Will Covid Mean Collapse?
By Anooshka Rawden, Cultural Heritage Lead at the South Downs National Park
‘Unprecedented’ has become a term that regularly features in our collective vocabulary. Since Covid-19, the practical and emotional toll on the creative and cultural sectors has been monumental.
After a decade of austerity, which witnessed significant reductions in cultural investment, the sector has worked hard to diversify income streams and capitalise on opportunity. However, no one could have predicted the significant economic and social change brought by Covid-19.
Working for a National Park enables me to champion the unique and rich mosaic of cultural experiences, research, engagement and conservation within our designated landscape, with the cultural heritage sector in its widest sense representing key strategic and delivery partners. The issues emerging are significant:
- Government and publicly funded grant schemes create a short-term lifeline to the cultural and creative sectors, but are only temporary respite.
- No visitors over spring and summer will mean many organisations won’t build up reserves to meet running costs over autumn and winter.
- Cultural heritage is a significant part of our visitor economy, but operates on narrow margins and needs to meet costs now to fund future programming.
- The sector is an ecosystem - the failure of one organisation has implications for the wider sector, including freelancers.
- Funding bodies have quickly offered grants responding to immediate impacts but this will compromise the availability and size of future grants, creating ‘poverty down the line’.
- Planning for business operation post-lockdown will require adaptation, with associated additional costs.
- Support for cultural networks is critical to capitalise on collective efforts to respond to the challenge.
Volunteering and audiences
- The sector relies on volunteers delivering aspects of its output, with significant contributions made by older people. Covid-19's impact on older people (and those with underlying health conditions) compromises future support.
- Social and economic impacts of Covid-19 necessitates a renewed understanding of audiences and their needs.
- A clear steer on requirements for reopening post Covid-19 and a published strategy to support business planning.
- Funding schemes for business adaptation.
- Renewed intelligence gathering on collections at risk given the predicted economic pressures post-lockdown.
- Grants to support recovery from the autumn, in order to bridge the financial gap of a lost season of income generation.
- Access to leisure and hospitality grants for organisations currently unable to access the scheme due to the eligibility focus on rateable value before charitable deductions.
- An extension of the furlough scheme to avoid redundancies.
- Data and evidence on sector impacts.
There have been notable positives that reflect our sector at its very best, including responsive and compassionate leadership, with community at its heart. Examples include The Towner Gallery delivering art materials through food banks, Ditchling Museum’s #CreateToRelate campaign and Gilbert White’s House and Gardens providing a local shop and deliveries to vulnerable people.
And the public values creative and cultural content, with participation in digital volunteering having soared, which has in turn supported remote projects from transcription to cataloguing. Public appetite for creative and cultural engagement has seen organisations respond with digital content aimed at health and wellbeing, learning and everyday creativity, with some organisations reporting an 800% increase in digital engagement. The challenge is not ambition, creativity or adaptation, it is funding – and survival.
What would failure in the cultural heritage sector mean? It would mean a significant loss to our visitor economy and tourism draw, the loss of the organisations that house our collections and support the developer funded archaeological process, the loss of community assets that both define and reflect local character and community. And in starker terms, the heritage sector alone supports £31 billion in national GVA and employs over 464,000 people.
There are tough times ahead and the sector will feel the impacts for years, but its value to the public remains clear, as is its role in supporting our social, economic and psychological resilience post lockdown.