The arts have a vital role to play in nation’s Covid recovery: Lizzie Brewster

This month has marked a year since our last live festival event. How devastating it feels to state this as a fact.

A person explores The Luminarium, a giant interactive art installation, forming part of the Harrogate International Festivals in Yorkshire in 2018. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

As the clapping died down on our last live concert at Harrogate International Festivals, little did we know what was to come in the following year: the difficulties, the uncertainty, the redundancies and the unexpected scenarios. All brought about due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated the arts industry.

Across the UK concert halls lay empty, theatres are dark and audiences are staying safe at home. But, for us, and for Harrogate, it certainly has not been a year without the arts. Can you imagine getting through a lockdown without the arts? Without music and podcasts? Books? Streaming an event, watching films, TV shows or a concert? Drawing, painting, photography? We can’t either.

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In the last twelve months, on a shoestring budget, and with no ticket income, HIF has created over 130 online events, held three festivals, launched a podcast and have seen our digital events enjoyed over 120,000 times.

We have ensured vital paid work for hundreds of authors, musicians, artists, composers and freelancers in a time when thousands of talented creative people are leaving the arts – perhaps forever – due to a devastating lack of work.

We have shopped for vulnerable members of society, been a friendly voice at the end of the phone, run drives to collect food for families at a local school who had found their income decimated by the pandemic, spearheaded a community arts campaign, created two community lighting installations, commissioned new music, created community-led collaborations and street galleries, 10-word stories and pavement libraries and brought people together from across the world.

Every single one of our events during the pandemic has been completely free to enjoy.

When asked why this is, the answer is simple: this has been an incredibly difficult time financially for so many and our community is so much larger than just those who could afford a ticket. We may not be doctors, or front-line workers, but there were ways in which we could help our community during this pandemic and we knew that as an arts charity that if we wanted the arts and artists to survive and if we wanted our arts charity to survive then we could not simply close our doors during this time.

As one of the first arts organisations in the UK to reinvent our work online, and with no digital team, it has been a journey of discovery and adventure, one borne out of the necessity to ensure our survival, with everything to play for.

It has certainly not been easy.

In two waves of redundancies we have reduced our team by 70 per cent, leaving a staff of just 2.5. We have cancelled hundreds of events, refunded tens of thousands of pounds of bookings, unpicked years’ worth of work and delivered the arts for 12 months with no ticket income.

Festivals and arts organisations across the UK had been plummeted into similar situations. Some were lucky enough to have large reserves, others have been able to apply for various pots of grant funding. Many have chosen to go dark.

For festivals like us without a building, with no large reserves, and with no guaranteed funding or grants, it has been an incredibly difficult time.

As an arts charity that receives no guaranteed public funding and raises 98 per cent of funding from ticket sales and sponsorship, we lost income totalling over £1.5m.

Everyone who works in the arts has at some point been asked, “Is this your full-time job?” In the past we smiled and carried on.

But when there is a global crisis and your industry is dying you wonder if you should have fought back a little harder, made it clear that the arts are important and viable.

The view that the arts are unskilled, can be thrown together or are not necessary, has cost our industry dearly over the last year.

The arts are vital and need to survive, not just as one of the largest industries in the UK, or for the role they will play in a key part of rebuilding our nation, but for communities, individuals, experiences and for opportunities.

Amid the difficulties and uncertainty we have experienced in the last year, at HIF we have continued to work towards our mission as an arts charity and there is a ray of hope for the future in the form of the Government “road map” that has enabled us to start to plan the return of live events this summer.

We are not foolish enough to think this will be a smooth path through 2021. There will be difficult challenges ahead. What we do know is that we will be returning to live events in a new and exciting way, with our experiences in 2020 ensuring we are ready to deliver a 21st century festival for larger and even more diverse audiences.

Lizzie Brewster is head of development and communications for Harrogate International Festivals.

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