Culture secretary pledges bailout: ‘Covid-19 is temporary, losing our arts is permanent’

10 June 2020, 13:39 | Updated: 10 June 2020, 13:41

Empty concert hall
Empty concert hall. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The UK’s culture secretary has finally spoken up, as the arts world lives through its worst crisis in living memory.

Classical music and the arts are hanging on a knife-edge. London’s Southbank Centre is at risk of closure until “at least April 2021” due to the economic impact of COVID-19; Royal Opera House’s Chief Exec Alex Beard says it will “not last beyond Autumn” with its current reserves; and arts leaders have recently warned the majority of theatres (70 percent) face permanent closure if no further government support is given.

Now in his first newspaper interview since taking the job last year, UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden has told the Standard he is in the midst of negotiating a financial rescue package for theatres and the arts with Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Dowden added he is in “intricate discussions” with the Treasury and supports the sector’s hopes for a more generous long-term financial package, rather than a temporary fix.

“I am not going to stand by and see our world-leading position in arts and culture destroyed,” Dowden told the newspaper, adding that he is pushing for a bigger bailout: “Of course, I want to get the money flowing. I am not going to let anyone down.”

Read more: Royal Opera House will ‘not last beyond Autumn’ with current reserves >

Coronavirus precautions closed the Royal Opera House in March
Coronavirus precautions closed the Royal Opera House in March. Picture: Getty

Stark comparisons have been made with Germany, whose government subsidises 80 percent of its major classical music organisations’ income, compared to just 20 percent in the UK.

“I’ve always found the Chancellor and his team very engaged and understanding about the value of this sector,” Dowden added. “Not everyone is going to be happy with whatever comes up. I’m going to have to ask institutions to take difficult decisions”.

The Cabinet minister said he hopes to give permission to galleries and museums to reopen from 4 July, suggesting a one-way visiting system for the National Gallery, which could be used as a prototype. But for theatres and music venues, it could be a while yet: “Something like theatre cannot function properly with two-metre social distancing.”

Read more: In Europe, we’re getting a glimpse of live music post-lockdown >

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden arrives at 10 Downing Street
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden arrives at 10 Downing Street. Picture: Getty

Dowden said he’s spoken to more than 120 arts institutions to ask what they need, and has set up a cultural taskforce to make plans for the cash rescue package. COVID-19, he said, “is a temporary thing and we don’t want to permanently lose cultural institutions”, adding that the arts are central to “the strength, resilience and reputation of London.”

He added: “We would be absolutely crazy to throw it away”.