Marie-Claire Daly reflects on what the past year has taught Greater Manchester about resilience and recovery, and what we must take forward to ensure the sector succeeds.
United We Stream © Katie Hall, Badger & Combes
On March 5th 2020, more than 50 of Greater Manchester’s cultural leaders gathered in a packed room to celebrate Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s (GMCA) latest cultural funding round of £8.6m for 35 organisations – a 23% increase in investment in culture across the city region. There was already a weird feeling in the room. Some people bumped elbows with raised eyebrows before going in for a proper hug. Some were worried about the virus and had already started planning for the possibility of closure. Others, myself included, were certain there was nothing to worry about.
None of us had any idea that we would enter full national lockdown in the coming weeks. For Greater Manchester, that lockdown lasted nearly the whole year.
Scale of change
While the year has been hard and tragic and the doors of our venues closed for far too long, our organisations and artists have been more open than ever before. We have seen collaboration, care and compassion from the sector on an unprecedented scale. Our venues became foodbanks, theatre makers rang isolated residents, and wardrobe departments and maker spaced sewed and 3D-printed PPE. The GMCA supported our organisations to do this, providing six months of grant payments up front, but we also developed and delivered a number of strategic projects, including Covid Commissions, Creative Care Packs and United We Stream.
After a year of planning, cancelling and replanning, with massive support from the Culture Recovery Fund, reopening is now a possibility. While there are glimmers of hope, we know there are still tough times ahead. Freelancers are still not getting the support they need. There are going to be further job losses once furlough ends. International touring will be challenging for years to come, even before the impact of Brexit is considered. Local authority finances will be stretched even further following their amazing response to the pandemic, the impact of which on diversity in the sector is really worrying.
This is why we worked with partners across Greater Manchester to update GMCA’s culture recovery plan and lessen the effect of some of these challenges. Our year-long plan outlines how working with the sector and partners across three thematic areas will help us emerge from the pandemic changed but with a sense of purpose and appreciation for the importance of arts and culture to our places and people.
As we emerge from the pandemic, we can think about what we lost in lockdown, including the enjoyment of collective experiences. This desire for these combined with the decline of the traditional high street provides us with an exciting opportunity to use culture to bring people together and inject vibrancy back to our places. We will focus our activity in this area on delivering the inaugural Town of Culture in Bury and our Creative Improvement District framework, which supports places to put culture at the heart of economic recovery.
Digital developments necessitated by Covid-19 have opened new ways of working, as well as new local, national and global audiences and partnerships. This will provide new solutions to long-standing problems. GMCA plans to prioritise digital development and delivery in the first six months of 2021 before moving to a hybrid model when restrictions allow. Two projects - StreamGM builds on the legacy of United We Stream and a second digital platform to connect creative freelancers with opportunities and resources – are set to launch early in summer. We must also find ways to make sense of the unprecedented events of 2020 and 2021 and start to heal, individually and collectively. We will develop schemes to support the physical and mental health of our residents to start that years-long process.
Through these thematic interventions, and with the organisations, artists, and creators across our city region, we hope that things will be radically different this time next year. While it has been a relentless and miserable year that we will be glad to see the back of, there are some things we must take with us into the recovery phase. For me, it is the knowledge that our sector is actually pretty good at adapting and innovating. Art and culture have never been more needed to give us an escape, provide moments of joy and help us to make sense of terrible times.
Marie-Claire Daly is Principal of Culture & Creative Policy at the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.