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Art events and artists are facing a brutal Covid-19 reality

The recovery of the sector may take until 2025 if nothing is done to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19

Director Lenny Abrahamson contributed to report published by the Arts Council’s Expert Advisory Group. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The Dublin Theatre Festival has become the latest cultural organisation to announce it will not be going ahead this year in anything like the form to which we have become accustomed. It won’t be clear for a while yet what the festival will actually present and how, but it seems reasonable to assume it will be greatly reduced and it’s a moot point as to whether any of it will take place in an actual theatre.

That followed a similar announcement last week by Wexford Festival Opera, and two weeks before that from Dublin Fringe. In all cases, there’s a commitment to holding events of some sort, whether online or in locations where social distancing is possible. We look forward to the work they’ll be presenting, but it doesn’t get away from the brutal reality facing arts events and artists in Ireland.

Fortunately, that reality was acknowledged this week in the Government’s welcome announcement of an additional allocation of €20 million to the Arts Council and of €5 million for museums and digital exhibition for the remainder of 2020. That will help a lot, because, despite the current easing of restrictions and a slow return to normality in other parts of Irish society, when it comes to the arts, this crisis shows no sign of ending for the foreseeable future.

Yes, under the current Covid-19 roadmap, galleries and museums are permitted to reopen in nine days’ time, while theatres, cinemas and nightclubs can do the same from July 20th, subject to social distancing measures. And Leo Varadkar said this week that his understanding was cinemas would open in August and could be commercially viable while observing social distancing. That may turn out to be the case (although it seems debatable), but the same is clearly not true of live performance venues.

That’s just one of the points made in the excellent report published by the Arts Council’s Expert Advisory Group, which includes filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, theatre producer Anne Clarke and the Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole.


“Nothing can make a live event viable if an audience can no longer gather in the ways it has always done before,” they conclude, echoing a point made by Michael Dervan in this newspaper last month. “Socially distanced performance at 10-15 per cent of normal capacity is unsustainable.”

These are scorched-earth numbers which would do irretrievable damage. So what does need to be done?

It’s clear to anyone who is interested how profoundly the arts have been affected by the crisis, but the numbers in the report are still startling. Economic consultants EY found that, in 2020, the negative impact of Covid-19 on the arts sector will be between -34.6 per cent and -42 per cent, compared with -11 per cent in the Irish economy as a whole.

This is projected to cost between €250m and €300m to Irish GDP. The decrease in the number of jobs in the sector is projected to be between -14.9 per cent and -18.0 per cent, compared with -7 per cent in the Irish economy as a whole. Between 1,500 and 1,900 arts jobs are at risk. And EY states that the recovery of the sector may take until 2025 “if nothing is done to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19”.

These are scorched-earth numbers which would do irretrievable damage. So what does need to be done? This Government has already acted on one of the group’s recommendations with this week’s infusion of emergency cash. The next administration will be asked to consider its other proposals, which include new stabilisation funds to ensure the survival of companies at risk of collapse, supporting innovative ways of reaching audiences during the Covid crisis, new bursaries and an extension of unemployment payments and wage support schemes in recognition of the unique problems of the sector.

A different relationship between State agencies and the non-subsidised arts will also be required. “The situation is most acute in those organisations whose reliance on earned income is greatest,” the advisory group notes. Areas such as commercial theatre and popular music may need state support or intervention on a previously unimaginable scale.

These are not pie-in-the-sky recommendations. Across Europe, countries are looking at how to sustain their culture industries so that they are not permanently scarred by the effects of the pandemic. In the UK, some of the country’s best-known writers and performers have written to the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, warning of a looming “cultural catastrophe” and that “British theatre is on the brink of ruin” unless drastic action is taken.

Here, the strategic advisory group echoes that sentiment. “We are confident that there are realistic pathways to a sustainable and exciting future for the arts in Ireland – so long as those pathways are identified with urgency and coherence,” its report says. “The long-term diminishment of the quality of Irish life that will result from a failure to act now is beyond reckoning.”

It remains to be seen if a new government will agree.

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