A Year Without The Arts?

Before the pandemic, Harrogate International Festivals would host some of Harrogate’s most memorable events of the year, but this week marks 12 months since the arts charity were last able to welcome audiences. Here, Lizzie Brewster, Head of Development And Comms at the Festival, looks back on the last year, the devastating impact of Coronavirus on the arts, and our hope of the returning to events this summer.

The 15th March, marked a year since our last live Festival event. How devastating it feels to state this as a fact.

As the clapping died down on our last live concert, little did we know what was to come in the following year: the difficulties, the uncertainty, the redundancies, and the unexpected scenarios. All brought about due to the Coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated the arts industry.

Across the UK concert halls lay empty, theatres are dark, and audiences are staying safe at home. But, for us, and for Harrogate, it certainly has not been a year without the arts. Can you imagine getting through a Lockdown without the arts? Without music and podcasts? Books? Streaming an event, watching films, TV shows or a concert? Drawing, painting, photography? We can’t either.

In the last twelve months, on a shoestring budget, and with no ticket income, HIF has created over 130 online events, held three Festivals, launched a podcast, and have seen our digital events enjoyed over 120,000 times.

We have ensured vital paid work for hundreds of authors, musicians, artists, composers, and freelancers in a time when thousands of talented creatives are leaving the arts – perhaps forever – due to a devastating lack of work.

We have shopped for vulnerable members of society, been a friendly voice at the end of the phone, run drives to collect food for families at a local school who had found their income decimated by the pandemic, spearheaded a community arts campaign, created two community lighting installations, commissioned new music, created community-led collaborations and street galleries, 10-word stories, and pavement libraries, and brought people together from across the world.

Every single one of our events during the pandemic has been completely free to enjoy. When asked why this is, the answer is simple: this has been an incredibly difficult time financially for so many, and our community is so much larger than just those who could afford a ticket. We may not be doctors, or front-line workers, but there were ways in which we could help our community during this pandemic, and we knew that as an arts charity, that if we wanted the arts and artists to survive, and if we wanted our arts charity to survive, then we could not simply close our doors during this time.

It has been incredible to see the range of ways in which arts organizations across the UK have chosen to support their communities through the pandemic: Eden Court in Inverness turned into a hub for the emergency response to the pandemic, distributing thousands of food parcels, Opera North sought to improve wellbeing with their ‘From Couch To Chorus’ programme, and Harrogate International Festivals looked to support our community, and to ensure vital paid work for authors, musicians, and creatives – to ensure that there in an arts to return to after the pandemic.

As one of the first arts organisations in the UK to reinvent our work online, and with no digital team, it has been a journey of discovery and adventure, one born out of the necessity to ensure our survival, with everything to play for. It has certainly not been easy.

In two waves of redundancies, we have reduced our team by 70% leaving a staff of just 2.5, we have cancelled hundreds of events, refunded tens of thousands of pounds of bookings, unpicked years’ worth of work, and delivered the arts for 12 months with no ticket income.

Festivals and arts organisations across the UK had been plummeted into similar situations. Some were lucky enough to have large reserves, others have been able to apply for various pot of grant funding, many have chosen to go dark. For Festivals like us without a building, with no large reserves, and with no guaranteed funding or grants, it has been an incredibly difficult time.

As an arts charity that receives no guaranteed public funding and raises 98% of funding from ticket sales and sponsorship, we lost income totalling over £1.5million.

Everyone who works in the arts has at some point been asked ‘is this your full-time job?’ In the past we smiled and carried on. But, when there is a global crisis, and your industry is dying you wonder if you should have fought back a little harder, made it clear that the arts is important and viable. The view that the arts is unskilled, can be ‘thrown together’, or is not necessary, has cost our industry dearly over the last year.

The arts are vital, and need to survive, not just as the one of the largest industries in the UK, or for the role it will play a key part in the rebuilding of our nation, but for communities, individuals, experiences and for opportunities.

Amidst the difficulties and uncertainly we have experience in the last year, at HIF we have continued to work towards our mission as an arts charity, and there is a ray of hope for the future in the form of the Governments Roadmap, which has enables us to start to plan the return of live events this summer.

We are not foolish enough to think this will be a smooth path through 2021, and there will be difficult challenges ahead. What we do know is that we will be returning to live events in a new and exciting way, with our experiences in 2020 ensuring we are ready to deliver a 21st century festival for larger and even more diverse audiences.

The article was published in the Yorkshire Post and the Harrogate Advertiser.

Image credit: Richard Maude.