A thought provoking article on the Covid-19 situation written by CEO of The Guildhall Trust,
A thought provoking article on the Covid-19 situation written by CEO of The Guildhall Trust, Andy Grays, who has 30+ years of experience working in the arts and cultural industry. A reflection on the pandemic, the threat it poses and the future challenge faced by the sector.
Like many of you, along with watching endless box sets and long contemplative walks with the dog, I’ve adopted the national pastime of speculating regarding what the future might hold, especially for those of us running venues.
As CEO of The Guildhall Trust which runs Portsmouth Guildhall, we found our business coming to a shuddering halt in mid-March. Suddenly, the shows could not go on! The week before I had been in central London, attending an annual meeting of music and comedy promoters. Some of the big guns in our industry were speculating on the effects of Covid-19, how it would affect festivals and events in the summer and how soon things would return to normal. Many at the meeting felt we’d be through the worse by late April/early May and things would return to normal by the summer. At the time the government and their advisors kept telling us that large gatherings at concerts and events didn’t pose a major risk.
I was further comforted meeting an old promoter friend in the pub afterwards discussing new shows for 2021, considering all the normal things we do as programmers, promoters and venue operators. However, it was an earlier conversation that day with another music promoter that sowed the seed of concern; he advised me that American artists were starting to cancel their participation in one of his events this summer. The Americans weren’t coming! It stirred a memory from 30 years ago.
In 1990 I was a young West End Theatre Manager working for the largest chain of London theatre owners. I had recently worked on the opening of the West End show, Miss Saigon and after several months found myself running my own small theatre, The Duchess Theatre in Covent Garden. Run For Your Wife, a Ray Cooney farce had transferred to our small 470 theatre, it starred several comedy names including Terry Scott, Lorraine Chase and Windsor Davies. And then the first Iraq War started in late 1990. Speculation was rife, how would it affect tourism including theatregoers. Fears for terrorist reprisals abounded, London was still a target for the IRA and now there was the possibility of long-range Scud missiles from Iraq.
I remember the moment that our audiences melted away. Sylvester Stallone cancelled a trip to London to publicise his latest movie; if Rambo was scared, god help the rest of us. Overnight American visitors avoided London and the UK and our audience numbers went from 75% capacity to about 10%. Major shows such as Miss Saigon, Phantom and Les Mis were no longer sold out and many shows closed early.
I am not suggesting that the situation we find ourselves in today is comparable to that of 1990, other than the immediate effect on our visitor economy. Today’s challenge for those in the cultural sector is considerable. However, there are some lessons to learn from the early 1990s. In 1990s central London we lived with the constant threat of terrorism, bombs went off in the lead up to the 1992 election and later that decade there was the devasting bombing in the Aldwych. Yet visitors adapted to this threat, and with the exception of the Iraq war, they came in their droves. Subjected to searches of their bags and queueing to get into venues, most people accepted this situation. For those that were not prepared to comply, the answer was simple, you would be refused entry, that simple line on the back of the ticket became all important, ‘management have the right to refuse admission’.
As we consider how the public might regain confidence in visiting our theatres, music venues, galleries and museums, we must create a blueprint which is universally accepted as the norm until a vaccine is found. There will be not one solution to the problem but a combination of ideas which help the public feel increasingly safe. In 1990 it wasn’t just the searching of bags which encouraged customers to visit the West End, but a combination of actions. For the foreseeable future customers might have to accept some strict measures and the sector will have to communicate clearly what they are.
The very essence of what has made our cultural offer great, our arts, our music, our heritage is threatened like nothing ever before. Working inside this world, as I have done for over 30 years, I can sense the real fear that we will lose much of what we think is valuable. Let’s face it, our lockdown is mainly enlivened by cultural participation, but let’s not kid ourselves that we can enjoy everything from our sofas. Nothing matches the live experience or makes us contemplative like visiting a great exhibition. Our wellbeing requires these challenges, we enjoy going through the gamut of emotions that occurs when seeing our favourite band, watching some great theatre or seeing something truly unique in a museum.
Whilst we need government to continue to support our sector with an extension of the furlough scheme, we need the public to be tolerant when we eventually re-open, and to understand the challenges we face. Critically everyone must be made aware of what we stand to lose if a plan isn’t put in place which enables us to trade again later this year.
CEO, The Guildhall Trust
023 9387 0190