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UK culture venues reopen, artists still suffering

May 14, 2021

The United Kingdom's cultural scene is back following more lockdown easing. But despite the excitement over enjoying art again, are all artists going to benefit?

A man stands outside the Switch House during the unveiling of the New Tate Modern in London
The Tate Modern museum is reopening its doors after months of lockdownImage: Reuters/S. Wermuth

A dark cloak of depression has long been hanging over people's heads in the British capital. First there was Brexit, then the COVID-19 pandemic, the first wave of which hit London and the United Kingdom particularly hard. Successive lockdowns have especially crippled the creative sector.

Now there are glimpses of hope. Outdoor dining has been allowed for a month now, and indoor activities, including visits to cultural venues like museums, will soon resume.

With well over half the UK population having received its first COVID-19 vaccine dose, and with a quarter having even been given the second, there's widespread confidence that a semblance of normality will slowly return over summer: The Brit Awards this week took place in front of some 4,000 people. And elsewhere in Europe, similar hopeful signs are also beginning to emerge.

A mixed group of people enjoying drinks on a rooftop bar with London's skyline in the background
Londoners are slowly and cautiously returning to normal while COVID remains a lingering threatImage: Dylan Martinez/REUTERS

Tate Modern promises safety first

The UK's creative scene is leading this gradual shift, with museums back in business from May 18 alongside other cultural spaces.

The Tate Modern on London's South Bank, for example, is welcoming visitors back with an exhibition of work by French sculptor Auguste Rodin: "The Making of Rodin" takes the visitor on a journey, not only through Rodin's artistic evolution, but also ties in his emotional and personal life.

But how is the Tate Modern ensuring that the exhibition doesn't become a future superspreader event?

"The safety of visitors is our foremost priority," Achim Borchadt-Hume, director of exhibitions at the Tate Modern, told DW. "All exhibitions have been planned in accordance with social distancing measures" and are "following all the government guidelines." 

Among these rules is the booking of visits in advance for track and tracing, with visitors required to show QR codes at the entrance to the building.

Government help not enough

Following months of closure during two UK lockdowns and the ensuing loss in revenue, museums now need to also cough up the funds for such precautionary measures.

"COVID has been a huge challenge for the entire culture sector, as for the rest of society," said Borchardt-Hume. "But the financial fallout for us has been dramatic."

Florence Nightingale Museum in London
The Florence Nightingale Museum in London is among those under threat of having to permanently close its doorsImage: Han Yan/Xinhua/picture alliance

The Tate Foundation and its museums don't have to fear for their survival: while they are technically not government institutions as such, they receive close to a third of their funding directly from the British government while remaining largely independent of government control.

Others might not be so lucky: The Art Fund, a UK charitable organization that helps museums to find funding and promotes the culture sector, said in January that 60% of UK museums were worried about their survival. Some are even facing permanent closure, including the Florence Nightingale Museum in London. A UK government "culture recovery fund" of £400 million (€465 million/$564 million) announced last month is aimed at helping "more that 2,700 arts, culture, heritage organizations and independent cinemas survive and thrive."

But some artists believe the money has not been sufficient for many working in the culture industry. Aletia Upstairs, a performing artist and cabaret singer in London, said that there was some "bare minimum government help made available to some artists but you really had to prove that you were starving."

"I don't think it's fair that the biggest institutions got support when the small artists didn't," the performer told DW. "And this has certainly changed my view of the government of this country. Before COVID, I never really was interested in politics but now I really feel strongly that artists also have to act as activists."

Aletia Upstairs holding a microphone onstage
Aletia Upstairs performs music and physical theater in small venuesImage: Aletia Upstairs

UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has defended what he calls a "record-breaking culture recovery fund that has already helped thousands of culture and heritage organizations across the country survive the biggest crisis they've ever faced." Some of the biggest names in the UK cultural scene, including actors like Dame Julie Walters and Stephen Fry, have expressed support for the scheme.

But Aletia Upstairs believes that smaller performers and venues feel left out of the scheme, and that the government policy is driving a wedge between the established big names and smaller players. "The government policy has resulted in huge social divisions, also in the arts," she said.

She refers in particular to a government advertisement from last October that suggested a ballet dancer should retrain in cybersecurity as the pandemic raged on.  

"Basically it said the government thinks that artists' work is not real work," she said. "It was the government's way of telling people in the arts: you have no hope."

A traumatized world?

But large institutions like the Tate Modern have more cause for optimism. London's premier modern art museum "can't wait to have an audience again," said Borchardt-Hume, adding that support for the museum has grown over the course of the pandemic. "The lockdowns made people want to support the museum even more."

But Aletia Upstairs thinks that being in the same room with other people won't even be the same experience for some time.

"There will be a worldwide case of post-traumatic stress when all this is over," she said. "I mean, now when I return to the stage I have to ask my audience if they don't mind being approached by me, touched by me, if I can sit on their laps and stuff. But that's what I do as a performer. We need our bodies to express art."

Borchardt-Hume agrees on the need to rediscover human physicality post-pandemic, explaining why the Tate Modern is reopening with a Rodin show. "He lived in changing, troubled times in the late 19th century in France," he said of the sculptor who in his works reflected on the "image of being human we have, and what our bodies tell us about us.
"And if we have learned one thing over the past year it's that our bodies are important."

Sertan Sanderson Moderation
Sertan Sanderson A human who seeks to make sense of the world and wants understand what truly motivates peopleSertanSanderson