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Notes from a Pandemic

30th Apr 2020

Six weeks after contemporary art venues closed their doors across the UK, we see a very different picture of the visual arts sector in the time of COVID-19. The visual arts have a clear role to play as the country emerges from this crisis, and our task to advocate for their value is urgent. It requires a holistic approach, to articulate the symbiotic relationship between artists and institutions in the cultural ecology.

CVAN networks across the English regions continue to work together, gathering evidence and highlighting the particular concerns for our sector. We expect to report very soon on our COVID-19 survey of over 1,000 self-employed artists and freelancers in the visual arts.

Visual arts organisations are facing an unprecedented financial challenge, having already survived the public funding constraints of the last decade. Since the outbreak, the CVAN South East network has acted as a forum for our 22 partner organisations to discuss and exchange perspectives on navigating the crisis.

The extreme uncertainty at the present time makes business planning virtually impossible. In these circumstances their first priority has been to protect their teams. About half of the organisations in our network have opted to furlough employees through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Small and medium sized venues have been hardest hit by the loss of commercial operations and hire revenue. While many organisations can bridge the initial crisis by tapping their reserves, and by applying to Arts Council England and Government emergency support schemes, they warn of trouble coming down the tracks if the disruption drags beyond the autumn. Cost savings will inevitably impact future programming, and some have already reported the postponement of planned capital projects.  

Creative workspace providers find themselves in a uniquely treacherous position and have worked to hold onto their tenants by reaching temporary rent reductions. Phoenix Art Space in Brighton, the largest artist studios organisation in the South East, has gathered a network of peers from different parts of the country to protect the sustainability of creative workspaces.

Our Curatorial Working Group recently met virtually to share their thinking as they reconfigure their artistic programmes. Most venues are planning optimistically for the return to physical programmes in October, in the knowledge that they must make contingencies for a later resumption. Although visual arts spaces may accommodate social distancing more easily than theatres and concert halls, it begs the question whether audiences will want to return in any numbers for some time. With museums reopening in Germany this week, a conversation has begun over the appropriate precautions to safely accept visitors. 

Despite the burgeoning experimentation with digital access to the visual arts, the lockdown presents a greater challenge for arts organisations to reach the more disadvantaged groups in their local communities, where they have existing relationships, including vulnerable young people and people with learning difficulties.

During the lockdown organisations are at pains to uphold a duty of care to their regular volunteers, many of them older people who value the interaction and occupy critical front of house roles. As one director commented, ‘they are going to become increasingly important, the idea of the arts centre as a community centre is getting stronger and stronger by the day.’

Oliver Sumner
Manager, CVAN South East




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