On July 5 2020, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, unveiled the £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund (CRF), a one-off investment in the UK arts industry to help it weather the impact of Covid. After months of uncertainty and dire warnings from an imperiled sector, the Government was finally offering a lifeline: £880 million in grants and £270 million in repayable loans for England’s cultural organisations, £100 million of targeted support for heritage, £120 million in capital investment to restart construction projects, plus £33 million earmarked for Northern Ireland, £97 million for Scotland and £59 million for Wales.
Decisions on who got what were made by expert bodies: the Arts Council, Historic England, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the British Film Institute.
This funding package, the Prime Minister proudly proclaimed, would “safeguard the sector for future generations, ensuring arts groups and venues across the UK can stay afloat and support their staff whilst their doors remain closed and curtains remain down.” So, almost two years on from that £1.57 billion promise, has the CRF done its job? Has it saved the arts?
Well, broadly speaking: yes. By November 2021, the CRF had awarded £1.2 billion to around 5,000 organisations through several rounds of funding. And, despite the extraordinary challenges, the majority of our arts venues and institutions have survived.
That certainly wasn’t guaranteed. Craig Hassall, CEO of the Royal Albert Hall, recalls people telling him that they couldn’t imagine the hall ever going under. “I’d say, ‘I imagine it every day. It’s real. Look at our reserves draining’. Before furlough, before the Culture Recovery Fund, it was something we were really contemplating as a reality.”
The Albert Hall lost £30 million in income in 2020, so the CRF really was crucial. However, it wasn’t a perfect solution. Hassall voiced frustrations that the hall was deemed ineligible for an emergency capital grant because it wasn’t “a portfolio of nationally spread sites”. Instead, they were advised to apply for a loan, despite the fact the venue had already taken out a £5 million loan through the Coronavirus Business Interruption Scheme. This they did, eventually receiving £21 million. Now, despite a four-year interest and repayment holiday, Hassall has had to cut his cloth accordingly.
“[The repayments] will dampen our profits, and [that] means we’re slightly compromised in the amount we can invest in new talent and artists,” he says. “But it’s unavoidable. We’ve borrowed the money, we have to pay it back.”
Surely it would have made more sense for the Government to give them a grant, so that they could pay that forward in employment and commissions?
“Yeah, it would,” admits Hassall. But he insists that “we were all making it up as we went along. It’s not ultimately because of a failure of government, but a lack of knowledge and of awareness and information. It’s still £1.57 billion for the arts. Whatever sort of cack-handed process there was that slowed it down, it happened and it kept the sector alive”.
Hassall adds: “I’m sure there were huge fights within the Treasury about what funds to allocate where. It would seem disingenuous to be whinging now. [The CRF] seemed to be evenly and fairly distributed. It could have been better – but we could have not had Covid as well.”
Not everyone agrees that the CRF’s distribution was fair, however. There was furious muttering about the immersive theatre company Secret Cinema getting a whopping £977,000, given that it puts on very few shows, with high ticket prices (general admission to its production of Dirty Dancing this summer costs £100 per person), and gets financial support from partnerships with Netflix and Disney.
And yet the Manchester comedy club Frog and Bucket – which nurtured the likes of John Bishop, Peter Kay, Jack Whitehall and Sarah Millican – was deemed not to be “culturally significant” enough for CRF support.
Thankfully, the Frog and Bucket has survived, but the Shepperton Jazz Club in Surrey wasn’t so lucky: it was forced to close in May 2021, after running successfully for 40 years. “I did everything I could to keep it going,” says former director Nigel Price. But, he explains, the pandemic hit the club’s demographic – which skewed older – particularly hard.