Arts Bailout in U.K. Buys Time, but No Peace of Mind

Arts Bailout in U.K. Buys Time, but No Peace of Mind


LIVERPOOL, England — One recent afternoon, Liam Naughton was standing in the main room of the Invisible Wind Factory, a vast music venue and arts space he runs in a formerly industrial area of Liverpool, which has been largely shuttered since March.

“We could put a roller rink in here,” he said, excitedly. “The idea is people will be skating around while hot bands are playing.” Marshals could enforce social distancing, he added.

Mr. Naughton’s head was full of such wild ideas because of a sudden change in fortune. At the start of October, he assumed he would have to close down the business entirely and lay off its 60 staff members, he said. Then, on Oct. 12, Britain’s government gave him $300,000 from a $2 billion bailout fund for arts organizations in England to stave off closure.

“It was such a relief,” he said. “All we needed was a little injection to be back in the game.”

There was just one problem, he added: What happens if there’s no vaccine by the time the money runs out? It is impossible for venues like his to make a profit if they have to restrict numbers and enforce social distancing, he said.

“No one’s out of the woods,” Mr. Naughton said, sounding unenthusiastic for the first time.

In July, Britain’s cultural institutions praised the government for its arts bailout, one of Europe’s most generous. The announcement was heard jealously in the United States, where arts institutions have received little help from the state. (Jesse Green, The New York Times’s co-chief theater critic, called it “a powerful message about the centrality of the arts in a modern democracy.”)

This month, some lauded the government again as the money started flowing to over 2,000 arts organizations, from the English National Ballet to the London nightclub Fabric.

But, for many, the joy might not last long. The terms of the grants state that they must be spent by Mar. 31 next year. After that, on Apr. 1, if institutions can’t operate profitably with social distancing limiting numbers, many will again face the prospect of layoffs or closing.

Liverpool — the home of the Beatles and Tate Liverpool, whose tourist trade is built on culture— was a big winner from the government bailout. More than 40 organizations in the city won grants totaling about £7 million, about $9 million. Winners included well-known names like the Cavern Club, where the Beatles played early shows, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, as well less well-known institutions like FACT, a museum that focuses on digital art, and the Unity Theater, a local playhouse.

In interviews last week, 11 recipients said they were grateful for the funding, with audible relief. The money would be used to pay rent and wages, and to stage distanced work, they said. “It’s life support that’ll keep the ventilator going,” said Craig Pennington, the founder of Future Yard, a new-music venue in nearby Birkenhead, which received around $78,000.

But they also said they didn’t know what would come in the spring if the pandemic didn’t ease. “We’ll be in a position where we’re faced with a choice of making losses or having to do significant savings,” said Michael Eakin, chief executive of the Liverpool Philharmonic, which received almost $1 million. That could include layoffs, he added.

Some of the city’s arts institutions and music venues have already cut jobs. On Oct. 5, National Museums Liverpool — an umbrella body that includes the city’s International Slavery Museum and the Walker Art Gallery — announced it was cutting a fifth of its staff. Laura Pye, its director, said in a telephone interview, that the museums’ visitor numbers were now just 17 percent of pre-pandemic levels. She didn’t expect them to recover until 2024, she said.

And arts organization in the city are keenly aware of just how quickly the rules can change.

On Oct. 12, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, ordered all the city’s pubs to close in an effort to tackle soaring coronavirus cases. Cultural institutions were allowed to remain open, but the restrictions appeared to hurt visitor numbers. On a recent afternoon visit to the Walker Art Gallery, there were only eight people looking around a Linda McCartney photo retrospective. Three staff members stood at the entrance desk looking bored.

The new restrictions also banned cultural venues from serving alcohol unless accompanied by a substantial meal, cutting off a major source of income. On the first Friday after the new restrictions came in, the Hot Water Comedy Club was the only cultural venue open in the city, with a distanced audience of 70 in its basement. None were drinking anything stronger than a soda.

“The stress is the never-ending changes,” said Binty Blair, one of the club’s owners. “We could be told to close next week.”

The Hot Water Comedy Club received about $580,000 in the bailout, but other nighttime venues in the city have already gone under. A handful of music venues closed over the summer, including the Zanzibar Club, which had been championing the city’s bands for 30 years.

Jon Keats, a director of the Cavern Club, said he’d had to lay off 30 staff already. He was now focused on spending the bailout money, he said, and would use half the grant to stage a series of concerts in which solo musicians would perform on the venue’s stages, live-streamed on the web.

“The money’s not to get us back open,” he said, “as we can’t with social distancing. But that’ll help put people back onstage.”

Several other cultural institutions, including the Everyman and Playhouse theaters, said they would try to use the money to help Liverpool’s freelance artists, who have been hard-hit by the pandemic.

One recent afternoon, Ellie Hurt, 27, a freelance theater director, was working a shift at the Bellefield nursing home. When Britain went into lockdown in March, she had been working on a show at the National Theater in London, she said. Suddenly out of work, she discovered she did not qualify for Britain’s support schemes for freelancers because too much of her income had been from bar and restaurant work.

In need of work, she applied for 40 jobs, she said, including at banks and in grocery stores. Only the nursing home provider got back to her, she said.

Now, Ms. Hurt said, she was in charge of organizing activities like bingo for the Bellefield nursing home’s residents. “It’s probably the closest I’ll get to culture work for a while,” she added.

She was happy to see so many Liverpool venues getting money, she said, but added: “I feel like this is a little bit too little too late. Everyone’s had to retrain.”

Although many interviewees shared Ms. Hurt’s concerns, one thing was also clear among them: that they would do everything they could to survive next spring, with government help or without.

Mr. Blair, of the Hot Water Comedy Club, said he’d built the club from scratch with his brother, even doing the joinery for the stage. It was now a social media sensation in Britain with clips of Paul Smith, its compère, having gone viral on Instagram. “I did this for 10 years without making money,” Blair said. “I do it as I love watching people laugh.”

He never expected to get anything from the government, he said, because Liverpool had always been hard done by. The government had surprised him this time, he said, but if he didn’t get money again, it wouldn’t matter.

“If I had to do a homeless comedy club on the street,” he said, “I would.”





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