Imagine a lockdown with no books, art, films, music, plays or architecture.

That is to imagine a world without arts. During lockdown, culture keeps many of us engaged, rooted and sane. The cultural sector was, before Covid-19, one of the fastest growing in Scotland, contributing £5.5 billion to the economy with equal importance for our social and environmental prosperity and our wellbeing.

Cultural activity can transform lives. Arts programmes can address inequalities, promote social cohesion and enhance physical and mental wellbeing. Identity can be strengthened, and confidence gained. Witness the Trojan Women Project in Glasgow working with Syrian refugees to tell their own stories through drama; or the skills and sense of belonging which children from deprived urban areas gain from learning to play together in orchestras with Sistema Scotland.

But the cultural sector is fragile and has been hit hard by Covid-19. Many venues will not open before spring next year, if even then. Some depend on tourists and older audiences who may not return. The financial sustainability of socially distanced provision across all sectors, including museums and galleries, is strongly in doubt without significant government support. Furloughed jobs are highest in the arts, entertainment and recreation sectors and the livelihoods of those who actually make the art — freelance artists, writers, musicians, actors, technicians — have all but disappeared, as have opportunities for young people entering the market.

We are at a time of great risk, but also one of great inventiveness as we discover new ways to create work and reach new audiences. National Theatre of Scotland commissioned 55 original pieces of digital theatre, achieving 16 million views worldwide in partnership with the BBC. Operas have been performed in car parks. Book festivals have moved online. Galleries have introduced us to artists in their studios and used augmented reality for self-guided city tours. Digital reach has been amazing, although digital fatigue is setting in now, and we still crave the live experience.

The cultural sector is an essential public service. It must be supported to find a sustainable way forward.

Equally, we cannot simply go back to the way things were, ignoring the inequalities and environmental issues which have been so fiercely highlighted through Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement. This experience must change us, and I know many organisations discussing how.

There are also practical ideas worth considering. The recent Cultural Cities Enquiry, for example, proposed a small capital grants programme to repurpose buildings and public space for cultural use; an incentive scheme like Eat Out to Help Out to encourage people back to arts venues; and schemes to provide young people with start-up jobs and apprenticeships. Above all, we need to take time to think deeply about the economy and society we want to rebuild and ensure we listen to diverse voices in shaping that vision. In this too, culture can help.


This piece first appeared in The Times on Saturday 7 November 2020.
Article by Dame Seona Reid (FRSE).