If ACE only distributes the Government's support package to the organisations they have a current relationship with, then 80% of the sector will remain vulnerable and large scale venues as well as small will be at risk says Michael Ockwell.
News of the Government’s recent settlement was a welcome relief but is does pull into focus the challenge our sector has due to the nature of its structure. It is a finally balanced ecology which it is clear the Government has struggled to understand.
My concern is that we are far stronger together, as has been proved through the effective lobbying, but giving the money to Arts Council England (ACE) to be distributed presents a challenge. 80% of the sector’s turnover comes from outside of those organisations funded and supported by ACE. A large scale not for profit charity like Mayflower Theatre receives no direct subsidy and 93% of our income is from ticket and ancillary sales. However, last year 15% of our programme was presenting ACE funded organisations. Without a mechanism to access emergency funding Mayflower Theatre is in danger of being unable to continue to support the wide and diverse programme on our stage. As we have no direct relationship with ACE they have little appreciation of our operation and we have been lobbying to help them understand the crucial role regional theatres play in the touring ecology.
We also mustn't forget the commercial producers who will have very nervous investors; the longer they take to create the product, the longer it will be for freelance artists to secure work and the longer it will take for venues of all scales to have work to present on their stage. Without a road map and an opening date this is a self-fulfilling prophesy - we can't open because we have nothing to present.
We indirectly employ 100's of freelance artists and wouldn’t exist without them. It is imperative that they are also able to access support to ensure they will still be able to create magical experiences for our audiences post pandemic. Most of them also have no direct relationship with ACE.
The danger is that ACE continue to support those organisations that they have a current relationship with. ACE need the support from our industry to help them manage this upcoming challenge. What cannot happen is a sharpening of elbows as everyone has to make a case for their very existence through a complicated and convoluted application process that takes months to administer.
The headline figure of £1.57 billion is fantastic but how long will it take to distribute and will the venues, the Producers, the freelance artists and all of our finely balanced ecology be able to wait. Mayflower Theatre will lose in excess of £3.5 million through the closure. We are a strong financially stable business that usually thrives and doesn’t need ongoing subsidies to operate - we contribute £75million to the local economy and support many artists. We need one off support now to bridge the gap until we can reopen and once again offer opportunities to our wonderful partners in our industry.
We also must burst the myth that social distancing can work in theatres at the large scale. The economies of putting on the scale of productions which appear on our stage require a break even at around 60% of capacity; social distancing will reduce this capacity down to around 30%. That is a substantial gap that needs filling if we are to introduce audiences back to the theatre with social distancing. We are better to control our costs for as long as we can and reopen fully - the real question is whether this funding is to mothball the arts sector until it can reopen or whether it is a rescue package to help kick start a crucial part of our economy. I hope that it is the latter.
Michael Ockwell is Chief Executive of Mayflower Theatre