Abigail Pogson outlines the vital contribution the arts can – and should – make as the nation edges towards recovery.
BBC 6 Music
It’s the end of March and we have been locked-down – effectively locked out – for a year. After a lively few weeks of activity at Sage Gateshead we have just announced a season of concerts called New Beginnings and the appointment of an exciting new Principal Conductor, Dinis Sousa, for our orchestra, Royal Northern Sinfonia - all of this exactly a year on from the moment the pandemic changed everything.
It is natural to look back to what we lost and want to regain, but we also need think carefully about how our sector and communities can recover. That means making sure the changes that last are changes for the better.
Our region has been hard hit by Covid-19. Communities in the North East have suffered some of the highest rates of infection and longest periods of restriction. At Sage Gateshead, we’ve been talking about recovery since May last year, both for our audiences and musicians, and for our region and our city. The two are equally important – and music can help achieve both. Music, and culture more broadly, has sustained many people through the depths of the pandemic. But unlike essential public service workers, who kept society functioning, artists have not been on the front lines.
Once we truly move into the recovery phase, this frontline will shift. There will be wellbeing to restore, social connections to re-establish and the economy to revive. How will we go about this in a way which is fair and reaches the whole of our society? It must be to set us on a fair and sustainable course through the 21st century, to where our country and our regions should be. That, I am convinced, is where arts and culture can make a significant contribution.
The wellbeing of the nation will be in recovery. Of course, this will partly be addressed by health and social care. It will also need to be channelled through what shapes our identities and gives our lives meaning. We know – both from lockdown and from the world pre-Covid – that arts and culture are a hugely important part of this.
I recently had feedback from a family who take part in one of our weekly early years sessions – a lockdown baby and a toddler, singing with other children online every week. Their mum says she has seen a really positive impact on the entire family. Our recovery from the pandemic will be a story of millions of individual recoveries like this in every part of the country.
One thing I love about going to a gig or an event is being in a room with a thousand other people who have come together to share the same experience. All we can guarantee we have in common is the music, theatre or dance we’re encountering together. You might have a strong individual reaction to a great gig, but the experience is all the more powerful when you’re surrounded by people having their own experiences – even when you don’t know them and will never meet them again. In normal times, people come to Sage Gateshead to meet people from outside of their own household. Our inability to do that right now has thrown the value of this collectivity into stark relief. Arts venues are places where social lives happen.
Economically there are challenges ahead. How do we rebuild tourism, hospitality and retail? The answer will be in distinguishing places, and in towns, cities and villages having a unique identity. It will be in having strong, cohesive and resilient communities – thriving places will be the ones people want to live in and visit. As retail shifts and city centres re-shape, it will be cultural spaces and activity that shape a centre and provide an anchor for the hospitality, retail and tourism sectors.
Pre-pandemic, the arts in the North East were worth £400m and employed 2500 people. Promotional pictures of Newcastle Gateshead almost always feature a shot of the river, the Millennium and Tyne bridges, Sage Gateshead and Baltic: a marriage of our industrial past with our creative present and future. These are powerful symbols for our city and region and they will be crucial to restarting and reshaping tourism. Beyond this, what will be most powerful in economic recovery will be arts and culture’s capacity to support education, build confidence, and tell stories about a place that help communities realise their ideas and ambitions.
Arts and culture around the country have long supported people’s wellbeing and contributed to our social and economic survival. Beyond the immediate restoration, they will also play a role in helping us think about what kind of recovered nation we want – what we want our country and our society to look like by the middle of this century. If there’s one thing artistic experiences can do it is help us imagine different possibilities.
We’ve seen the inequalities in our society very clearly this year. Now is the time for the arts, artists and audiences to explore what we want the future to be.
Abigail Pogson is Managing Director of Sage Gateshead