Community Leisure UK responds to the phased reopening of cultural services and facilities

Published on: July 6th 2020

This weekend saw the welcome reopening of many museums, galleries and libraries across England with people queuing in some areas to return to these much loved facilities. Across Scotland, preparations are well underway to reopen similar venues next week, with Welsh libraries already operating a click and collect, contactless service and preparations for reopening outdoor visitor attractions from today. Through the immediate need for alternative models of delivery during lockdown, members unleashed their creativity and imagination for new ways to engage with their communities, from summer reading challenges and signposting families to activities and information for children [1], to crafting activities and challenges [2].

The prolonged period of lockdown when cultural venues had to close their doors to their communities has highlighted the impact of their absence across the lives of local people. These are community assets that have a crucial role in supporting wellbeing by having accessible cultural activities [3], offering valuable social interaction and a safe place for a cuppa, as well as specific arts and cultural programmes that target people’s health and wellbeing. 

These include: theatres, which provide professional productions through to community productions; libraries [4], which are community hubs where dementia groups meet, and offer internet access for those who need it; museums and galleries [5], where local and national heritage is celebrated and transformational cultural experiences occur, which will be critical in future as we make sense as a nation of the post covid-19 world.

Like most other sectors across the UK, the arts and culture sector has been seriously impacted by covid-19, with a long and difficult recovery ahead. However, the announcement from the UK Government of £1.57bn of support for museums, galleries, theatres, independent cinemas, heritage sites and music venues is incredibly welcome. This includes £188 million for the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland (£33 million), Scotland (£97 million) and Wales (£59 million). 

We look forward to seeing the details of this funding in due course, and hope it will provide the vital lifeline so urgently required by the sector. However, the scope of this funding does not encompass libraries, which although statutory, are also facing significant financial pressures with the breadth of their services at risk for the future. In addition, if library sites are unable to reopen, or face a delayed reopening, communities will be impacted in terms of the accessibility of their local library, which at a time of rising inequalities across society will only risk further detriment and division. 

Notably, the key will be in the timeline for this to be available in the bank accounts of organisations desperately in need as we are already witnessing theatres closing and staff being made redundant. It is essential that this support is fast tracked to prevent further losses and that clarity is provided around the eligibility criteria. Public cultural services are at the heart of their local places, often delivered through charitable trusts (60% of members in Scotland deliver public culture; 48% of members in England; and 50% of members in Wales). It is essential that these charitable trusts are able to access this funding in order for them to be protected, valued and supported to survive and thrive for the future generations of our country.

Theatres and performance venues are perhaps those at highest risk in terms of viability and are unlikely to reopen this year. This latest funding, along with a £10m lifeline fund announced by the Scottish Government, will hopefully ensure their survival, as a loss of theatre would have significant and long-lasting impacts on communities and their wellbeing. 

There has been a perception that many culture and heritage institutions have benefitted from unprecedented financial support through the pandemic. However, this is clearly not true. In the case of our members, charitable trusts delivering public arts and culture, they have fallen through the gaps in most funding support available, resulting in cultural services being delivered through this model missing out on support and facing increased financial challenges. 

Furthermore, since their establishment, charitable trusts have been encouraged to become increasingly self-sufficient against a backdrop of increasing local authority financial pressures and ever decreasing budgets. The result of this is that charitable trusts are now victims of their own success, with a far greater reliance on income through trading, which has now entirely stopped since the closure of facilities. The resulting gap between income and expenditure is therefore increased, exacerbating the financial pressures felt as a result of the current pandemic.

There is an urgent need for care and ownership of cultural services and facilities at a political level, both nationally and locally, with an understanding of the value and impact of culture and the arts and a commitment to protect and support these services regardless of the delivery model.

Yet the role of public arts and culture extends far beyond venues and services. Cultural trusts offer multiple opportunities for artists and creative practitioners, from staff working in theatres or arts centres, delivering workshops, as well as commissions for individual artists and specialist advice and support for artists, arts organisations and community groups in local areas.  Cultural trusts also work in partnership with national bodies to open up opportunities for artists and communities in their areas.

As we begin to see reopening across the cultural world, we will benefit from some innovation and reimagining in the delivery and accessibility of services. During lockdown, most members sought alternative ways to engage with their communities, through digital offerings (including expanded ebook availability, online music tuition [6], virtual tours of museums and galleries, online community festivals [7]), and also sought to support those who may not have access to technology, for example, ‘Get creative inside’ activity packs for children [8], and the ‘Stronger together’ programme supporting the mental health and wellbeing of older people, encouraging them to be more creative, take up a new activity or share an existing interest with others in the same situation [9]. 

Trusts continue to be bold and ambitious in re-imagining these services for the future and have their ability and innovation in being able to pivot and deliver services and opportunities in a new way in an incredibly short time-frame. This demonstrates their desire to be accessible to communities, their recognition of their role as community assets and their agility to transform, completely debunking the myth of culture being out of touch with the modern world and communities.

Examples as mentioned in the statement

1: East Renfrewshire Leisure and Culture Resources for Children 

2: Lincs Inspire Craft Challenge

3: Swing in the Park at the Grade-I listed Pitville Pump Room managed by Cheltenham Trust

4: Redbridge’s Libraries ‘Lucky Dip Bags’ with pre-selected children books organised by Vision-Redbridge Culture and Leisure

5: “Our Stories” brings Falkirk area heritage to life by Falkirk Community Trust

6: Online Music Tuition by Highlife Highland

7: Online Community Festival by Magna Vitae Trust for Leisure & Culture

8: Get Creative Inside! Activity packs by Link4Life

9: Stronger Together programme by Awen Cultural Trust in collaboration with Bridgend Council