concept to auditions, to curtain call. An obvious example is that actors of colour should be accorded the same level of awareness and service in hair and makeup as white performers.

Royal Ballet dancers Marcelino Sambe, Matthew Ball and Lauren Cuthbertson in The CellistBill Cooper
Royal Ballet dancers Marcelino Sambe, Matthew Ball and Lauren Cuthbertson in The CellistBill Cooper

“But it really does cover everything, from support in finding digs to the welcome from theatre staff,” says High Tide’s Executive Producer Rowan Rutter, who led the project, “as well as only being eight pages long, so that people actually read it.” The rider has been adopted by the Independent Theatre Council and Rutter hopes it will be taken up the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, “but they are bigger organisations and the cogs take a little longer to turn”.

For Clare-Louise English, “we have this ability to go back to zero and start again. This is a critical point in theatre’s history when we can look at things differently.” English lost her hearing as a teenager and in 2012 set up Hot Coals Theatre Company, which with another company, the DH Ensemble, now makes up the Strive Collective led by D/deaf, hearing, neurodiverse and disabled artists. She’d like to see accessibility factored into every aspect of a production rather than “regarded as a bolt-on or added extra”. It’s not just about fairness: “It’s another colour in your palette, another layer of creativity.”

Hadley Fraser also believes the industry needs complete structural change. The actor – who has a four-year-old daughter with his wife and fellow West End star Rosalie Craig - is an ambassador for Parents and carers in Performing Arts (PIPA). This group lobbies for greater flexibility of working hours, job sharing and a greater sensitivity to the needs of those in the business caring for dependents, especially those on low incomes, among other things. Again, structural inequalities were highlighted in lockdown, when the burden of childcare fell disproportionately on women. “We need to draw a line in the sand and say we can do much better as an industry,” Fraser says.

Hadley Fraser and Rosalie CraigAFP via Getty Images
Hadley Fraser and Rosalie CraigAFP via Getty Images

Indeed, but how do we pay for it? The oft-voiced fear about the post-lockdown arts world is that cash-strapped museums, galleries and theatres will resort to crowd-pleasers to tempt frightened (and also impoverished) punters back. Might the hard-won work already done to improve diversity, access and representation be put on hold, or worse, rolled back, until the coffers are filled again?

Steel says she is optimistic that the present generation of arts leaders “really believe in creative diversity and the absolute case for it, both economic and artistic”. But she fears many of the most economically vulnerable may already have left the profession. On the more positive side, the arts world has shown how flexible it can be, pivoting to video performance and online exhibitions and adapting to new technology. (“When everyone was first on Zoom and complaining about Zoom fatigue, the deaf community were like: ‘welcome to our world’,” says English.) Plus it’s hard to argue for the return to a status quo that has been so comprehensively upset. And maybe we can’t afford not to make things better.

“The one thing the pandemic has taught me is there is value in what we do in the arts way beyond what can be quantified in figures,” says Fraser. “It’s about mental health and cultural importance. There is a pent-up demand from people to get back into a theatre. Let’s make sure that everyone who should be there in the room there is there, telling stories.”

act-for-change.com, strivecollective.org, pipacampaign.org

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