Written evidence submitted by Plymouth Culture



Impact of Covid-19 on DCMS Sectors




This response has been developed by Plymouth Culture on behalf of a cultural collaboration including:

Plymouth City Council

The Box

Barbican Theatre Plymouth


Real Ideas Organisation

Theatre Royal Plymouth

Literature Works

Take a Part


The response has been formulated following intensive discussion with the sector. Intelligence has been gathered through NPO meetings, cultural forums open to cultural organisations and individuals, a creative and cultural sector survey and direct conversations with stakeholders. The comments and recommendations made within this response are a direct reflection of these conversations.


Plymouth Culture is a sector support organisation funded through ACE and Plymouth City Council. We are an independent charity established to support the development of the sector, through advice and brokerage, and to provide strategic leadership across the creative and cultural industries in the city. 


1. What has been the immediate impact of Covid-19 on the sector?

The early announcements from central government to avoid pubs, theatres and cinemas, even prior to the formal lockdown, meant that the impact of Covid-19 was felt immediately and sharply across the cultural sector.


Overnight, organisations were forced to close venues and suspend activity, whilst individuals saw events, festivals and contracts cancelled. Plymouth Culture has undertaken a sector survey to gain a picture of the current and anticipated impact of Covid-19 on the creative and cultural sector in the city. Of those who responded, 72% have seen a reduction in income since lockdown was announced and these organisations anticipate a fall in income in excess of £13m over a 12 month period until May 2021. Many organisations have already taken action to adjust activity with 91% having to postpone activities and 74% being forced to cancel work. The subsequent impact has been the postponement of staff recruitment (25% respondents) and the furloughing of staff (20% respondents).


Many individuals working in the sector operate on a self employed, freelance basis or as small companies with directors. The structure of organisations and abundance of freelancers means that Covid-19 is likely to have a disproportionate, negative impact on the creative and cultural sector. Many have already fallen through the gaps and are not eligible for the support schemes. Our survey shows that 28% of respondents will not be able to survive if additional interventions are not make within the next 6 months


Despite the pressure on the sector there has been a call for creativity in this time of crisis. This comes in terms of families and young people looking for distraction activities and parents looking for teaching resources, to communities finding ways to support each other and spread kindness. This has created demand for digital content which many creative organisations are rising to but others are struggling to adapt to the new distribution channels for reasons of capacity, capability and resources.


Our survey showed that in Plymouth 50% of respondents have moved existing content/delivery online as well as developing new digital work in response to the restrictions created by the crisis. For example, The Box have established Creative Curriculum Challenges to support home schooling and Real Ideas Organisation are engaging with young people through Future Make initiatives. This is not simply about satisfying the creative need of existing audiences, for many organisations this is about supporting those most in need, who feel more isolated than ever and who rely on the existing relationship with cultural projects and organisations to help them. For example, Street Factory have been proving online hip hop dance classes to get people active and are activity contacting their vulnerable participants to offer practical support.  


The impact of this has been to highlight more than ever the role of the creative and cultural industries to society, not simply as having entertainment value but as an essential part of the human condition. The challenge, however, is threefold; 1) much of this digital content is free meaning that it is not sustainable for organisations to maintain this level of provision and it does not replace lost income, 2) the mental health of practitioners is fragile in an environment where more is being demanded for less and where there is significant uncertainty about the future and 3) digital is not a replacement for physical, shared experience, particularly when we consider the fact that a significant number of households do not have ready access to the digital environment.      


This has highlighted a gap, one which is potentially growing, between large or established cultural organisations and those that are smaller, community based. Larger cultural organisations have the resources at their disposal to move content online, stream existing recordings and reach a good proportion of existing audiences. By contrast, community based arts organisations do not often have resources to transition in this way but, more importantly, the nature of community practice means they relay on a model of face-to-face, intensive, bespoke support to individuals. These are often the more vulnerable individuals in society who have become even more isolated during Covid-19 and who require support from the very organisations that are themselves collapsing or at risk. Take a Part have been exemplary in the provision of a hybrid model of digital and physical support, reflecting the needs of the communities they serve and maintaining the long standing relationships that have been developed over many years.   


The impact in Plymouth is perhaps amplified by the significant cultural programme scheduled for 2020 via the Mayflower 400 commemorations and the opening of The Box, both of which have had to be postponed. Whilst both initiatives have honoured contract commitments and worked tirelessly with contractors, artists and communities to reschedule and reframe provision, the impact on the visitor economy will be significant. Programmes such as these play a pivotal role in cultural tourism, providing both direct and indirect economic benefit to the city. Without the ability to host large scale public events, the restrictions on artist and visitor travel and the slump in audience confidence, the contribution to the visitor economy will be vastly reduced.  




2. How effectively has the support provided by DCMS, other Government departments and arms-length bodies addressed the sectors needs?

The swift response by government to provide financial support through small business grants, employee retention scheme and self-employment scheme has been welcomed. In our particular city the distribution of grant funds has been incredibly efficient, easing the strain for some organisations. Similarly, the flexibilities offered by funding bodies to reprofile and repurpose existing funds has been incredibly important for organisations.  


The nature of the cultural sector, however, means that many organisations and individuals are falling through the gaps. As a sector that, by its very nature, supports individuals to have a portfolio career, for collectives to operate under an unincorporated structure or for directors to operate small companies, it was inevitable that many would simply be ineligible and have, indeed, been disproportionately affected. The delay in the receipt of funds through the self-employment support scheme has placed the freelance community under overwhelming financial, physical and mental strain.   


There are still many falling through the gaps, and the discretionary fund has not explicitly identified the cultural sector as a priority in the same way it has hospitality or retail. The value of the sector is clearly evident, in both economic and social terms, but the structure of the available funding does not seem to reflect this recognition of value.  


The specific sector support made available through Arts Council England (ACE) and National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) has again been welcomed as a swift and direct response to Covid-19. These funds will go some way to support a proportion of individuals and organisations but are simply insufficient to sustain a sector. They apply criteria, relating to the receipt of pubic funding, that means certain disciplines within the cultural sector are ineligible, such as musicians who earn their income through ticket sales. The benevolent funds distributed to specialist organisations go some way towards addressing this, and catching those that are falling through the net, but it is not enough to stem the crisis, nor to achieve long term recovery.


The competitive nature of the sector funding has been challenging to navigate, particularly for organisations, and in general a sector, that thrives and survives on interconnected partnership working. The ongoing struggle for survival coupled with funding schemes that recognise organisational need only and not collaborative project proposals will likely see pressure fractures appear across collaborations that have taken many years to develop.


In order to ensure that we emerge from Covid-19 with a coherent and fully functioning sector ecology and not simply individual organisations, thought needs to be given to the development of future facing, developmental funding that supports partnership approaches to reshaping and rethinking not simply surviving. There are examples of organisations showing solidarity, including Plymouth Dance and CAMP who are providing bursaries for practitioners through the receipt of emergency funding, but this is driven by their organisation values rather than the structure of the funds available.     



4. What will the likely long-term impacts of Covid-19 be on the sector, and what support is needed to deal with those?

The structure of the support available appears to favour larger organisations, with employees, based in buildings and cultural venues who have been able to access support through the furlough scheme and small business grants. The unintended consequence of this is that it preserves bricks and mortar but does not protect the full ecology required to sustain a thriving creative and cultural economy.


As such there is an entire layer of the ecology that will be lost. In most instances, and if current form is to reflect the ongoing situation, this will likely be community based organisations supporting the most vulnerable in society. Not only does this risk those individuals becoming even more isolated but it also limits diversity of voice within content. There is a significant risk that post Covid we have cultural venues but no content to fill them and access to a far more limited number of individuals and organisations responsible for developing relevant, authentic content. Organisations such as Beyond Face have spent years creating space and opportunity to raise the profile and visibility of people of colour in the arts and this valuable work cannot be lost.  


Without these on the groundorganisations and individuals there is a risk that the cultural offer becomes stagnant, it doesnt reflect the individuals and communities it has worked so hard to give voice to and instead becomes a luxury item, available only to the minority of audiences.


The issue of stagnation is closely linked to the sectors and funders ability to take risks in a post-Covid world. If there is pressure to simply replenish diminished finances, then programming and commissioning will play safeworking with established, proven artists/works rather than experimental, emerging individuals and organisations. If these individuals cannot afford to build a career in this sector then diversity of representation and voice is likely to be eroded even further.    


The sector is likely to be significantly affected by a staged exit strategy which sees social distancing regulations remain in place for an extended period of time. Venue based organisations, such as theatres and music venues, may have permission to reopen at some point but the ability to open whilst implementing social distancing procedures may make it impossible to operate or to operate in a financially viable way. This means that past the immediate point of crisis there is a significant risk of business failure in the medium to long term.


If there is to be a phased re-opening, due to social distancing constraints, there needs to be a tailored and phased withdrawal of support schemes to mirror this unique sector scenario. Without such intervention the venue based organisations who have received emergency support to date will simply not be viable. Some countries have introduced a process of community testing and quarantine procedures to allow venues to reopen whilst monitoring local considerations and adjusting accordingly. This might be an option for cultural venues moving forward.  


The nature of developing new cultural work means there is often a significant lead time, particularly for galleries, theatre, cinema and TV. This means that phased re-opening is not simply about opening venues but, rather, understanding the need for certain relaxation measures to facilitate the development of work. For example, football teams have been allowed to restart contact sport albeit behind closed doors, how could this be applied to the theatre or film industry to enable preparatory, developmental work to take place whilst venues remain closed. 


Because of the nature of the sector specific support available from Arts Council England, organisations are being asked to exhaustavailable reserves before applying for crisis funds. Whilst this is understandable, this once again is likely to create a medium to long term impact, whereby sustainable organisations use reserves to survive the crisis but are unable to remain resilient in the long term. These will be the larger organisations, who currently have access to reserves, who support an extensive supply chain of other organisations and individuals working within the sector. The ripple effect will be catastrophic. The Plymouth Creative and Cultural survey shows that a cluster of just 30 organisations supply services to an interconnected supply network of 753 organisations. That means that for every cultural organisation that folds as a result of Covid-19, a minimum of 25 other organisations will be affected.


The catastrophic impact on freelancers within the sector means that many are already or will be forced to consider alternative jobs. Aside from the immediate loss this presents, the long term impact will be a sector that is not seen as a viable career route for young people thus compounding the issue of limited diversity and stagnation. In a city such as Plymouth that has a significant number of creative/arts students and graduates, the interconnectivity between the cultural sector and HEIs is brought into focus. If the creative programmes become unviable we will be unable to attract students to the city and if the sector is not viable for new freelance entrants, we will be unable to retain graduates creating a cyclical decline in the sector. 


In all of this we must not neglect to mention the issue of audience confidence. If the sector is one of the last to re-open or re-start there is going to be growing concern amongst audiences for the safety of the cultural offer which, by its very nature, is often defined by the congregation of people in a shared experience. If people who are more vulnerable to Covid-19, such as BAME communities and the over 70s, are less likely to join larger audiences or attend indoor venues this may perpetuate the issue of culture becoming narrow in terms of offer and audience, further limiting diversity. There must be a concerted effort to build audience confidence as well as developing hybrid models that combine the physical with the digital, in places and spaces that are accessible and safe. This issue extends to the bank of volunteers who are an integral part of the cultural sector but who are often within an older age range and, therefore, a potentially lost resource over coming months.   


In order to address these potentially devastating and long term impacts we recommend the following measures:

    1. Clear and concise guidance from government regarding the reopening of cultural venues and advanced notice to aid preparation
    2. Funding to support the adaptation of venues and cultural programmes to meet safety guidelines and social distancing requirements
    3. A phased withdrawal of support schemes tailored to the specific needs of the sector, recognising the phased re-opening complexities
    4. Specific measures that allow cultural professionals to re-start preparatory and developmental work, such as within theatre and film sub-sectors, as has been made possible for professional sports people
    5. Co-ordinated and resourced campaigns to help rebuild audience confidence
    6. Development funding, in addition to emergency funding, that allows organisations to adapt and build sustainable hybrid models of delivery
    7. Resources to support and build infrastructure networks that can advise and connect organisations and individuals within and across sectors
    8. A co-ordinated approach to career development within the sector and the creation of opportunities for young people recognising the interdependency of the sector and creative education within HEIs 
    9. A bespoke sector fund that ensures the full creative ecology is protected and that signals the value and importance of the sector to the UK economy    





4. What lessons can be learnt from how DCMS, arms-length bodies and the sector have dealt with Covid-19?

The current situation has been a lesson in crisis management but has highlighted major failings in strategic planning. There is a need to be able to develop sector specific solutions as well as generic offers. This needs to involve consultation with the sector and representative bodies to shape solutions that match the need. Where sectors are developing bespoke solutions, best practice or processes, there needs to be a means by which these can be shared so that other sectors can learn, adopt and adapt. Whilst this may be being facilitated at a local level, there seems to be a lack of cross sector working at governmental and funder level. 


Whilst the sector Taskforce structure will be important for developing sector specific recovery plans, there is little evidence that cross sector working will take place to tackle shared issues that might be experienced across different sectors. Plymouth has a co-ordinated approach on the ground which is connecting sectors. It would be advantageous to provide resources that enable this on the ground infrastructure to feed into a LEP and central government framework for collaborative recovery.


There are lessons to learn about the way in which information is gathered and communicated. Decisions around funding structure and mechanisms seem to have been made without consultation. There is scope to make better use of support organisations and representative bodies in order to gather intelligence to shape the approach rather than report on it once decisions have been made. This also applies to how these organisations can be used to communicate information to the sector in a manner that is accessible.


The situation has highlighted the sectors fragility, at all levels, and that there is a need to rethink the way in which it operates. We have spent years making the case for culture and creativity and yet we seem to now be having to remake these arguments in order to be heard and valued as an important component of the UK economy. This must be immediately redressed in order to avoid a loss of momentum and the decimation of the sector.   


What we have seen, however, is the sectors agility, the importance of culture in times of crisis and a sector that understands the long term strategy requirements for recovery. With appropriate and equitable support measures the sector is well placed to drive economic and social recovery in a way that is unmatched by other sectors.


The sector has been exemplary in its show of solidarity, with organisations such as The Box and The Arts Institute repurposing funding to create artist commissions that release funding immediately into the sector but also thoughtfully reflect on the impact of Covid-19. It is this established partnership working that means the sector is positioned to drive recovery if the appropriate interventions are made.     





5. How might the sector evolve after Covid-19, and how can DCMS support such innovation to deal with future challenges?

If we can be sure of anything, it is that the cultural sector has the ability to play a central role in the UK recovery plans, providing solutions for both economic and social impact. This is not simply about celebration and fun but, rather, a sector that has the ability to help heal communities and develop solutions to societal challenges. In order to achieve this the sector will need to:

    Collaborate, making better use of scarce resources

    Rethink distribution channels to see how digital platforms can be used alongside physical spaces/assets

    Focus on audience development to truly understand who an organisation reaches and how it develops and maintains an audience

    Consider content in terms of relevance and authenticity to complement the audience development strategy

    Evolve new business models that support collectives and build financial sustainability and resilience.


We already have organisations in Plymouth responding to the evolving situation and exploring future business models. For example Plymouth Art Weekender are working closely with audiences to understand how they can safely engage them with cultural work in the Autumn, Barbican Theatre are building a programme of immersive experiences across the city and Theatre Royal Plymouth are supporting young people to make sense of the crisis in a way that will undoubtedly influence future programming decisions. 


In order for the sector to develop and adopt these new working practices effectively, it will be essential that future, long term funds are made available for recovery. These need to support and reward innovation with regards to both business structure and content. Equally, it will be important that enabling organisations such as sector support organisations and representative bodies are given support to continue to operate and expand their provision as required. This is not just about financial support, but the development of a network of cross sector organisations that can co-operate and collaborate to manage communications and build partnerships. 


We would recommend the following measures to facilitate the emergence of a more sustainable and equitable society, modelled by the creative and cultural sector:

    1. Incentivise local authorities and funding bodies to continue to take risks with cultural programming and commissioning
    1. Reward local authorities and cultural organisations that are prepared to take risks
    2. Develop Cultural Investment initiatives that introduce the sector to new financial models and funding partnerships
    3. Support local authorities and funders to take an equity stake in cultural organisations and initiatives to move away from the need for immediate financial returns and into long term relationships with mutual benefit
    4. Create development and innovation programmes that recognise and support initiatives that consider the full creative economy as a mechanism for recovery and progression 
    5. Support the adoption of digital technologies and new business models across the sector   


Plymouth has worked hard over the last 10 years to evolve and embed creative and cultural sector as a catalyst for economic and social transformation within the city. This vision has not wavered in the face of the current crisis and we recognise the role that the creative economy can play in not only restarting but also reimagining the city for a more equitable, sustainable future. We will look to operate as a pilot city, championing and facilitating cultural initiatives, organisations and individuals that create a thriving, interconnected ecology for the benefit of people and place.  



Hannah Harris

CEO, Plymouth Culture