Written evidence submitted by Union Chapel Project




Evidence for DCMS Select Committee - Impact of Covid-19 on DCMS sectors


Union Chapel Project




Union Chapel is well-loved and world-renowned as an amazing music venue and arts organisation. But we are also much more than that. We are a 200-year-old Victorian Gothic architectural jewel, with a unique organ and an amazing history of nonconformism, social justice, music and culture. For decades, we have supported the homeless and most vulnerable in society. We are home to a charity supporting the people experiencing homelessness and struggling, The Margins Project, offering food, advice, support & solidarity, night shelter, training and employment for people experiencing homelessness. We are home to a progressive, inclusive church who works passionately on social justice issues. We have community and cultural events, programmes and food services aiming to support and empower the struggling and vulnerable and isolated in our communities. Our educational programmes reach schoolchildren across North London.


The venue is the tip of our iceberg. Yet, the impact of coronavirus on our income as a venue massively affects everything else that can and does occur at Union Chapel.


We have evolved very quickly to refocus our work:

-          we have pivoted our spaces to provide our community response to the most vulnerable in North London,

-          we are fast-developing a successful and acclaimed digital programme for all, including revenue generating ticketed live stream events.

-          We have worked hard to transform from an income-generating charity to a fundraising charity.

This is work that we had wanted to do as part of our developing strategy – and now feels both more urgent and timely. And we are making progress.


However, the longer term uncertainty and lack of commitment from DCMS and other Government departments towards the culture and hospitality sectors threatens the feasibility of us continuing.

We wish to share our position and highlight the impact of not supporting venues like ours on our organisation, our wider ecology, and therefore the community around us.


We also wish to highlight our concern that, whilst this period may provide an opportunity for some organisations to refocus their work towards the communities and doing things differently, without greater support from the Government – for venues, for arts and culture organisations large and small, for artists and practitioners, whether working at a national or grassroots level - our sector could face substantial, long-term and irrevocable damage.


Union Chapel – background

On March 18th Union Chapel closed its doors and ceased events. We are now facing a minimum nine-month closure. Union Chapel has no further main income other than a small number of grants for specific programmes. Whilst the model of venue income generation has been a very successful one to date, the indefinite closure now poses a massive risk to the future of the organisation. The current forecast is a loss of income of over £1,200,000 this financial year – from the loss of gig bookings, bar sales, space rental, membership sales and already incurred losses.


Since the venue closure in March 2020 we have spent approx. £120,000 of our reserves. This has gone largely on building and staffing and overheads costs to date, but also partially towards our escalated community engagement activity through becoming a community emergency response hub for those most in need in North London.

The venue income makes up 80% of our charity’s income. As such, the closure and loss of income will have an enormous detrimental impact on our charitable work, and the ecology of our wider organisations.

Union Chapel Project was set up as a secular charity in 1991, with its main duties to restore what was then a dilapidated building, bring it back to public use, and make it accessible for events, activities and programmes for the wider community.

Union Chapel’s mission statement is now:

"Inspiring Space - Inspiring Lives" and our organisational aims are:

  1. To curate and support an all year round programme of popular and innovative cultural performances and activities to enrich London’s diverse communities;
  2. To strengthen relationships within and between these communities through participative and transformative projects for social change;
  3. To repair and conserve these Grade I and Grade II* listed buildings to the highest standard for future generations to use and enjoy;
  4. To achieve financial independence and sustainability through using our space to its greatest potential.

Union Chapel is best known and well-loved as an astounding space and an award-winning music venue. We have a global reputation for international cultural events – and we are also known for supporting the most vulnerable communities. We host unique and innovative cultural performances and events that inspire and inform diverse audiences from London and the world. From music and comedy, to films, dance, spoken word, and social justice events - last year our programme attracted over 100,000 visitors through 250 unique events. 

But we are more than a well-loved venue. We are a 200-year-old Victorian Gothic architectural jewel, with a unique organ and an amazing history of nonconformism, social justice, music and culture. For decades, we have supported the homeless and most vulnerable in society. Our Margins Project offers food, advice, support & solidarity, night shelter, training and employment for people experiencing homelessness. We are home to a progressive, inclusive church who works passionately on social justice issues. We have community and cultural events, programmes and food services aiming to support and empower the struggling and vulnerable and isolated in our communities. Our educational programmes reach schoolchildren across North London.


Before we closed, we were in the process of developing our new strategy, to become a leading ethical arts centre for all; where culture, community and social justice came together, in union. Whilst this strategy development has been necessarily paused, the importance of this work, to better engage, support, inspire and empower our communities, has only become more urgent and timely.



How Union Chapel has changed.

During this crisis, we have done all we can to minimise expenditure, including taking advantage of the government’s Job Retention Scheme to the extent that our working staff team will reduce by 95%, from 70+ to 4, during June. The Leadership Team is a third the size it had planned to be; and this has all placed a real strain on capacity and ability to achieve our work.


Despite the anticipated loss of income and substantially reduced capacity, we have been working tirelessly to pivot our work in several ways.


Over the last 3 months, the Union Chapel has transformed our approach – in terms of our community provision and engagement; in terms of our digital programme and live-streaming capability; and in terms of our fundraising and income model. These are all things that others in the sector could do more of – and indeed many of our peers already are.


  1. Community Emergency Response:

Since we closed, we have refocused our spaces to become a COVID-19 community emergency response hub – an outreach support programme, a donation and redistribution hub creating support packages for homeless and vulnerable people across North London. We are a lead partner in the UK’s first Homeless Covid Task Force (alongside the wonderful Museum of Homelessness, Streets Kitchen, Islington Council and other partners); and a lead partner in the local Covid Food Poverty Network. We have worked in partnership with local charity Help on Your Doorstep, with several of our staff providing befriending support, medication and deliveries, to some of the most vulnerable and isolated socially housed residents in North London. Our homeless service has changed its model to become a food takeaway service for people experiencing homelessness and food poverty; and an advice service, which is currently assisting people with food poverty, mental health issues, benefits and eviction issues during this pandemic crisis.


Overall, we have helped over 200 people in this period. In addition, our school programmes have continued but moved online, and now reach schools and children further afield.

This work will only continue and grow in demand over the coming weeks and months, as the Everybody In scheme comes to a close, more people face rough sleeping and evictions, and more people face redundancies and poverty.

Our capacity to do more here would have been greatly assisted if furloughed staff were permitted to volunteer for associate charities – a policy we would ask the Government to reconsider.


  1. Escalated fundraising work:

To ensure emergency funding for our community work and the future of our venue, we have pivoted 3 staff to refocus on fundraising and escalated our fundraising work, applying to trusts and foundations for emergency coronavirus funds. These are hugely competitive, particularly for an organisation like ours that was previously not in receipt of many grants. We launched a crowdfunder in mid-May, which achieved huge support primarily from gig audiences and achieved its original target in less than two weeks; and well as a humbling outpouring of supportive comments, which have been hugely morale-boosting.


  1. Digital programme and live streaming:

In the last three weeks, we have launched our digital content page, In Union – bringing culture, community and social justice content together in union, for audiences and service users of all backgrounds. This includes a lot of free content, such as past gigs for our music fans, as well as online workshops – from family singing sessions to cooking on a budget - specifically for our community audiences.


Most recently, we have been host to the live-streamed Laura Marling gigs, to UK, Europe and North America. The artist Laura Marling performed live to an empty Union Chapel, and the event was ticketed, limited audiences, professionally filmed, and with a high quality live stream. It subsequently received great coverage and reviews as a new way forward for the live music industry. It provides an income-generating model and some hope for artists, venues and the wider live music industry in these challenging times. We are already planning several more of these in the weeks and months to come.


We are excited by the opportunity this brings to reach wider audiences across the globe, and take us forward digitally, and to distinguish this content as ‘special’, an opportunity for people to come together, at a specific moment in time. These also provide a rare opportunity to generate income as a venue, which then contribute to the running of our charities; and we are proud that the Laura Marling gig raised funds for Trussell Trust and Refuge, two organisations we very much respect doing critical work in these challenging times. Going forward we will ensure a proportion of tickets are free for audiences who cannot afford ticket prices, as it is ethically important to us to ensure that as many people benefit from the joy, inspiration and hope that culture can bring, regardless of whether they have money or not.


However, we also know these events do not replace the real thing – the occasion, the physical connection of sharing the space and experience. These live streamed events will also not fill the financial hole left by the absence of our live events. And, there are many in our community, let alone the wider world, who either don’t have access to the required devices or who are not digitally literate.



Through running the homeless service and trialling the live-streamed event, Union Chapel has developed robust and tested social distancing and health/hygiene procedures across our operations – which include draft circulation and seating plans for the venue. However, the capacity of the venue would be very limited (see below).



But the above changes – greater engagement of the most vulnerable across our community; greater digital profile and live streaming; and increased fundraising capacity – are all changes we wanted to occur prior to the pandemic; and whilst we have moved towards them than at greater speed than originally anticipated, they are changes that will most likely be permanent in some form, and will remain a high priority for the months and years to come.



DCMS and the Government has a greater role to play here

-          in supporting us and other venues to better reach out, support and represent the communities we are parts of

-          in supporting us and other venues to explore and cement technological shifts which allow us to host and produce live music and performance events despite our doors being closed to the public.

-          In supporting us and other venues to boost and diversify our fundraising and income generation capacity and capabilities.


For the immediate future, there remains huge uncertainty, for us and everyone in the sector – and here DCMS has a more urgent role to play.


Whilst we appreciate that clarity about when social distancing will be eased remains difficult, we are now deeply concerned about a second peak, both for its impact on our community, the most vulnerable we are supporting, but also on the feasibility and delay to re-opening venues.


We have seen and are involved in the consultation regarding re-opening with 2m social distancing enforced in July, and feel that this is not possible for the majority of events both due to the ongoing risk to public health, and also in terms of us only being able to accommodate less than 10% of our normal audience, making it financially unviable. Even with social distancing reduced to 1m, we will still only see less than a third of our audience. A substantial proportion of Union Chapel acts are international, so the impact on international travel has impacted on events. And above all else, we want to be able to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our audiences when they visit. We are concerned that, with this consultation and other conversations, the Government is placing pressure on venues to re-open before it is safe or feasible to do so. This not only affects the safety of audiences - and could increase the risk of a second peak – but put considerable strain on venues and arts organisations to change, and have a negative rather than positive financial impact. The recent MVT REVS report clearly highlights this is the case for the majority of grassroots music venues.


Under these circumstances, without a substantial commitment from the government to support the sector beyond October, we and many in the performing arts sector will be facing very difficult decisions, and the sector as a whole will experience long-term and irrevocable damage.


We would also ask for the Government to change its policy to permit furloughed staff to volunteer for associate charities. Many of our furloughed venue staff wanted to volunteer for the community response and homeless service at Union Chapel, and would have brought the experience, familiarity and passion to really boost the services at the point we and the most vulnerable in the community really needed it. Permitting them to volunteer would not only impact on our capacity, but in some cases may have also assisted with staff mental health, wellbeing and connection in these trying times.




For Union Chapel, the pandemic crisis has thrown up a few key opportunities around our purpose and model, which we have worked hard to pivot towards; however, we still face the longer term threat and uncertainty of huge lost revenue.


As such, we would join our colleagues and peers in the live music, performing arts and hospitality sectors in calling for a greater financial commitment from the Government, in what will remain challenging times in the months ahead. We ask not just on behalf of independent venues, but on behalf of other grassroots arts and cultural organisations, artists and practitioners working with communities, and on behalf of our audiences and beneficiaries.


Our organisation - like several music venues, theatres, arts centres – is more than we first appear, benefiting many more people than just the direct employees of that organisation. We benefit our local community, the artists, musicians, comedians and charities that host events at ours, and of course our wider audiences, in London and across the world.


Without greater support, this is all at risk – and putting that at risk poses a huge threat to culture and communities across the UK.