Rishi’s Arts Recovery Fund – a Saviour or a Nightmare?

After seeing the other week Rishi Sunak’s comments about retraining, realising I’m doing a useless humanities degree, having a brew and a good cry, I hopped onto the National Careers Service website [available here] to see what I do with my life. Their ‘Skills Assessment’ quiz has, in recent days, raised a few eyebrows, and comprises of such scientific questions as do ‘I set myself goals in life’; rated from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree’.

And so, as a solution to being 2/3 my way through a humanities degree and intensely interested in the arts, the first two occupations the Government thinks I should retrain as, because the arts are apparently unviable, are:

A tour guide, or an actor. Great.

On top of this being maybe the second most useless piece of government software currently about, Rishi’s advice to retrain didn’t come long before the recent awarding of the first injection of the Culture Recovery Fund. Recently announced have been the awards of less than £1million each, a £257m package awarded to 1386 cultural businesses around the country, as a wider part of Rishi Sunak’s promise to deliver a £1.7billion stimuli to the cultural industry. 

Some of the significant grants in Leeds include £750,000 to Northern Ballet and £695,000 to the Harewood House Trust. Alchemy Leeds, the company that owns Warehouse, has had a hefty sum of £230,000, and the Brudenell Social Club, the music and drinks venue in Hyde Park, have received a similar amount; just two out of a handful of the slightly more grassroots grants.

No sooner have the recipients been announced than people online have discussed the dubious worthiness of some of the institutions. The highest recipient on the £1m list, and one of only two businesses awarded a full million, is Mission Mars. The Manchester based holding company used to own two of Manchester’s major cultural outputs – Gorilla, and the Deaf Institute – but sold them off back in July. They now mostly deal in restaurants; but the company is so strapped for cash that it was reported in only early September that they were opening a new venue in the city.

Other criticism includes that of Secret Group, the parent company of cinema events organiser, Secret Cinema, which received just shy of a million. They rent venues, install props, and put on popular films for a significant price tag; you can currently pay anywhere between £49 and £139 to go and watch Stranger Things in an immersive atmosphere; or just find any friend with a Netflix account and turn the lounge lights off. 

Ultimately, the arts shouldn’t be fighting amongst itself right now, especially not when it comes to who is most ‘deserving’ of a cash injection. This is a dichotomy that has been, for the most part, constructed. I’ve seen countless times in the past few days the ‘justification’ for the Cultural Recovery Fund; that the arts and culture industry contributes tens of billions to the UK economy every year, or that art saved us all from complete disintegration during lockdown; therefore of course it should receive a saving grace from HM Treasury. However, should it really have to be justified in monetary or productive terms that we ‘save’ our cultural industries? Are they not worth saving purely on their own virtues?

The most heinous example related to this is the application to receive the CRF. Applicants had to provide 350 words stating how COVID had impacted their finances, prove the business had previously been viable, and prove that they had ‘exhausted all other reasonable options’. 

Section 3, however, demands that applicants justify that their organisation has ‘national and international significance within the cultural sector’, or, that your organisation has a ‘role in providing cultural opportunity in England’. 

This particularly stings once you consider the sheer disparity in the funding awarded; and further still, that some companies didn’t get funding at all. Whilst yes, a large part of it is likely due to running costs and COVID losses, there is also the implication there that the 634 businesses awarded less than £100,000, are apparently worth significantly less to culture than the 105 that ‘earned’ their sums of between £500,000 and £1m. 

Further still, despite Section 5 of the application promising that the fund aimed to achieve ‘balanced’ funding across England (and further yet, focus on businesses in areas of ‘low cultural engagement), some 31% of the total number of grants, and 34% of the total funds, were awarded to businesses in London; whilst the North East, or the region defined as ‘Yorkshire and Humber’, received only 3.9% and 7.2% of the pot, respectively. 

The Recovery Fund is undoubtedly a good thing, but it seems as though there will be much longer implications for the pickiness over who gets what; and the impact it is bound to have on crucial cultural producers having to justify themselves in predominantly economic terms.

Photo Credit: The Financial Times