Written evidence submitted by the National Rural Touring Forum
NRTF is submitting evidence to raise the profile of its sectors importance and needs. NRTF want to ensure DCMS pay as close attention to rural culture as it does to towns and cities. NRTF wants to increase DCMS understanding of rural touring arts and how covid-19 is impacting the sector and ensure there is a longer vision for crisis support and funding as our sector is likely to feel the effects more significantly in 2021.
The National Rural Touring Forum (NRTF) networks, develops and supports the ecosystem that delivers high-quality creative experiences across communities and rural areas in the UK. The aim of the NRTF is to strengthen and support rural populations to bring professional work to their venues
Rural touring is where professional performances take place in rural venues. These rural venues usually take the form of a Village Hall or Community Centre, but can also be pubs, libraries and outdoors. They are rarely fully equipped arts venues. Performances are programmed by a rural touring scheme, who will curate a varied season of events. Rural touring work is very different from touring to city centres or venues in urban areas. Artists express high regard for rural touring venues and the level of professionalism from the promoters.
A large part of what the NRTF is about is not underestimating rural audiences. Funding for the Arts is still a city-centric issue; travelling to large towns and cities to see productions can be time and financially prohibitive. There are also physiological barriers to some who don’t feel as comfortable in larger cultural institutions. Access to the arts is important for everyone in society. It is reasonable to assume most people appreciate seeing high quality and innovative performance & art. This is what the NRTF are addressing and highlighting.
NRTF members are made up from a diverse range of individuals and organisations. They include the 30 Rural Touring Schemes who programme menus of professional artistic events that tour in their region. There are also artist, venue, promoter, producer and festival members all promoting and developing professional work for rural settings.
The NRTF provides its members with opportunities for training, making connections, showcases, research, discussion and advocacy. It also develops strategic projects which enable national and international partnerships and commissions. The Director of the NRTF sits on the Arts Council Rural Stakeholders panel to lobby for support in the rural sector and to highlight the importance of meeting the needs of rural audiences and communities. The NRTF lobbies at government level and throughout the creative and cultural sectors. Through research and advocacy, the NRTF aims to promote a better understanding of the value of rural arts and touring.
What has been the immediate impact of Covid-19 on the sector?
Over a thousand professional performances for rural audiences with a combined value of nearly £300,000* have been cancelled in the Spring Season because of the Covid-19 pandemic. That is the figure that has been calculated by research conducted by the National Rural Touring Forum (NRTF), the Arts Council funded body which acts as the umbrella and advocacy organisation for the 30 rural touring schemes across the country.
The impact of these changes to schedules is huge in terms of finance and performance numbers. Although most schemes have pledged to financially support artists where possible, with a combined pay-out of cancellation fees of £170,000, the long-term impact is still unknown. Many organisations involved, ranging from village halls to regional touring schemes, as well as individual volunteer promoters and staff working in the sector, are now at risk of not returning to service - or with ambitions severely damaged. Many artists, many of whom specialise in rural touring, are now also looking for support to keep their livelihoods intact.
Rural touring is made up of professional productions and shows taking place throughout our nation’s village halls, community centres, outdoor spaces, pubs, and libraries. An average year sees over £1 million taken on box office sales. Like performances and creative platforms across the globe, they too have closed their doors and taken seasons off sale. The UK’s rural programming schemes have been in crisis mode over the past four weeks, managing cancellations and postponements to over 1,000 events which were still scheduled for their spring seasons.
NRTF has been advocating on behalf of creatives and cultural organisations in rural areas to have access to emergency funds. NRTF hosts weekly conversations with schemes, rural touring artists and promoters, which are galvanising a combined response with a view to establishing stability where possible and then looking to a creative future.
NRTF continues to work to support the resilient recovery of the sector beyond the pandemic.
How effectively has the support provided by DCMS, other Government departments and arms-length bodies addressed the sector’s needs?
Arts Council England have been very quick to support the artist and organisations in their portfolio. The funds that are crucial for Rural Touring sector and those with reserves is a secondary emergency fund in Spring 2020 when money will run out. That is our crisis point. Feedback from ACE is that they cannot guarantee they will have those funds and it is something that will need to come from DCMS.
Local Authority and the ring fencing of funding of Creative organisations is key to the continuation and future success of rural Arts and touring. We have had feedback that some Local Authorities have been able to continue with funding for our schemes.
Holly Lombardo, NRTF Director has sat in on a number of round tables for ACE, DCMS and the Task Force Subgroup for Touring lead by Julian Bird. The ability to feed in has been appreciated. It will be good to see how or where our feedback and input is shaping the future. I am noting the lack of diversity in the groups I have sat on. There has been a lack of scales of employment and contracted positions. Primarily it has been leaders of organisations like myself. I believe some of the other round tables have been more diverse.
There are groups who have fallen through the gaps of funding. Directors of arts organisations who pay themselves dividends, freelance artists who are early career and arts organisations who have small reserves.
For artists we are getting feedback that there is a great silence on what is happening and timelines for getting back to work. As leaders and directors, we have the chance to hear what is happening and sit on round tables, but they have not the same direct access. Those I have spoken to feel in the dark and this is causing a lot of anxiety and mental health issues. NRTF ran a survey on the impact this has had on artists. It is attached as a foot note and shows Covid is having a big impact on mental health.
What lessons can be learnt from how DCMS, arms-length bodies and the sector have dealt with Covid-19?
The arts sector is fragile. There needs to be more emphasis going forward on reserves and funding to build reserves. There needs to be a simpler and more transparent way to feedback. There are so many surveys asking for the same thing. It would have helped if a single authority had commissioned an early survey for all, which was updated and resent at various stages.
How might the sector evolve after Covid-19, and how can DCMS support such innovation to deal with future challenges?
1500 shows are set to happen across the Rural Touring Sector in Spring 2021. There will be increased costs for the next rural touring season based on the safety of audiences, artists, promoters as a result Covid-19.
Early predictions for Spring season:
£300K Predicted increased costs for artists: £200 per date for Hotels, per-diems for food, increased travel time, increased time of get ins & outs
£450K Predicted lost income for schemes: Smaller audience of 30 seats in 60 seat space per performance @ £10 per ticket
£150K Predicted additional cost and lost income for promoters: £100 performance for additional cleaning - £25 a show. Two hours extra hire £20, Hand jell £5, Loss of Bar income - £50
£900K Expected minimum loss in rural touring for Spring 2021
The National Rural Touring Forum (NRTF) believes Rural Touring venues could offer a safe place for audiences to see shows earlier than urban venues and larger institutions. Rural Touring venues are smaller spaces, hosting smaller performing companies, with local audiences who know each other and who often walk to get there. There is a determination amongst the Rural Touring community to support artists, support rural audiences and re-ignite the magic that is Rural Touring. However, there are several considerations which need to be in place to ensure safety.
Audiences and promoters tend to be older and therefore more at risk and vulnerable to the pandemic. The Rural Touring sector has stated that opening doors will only happen if promoters (the volunteers who put on the shows) and their communities are happy and feel safe to do so. Any risk must be mitigated with steps in place to ensure safety and adherence to government guidelines. Distancing will be an issue if a village hall which has 100 seats now needs to sit audiences 2.5 metres apart, reducing capacity to 30. This is a significant loss in ticket revenue.
There will need to be more handwashing stations, which will cost money and time to sort. Online payments and ticketing systems with card payments will need to be set up, demanding reliable broadband – something which is not always available in rural areas. Performers, who may normally stay in local digs, will need to stay in hotels, stretching touring budgets. If audiences are expected to wear masks, artists might need to as well how does this effect a show? The wellbeing of artists, promoters and audiences will be of paramount concern.
Rural communities are going through this pandemic collectively. People have stepped up with support for their neighbours, particularly those more vulnerable and isolated. Rural Touring schemes are finding innovative ways of continuing their connectivity to audiences and offering employment opportunities to artists. Projects such as art packs, postcard plays, sound pieces, window galleries and more are underway. One of the 30 Rural Touring schemes that NRTF represents asked its mailing list members which type of venue they would feel most comfortable walking into first. The results were clear that a local space, particularly a village hall, came out on top.
A scheme survey of 630 people shows their audience sample is least concerned - or most comfortable - about returning to a village hall before any other type of venue.
Confidence in seeing live theatre and productions could start with Rural Touring. Re-ignition is likely to be earlier here than other parts of the creative sector. It will take innovation which will come from Rural Touring schemes working with artists. A collaborative off-line response to the position we find ourselves in – not being able to present live shows – is already being generated by the Rural Touring sector. It will take into consideration those who are isolated, those who are less digitally literate and who don’t have access to the online events on offer.
NRTF will continue to work to support the resilient recovery of the sector beyond the pandemic.
Rural Touring Schemes pledge to artists: Published in March 2020
To maintain good-will amongst rural and community touring arts organisations and to offer support to artists to get through these difficult and challenging circumstances. Rural Touring organisations have come together to agree, that regardless of contracted obligations and where possible, they will pay a percentage of booking fees to artists as a result of cancellations due to COVID-19. The percentages and payments will differ depending on the agreements and the position of the fee-paying organisation. There is a willingness from schemes to give as much as they can and to not be better off because of a cancellation.
Rural Touring Schemes pledge to our communities: Published in March 2020
The majority of rural arts organisations are fleet of foot and understand they are in the perfect position to keep connections going and support rural and local communities. They are mindful of those in their communities who are older and less-digitally literate and will consider how to keep them in the loop. Where possible, they will support those living in social isolation and loneliness, especially where rural touring events are a support for them. This will be done via regular communications with promoters and audiences alongside the sharing of resources and opportunities.
Message to Rural Touring audiences: Published in March 2020
In these difficult times, schemes are inviting their audiences to consider leaving their ticket refund unclaimed, turning their purchased ticket into a donation to support the artists and companies whose shows have been cancelled, and who are suddenly losing all their income for the foreseeable future. Audiences that have a ticket to a cancelled performance should contact the point of sale for more information on refunds and donations.
COVID-19 IMPACT SURVEY FOR RURAL TOURING ARTISTS AND PERFORMING COMPANIES
Of the 64 responses, 41% were based in rural communities, 23% small towns, 17% large towns and the remaining 19% in cities across the UK and Scotland.
72% of respondents rely on funding through ticket sales and direct bookings with 11% of respondents having had project grants of between £2,000 and £30,000 either cancelled or put on hold since the lockdown.
Have you had a project grant cancelled?
· 90% said YES Grants of between £2,500 - £30,000 has been lost.
Have you had events cancelled or had to cancel events yourself because of Coronavirus?
· 96% said YES top having had events cancelled
How many events have you had to cancel?
· Of the 72% of respondents who provided a figure a total of 1541 shows had been cancelled to date. An average of 30 shows per artist / performing company. 28% of respondents had 100% of shows/tours cancelled.
What were the total predicted ticket sales for these cancelled events? 427,825
What is the estimated financial impact of ticket sale loss? An estimated total of £920,150 to date
What is the estimated loss of income to you/your organisation?
· An estimated loss of £769,360
Have you been paid performing fees for events that were cancelled?
· 47% said YES, 44% said NO, 9 % NA
Can you provide an estimated total loss of expenses already spent on cancelled shows?
· A total loss to date of £85,000
What support would be most helpful for your organisation’s resilience/sustainability over the coming 3-6 months?
· 73% Access to emergency grant funding
· 30% Reduction/deferral of bills and liabilities such as rent or VAT
· 18% Access to remote working equipment/facilities
· 8% Financial support to cover sick pay for staff
· 7 % Flexibility on reporting requirements
o Core funding to remain operational
o Help for self-employed workers
o An extension of pay to cover the cost of sick staff
o Project grants opening again for future programming
o Support to finding more events, festivals, menus, gigs for touring in the future
o ACE providing clear instructions to NPOs about financially supporting artists
What is the impact on you as an individual in a professional context? (abbreviated/grouped responses below)
· Financial Impacts: Prospect of no work or reduced hours, further cancellations, immediate and future loss of income, staff and team support, loss of reserves, collapse and hardship, income streams ceased, additional costs of working from home,
· Emotional Impact: Feelings of devastation, isolation, disconnection, futility, exhaustion, frustration, disappointment, fear, exhaustion, sadness. Respondents have found it stressful, intense, tough, challenging, demotivating, extreme, catastrophic
· Respondents found it difficult to: maintain high spirits, morale, a positive attitude, communication, to switch off in the face of the crisis/uncertainties, find new income streams, adapt skills outside of the creative sector, manage cash flow
· Disastrous for: raising artists profile, professional development, new artists, performers, booking agents, networking, building relationships, planning for future,
· Uncertainty of: what will be re-scheduled, if shows and venues will be permitted and re-open, when it will end and how it will adapt, what the future will bring,
· Found the crisis has impacted on: self-esteem, creative endeavour, potential, direction, routine, goals, on career long term
· Feel the loss of: face to face meetings, interaction with audiences, colleagues and fans
· Positive responses to crisis: Determined, creative, refocusing, adapting, learning skills, exploring new career paths, waiting in hope, resilient, time to create, write, record
What is the impact on your organisation? (This may not be applicable to freelancers).
· Working environment: Loss of career, business, PR momentum, juggling childcare with long working hours, managing staff who feel isolated, disconnected
· Structure: Organisations frozen, in shut down, predicting considerable down-scaling. Staff furloughed, taken enforced sabbaticals, freelancers left unfunded, staff have had to take other work in the short term.
· Financial: Exceedingly difficult to manage cash flow, pay staff, freelancers, overheads, bills, growing deficits. Individuals living on the bread line due to loss of income. Impact of lost grants and funding streams. Difficulty of generating income from a saturated online market. Prospect of recovery unknown.
· Programming: Cancellation and postponement of tours, creative output. Recording sessions cancelled. No bookings for the Spring/summer. A significant impact of further Autumn/Christmas cancellations, possibility of no tours or downsizing of tours in the future.
· Creativity: Postponed creation of new shows. Challenge to make online and video content, developing work that suits small audiences and flexible spaces.
· Positive response: Using the time to reflect, take sabbaticals, adjust to new ways of working, expanding creative offers for audiences, opportunity for creating new work and collaborations for the future.
What is the impact on you as an individual in a personal and wellbeing context?
· Working environment: Lack of direction, no income, working long hours to keep projects afloat, the competition feels fiercer, venues unbale to commit, smaller venues futures not secure, the concept that 'the cultural ecology will be vastly changed’.
· Move online: There’s an overwhelming amount of digital content, artists are worried about feeling irrelevant, outreach work is driven online and delayed, artists in danger of over-sharing low-quality footage online, some commissions seemed panicked. Virtual meetings no substitute for face to face/rehearsal room contact.
· Practical difficulties: Forced to move house due to reduced income, plans for the year upended. Parents struggling to find time for themselves, to be creative, growing uncertainty about the future of businesses and professions.
· Wellbeing: Disappointed, demoralised, and de-motivated both mentally and physically. Finding it a day to day challenge to be positive. Felt alone in shouldering responsibility, extreme pressure, lack of creative motivation, extremely stressful and frightening, very up and down. Cross, anxious and worried about friends and family, economy and the future. A heady mix of panic and feeling blessed. Scrabbling frantically. Suffering from depression, worsening mental health due to lack of structure/goals, in a state of shock. Relying on the family to help each other keep focused and creative.
· Trying to: stay positive and creative, reschedule as much as possible, retain a positive outlook, keep in close touch with fellow artists, work on new creative projects, manage an enormous workload.