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  • Writer's pictureStuart Barr

Why the arts must get outside – Now!

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

The arts sector is more than viable, it is essential. But in a pandemic that is not going anywhere anytime soon, we must adapt. We must go OUT to perform.

Whilst talk of an existential crisis in the performing arts is hyperbole (I believe the value of live human experience will increase post-pandemic), the figures behind it are not. Of the 100,000UK performers[1and 2], the vast majority have lost their livelihood other than teaching. Anger at the poor timing of the GCHQ-recruitment ad suggesting the ballet dancer “Fatima” retrain in cybersecurity[3] was real because to artistes their career isn’t a job, it’s a vocation and a profession: an emotional muscle that requires creative experiences to be kept in top condition. Furthermore, performers have traditionally had portfolio careers, often making up their salaries working in the hospitality and promotion sectors whilst in-between jobs: sectors that are also in rigor mortis.

Arts organisations' response to the pandemic have (with some notable exceptions) been patchy: an often catatonic state induced by shock, financial pressure and lack of agility to do things differently.

Unfortunately, the live Performing Arts sector is disproportionately affected by the pandemic, due to the very nature of the Covid-19 virus:

1. The evidence is mounting that aerosols (and emitted droplets) are a key source of Coronavirus infections[4]

2. The economics (and arguably the quality of the shared human experience) of the sector require consumers to be packed tightly together inside, where aerosols and droplets are not easily dispersed. Business models historically rely upon venues being close to capacity to break even, meaning that most concerts or productions are not economically viable without major change in business model.

3. The proximity of performers to each other presents another set of risks, as do specific problems associated with certain wind instruments and singers.[5]

4. The risks of succumbing to Covid-19 rise near exponentially with age, yet many organisations’ core audiences are in the upper age ranges.[6]

Help at hand?

Government often struggles to understand the sector adequately. This is not surprising when the sector is a uniquely complex blend of freelance & salaried, for-profit and not-for-profit, historic and cutting-edge content, and “portfolio” careers: quite unlike any other sector. The Creative Industries Federation and other bodies make concerted attempts to help the government understand, but it’s a tough ask. Governmental help has been forthcoming in the form of the £1.5bn Recovery Fund but awards so far have been focused upon venues. Staving off organisations from bankruptcy is welcome relief, but it is unlikely that much of this will filter down to performing artistes because organisations cannot fulfil their mission due to social distancing.

What’s more, none is that none of this changes the fundamentals for a long time to come. We must be brutally honest here. Even after the first vaccine is released, it will take a long time to inoculate sufficient enough population to reach herd immunity, and even longer for the virus to die out to the point whereby confidence can be built up. There seems little way of ending social distancing in venues within 12-18 months, possibly much longer.

A change of narrative is needed

We need to learn to live with the virus in the short term and the sector must find ways of thriving. We know that being outside where aerosols disperse rapidly is a far safer environment, yet so much of our performing arts are venue-led: thereby restricting the agility of the sector to adapt.

Therefore, we need to change this narrative. We need to make a modal change by adopting an “outside first” mentality and unleash new ways of performing outside. Three areas need should be focused on:

1. Street performances. Let’s reclaim “busking” from its pejorative negative meaning – and make it a joy to hear our streets full of the joys of live performance.

2. Pop-up venues. Let’s repurpose economically inactive outside areas into places where arts organisations can fulfil their mission to the public, and producers can be creative.

3. Shopping centres & high streets. Let’s use the performing arts to turn these areas with ailing business models into palaces of entertainment, where people want to visit and spend time in, by using the levers of the tax system to encourage it.

If we can achieve this, then we can bring the performing arts back to the people at the very moment society most needs them.

Breaking down the barriers to adaptation

To achieve this, there are frictions to remove, which require both government and the people to work in league.

Firstly, to change to an outside-first mentality (in so many areas of life), we need to change our attitudes and make wrapping up in extra layers and sometimes getting wet as normal as washing our hands and wearing a mask. We have similar weather to many other European countries with far greater all-year round outside events.

Secondly, there are structural things we need to change to enable this outside renaissance of performing arts. In Covid-19 Health regulations, we don’t yet prioritise outdoor arts over the indoor. We should make it once again lawful to hold outside performances in residential gardens if they’re run by professional organisations according to Covid-19 Secure rules. We should give the performing arts the same emergency easements of planning law that helped restaurants go outside. We should be giving corporation tax breaks to businesses to partner with performing arts organisations. And we should temporarily remove the recent increase in by-laws that discourage street performances.

How to enact this change

To drive this change, Out To Perform has been founded to do three things:

1. Lobby government to deregulate wherever possible to prioritise the lead to outdoors, and change the national narrative in the performing arts from despair to opportunity

2. Partner arts organisations with shopping centres, high streets and outdoor public spaces to create economic synergy

3. Advise organisations and artistes how to take advantage of the opportunities

This is a do or die moment, particularly as we’re likely heading into a yo-yo sequence of tiered lock downs over the coming months. By doing all this we can change the national performing arts narrative from despair to opportunity, and help bring back artistes livelihoods everywhere.

We are viable both as a sector and as individuals, but only if we adapt fast to the reality of outside. We need both our government and ourselves to unlock that and be that change.

We need to go Out to Perform.

Learn more about our campaign at:

Stuart Barr is a musician and serial entrepreneur, and was conductor / music producer to Dame Shirley Bassey for 6 years after a decade in the West End as a musical director. He is a Past President of the British Voice Association, former Chair of the London Youth Choir and taught at the Royal Academy of Music for 15 years. He recently went back to Cambridge to take his MBA specialising on the Creative Industries, and left to found the Music Education VC-funded tech start-up nSpireMe. During the pandemic he co-founded Parcel.Love with his wife Sarah to convert her event catering company Al Fresco Feasts into an e-commerce site delivering delicious parcels of hand-made food and greetings cards to friends and family nationwide. Out To Perform is part of his personal mission to solve strategic problems within the creative sector.


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