Manchester Literature Festival is a small arts charity delivering an annual festival, year-round events, and an education programme for children, young people and families living in some of the most economically deprived districts of Greater Manchester.
Due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have already had to postpone our Spring programme of events, and due to the uncertainties around ongoing social distancing restrictions and the impact they are having on our many venue and programming partners, we have had to make the difficult decision to cancel our annual Festival this October too. This means we will lose an entire year’s box office which, when aggregated with the loss of associated memberships and corporate sponsorship, accounts for approximately 50% of our annual income. We are fortunate to be in receipt of Arts Council England and local authority funding, but it will be extremely difficult to survive the financial year from grant funding alone, and we expect to have to use up most if not all of our meagre reserves to cover core costs.
We do not meet the criteria for the ACE NPO Emergency Fund as this is targeted at cultural organisations likely to face a negative bank balance by the end of the summer. For us and other big autumn events/festivals the crunch will come further into the financial year. Unless there is a second and possibly third phase of emergency funding more and more cultural organisations are likely to fold.
We are making some use of the government’s job retention scheme to help secure the posts of our three permanent members of staff but are having to drastically reduce or in some cases completely curtail contracts with seasonal freelance staff who usually help us deliver the Festival.
As a charity we receive mandatory charitable rate relief rather than small business rate relief which meant that we weren’t eligible for one of the Small Business Rates Grants event though we have been forced to work remotely and have been prevented from delivering our core business of live events.
We are obviously concerned about what the future might look like for ourselves, other cultural organisations and artists involved in the staging and delivery of live events. It is very difficult to plan for the future when there is no clear indication of when theatres and other cultural venues will be able to open for business and what restrictions will be in place when they do. It is also difficult to gauge how soon audiences will feel sufficiently safe to start attending big indoor events and have the confidence to purchase tickets in advance.
What is clear, is that we will need to reduce our reliance on box office for the foreseeable future. Much of our corporate sponsorship is also in jeopardy and it is going to be very challenging to attract new sponsors in the current climate. Without an increase in public subsidy or an alternative income stream to support our work it is difficult to see how we will survive the next few years.
We are of course exploring digital alternatives to live events but this strategy poses multiple challenges:
It seems likely that one of the lasting legacies of Covid-19 will be to move more cultural product online. DCMS can support organisations such as ourselves by providing funding support and training to support digital innovation. It can also look to support the development of non-commercial digital platforms that are more cost effective and do not risk the misuse of sensitive audience data by big corporate organisations.
Manchester Literature Festival also produces a year-round programme of activities for children, young people and their families from the most economically deprived areas of the region with the aim of increasing life opportunities and supporting young children to become school ready. We have obviously been forced to postpone all face to face activity due to the current restrictions. We have been able to move some of this work online but many of the programmes we deliver are highly interactive, designed to raise participants’ confidence and to build new friendships/support networks as well as engendering community cohesion – things that can’t easily be replicated online. Plus, not all of the families we work with have access to digital devices or a good home broadband connection. We fear that children and young people already facing social disadvantages will fall further behind their peers as a result of the cultural lockdown.