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Oliver Dowden Says UK Arts Rescue Package Is Primarily About Preserving 'Institutions'

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Oliver Dowden Says UK Arts Rescue Package Is Primarily About Preserving 'Institutions'

As we previously reported, the UK Government has finally announced a rescue package for the arts, with £157 billion to be distributed to struggling theatres, museums, galleries, music venues, heritage sites and independent cinemas. It has been cautiously welcomed by the industry, although many are waiting for more detail on how it will be divided up and whether there is enough support for freelance arts workers.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning, the UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden emphasised that this funding is about preserving those institutions "of national and international significance", but should also benefit cultural institutions across the country.

However, when asked about helping the self-employed workers who make up a major proportion of the arts industry, Dowden said that freelancers already benefit from the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme - which isn't strictly true, as many have fallen through the cracks of the Government's financial assistance programmes, not qualifying for either furlough or freelance support. Additionally, the Self-Employment Scheme is due to end in August.

Dowden said that the Government would consider such applications, but reiterated that at the heart of this rescue package is protecting institutions "for future generations" - with an emphasis on established buildings and companies, rather than on individuals. Nor was there any mention of the vital educational or community outreach work that is also under the arts umbrella.

When asked about why people can sit close together on planes, yet theatres aren't allowed to reopen to audiences, Dowden didn't answer the question directly, but referred to the social distancing guidelines and the risks of reducing the one metre-plus rule.

He added that the Government would "shortly" be publishing guidance on theatres potentially holding performances outside, and then to work towards performances "with social distancing". But he noted that performing without social distancing is a way off, and would be a challenge in Victorian theatres where audiences are packed in.

Dowden noted that he had spent time with Andrew Lloyd Webber at the London Palladium, looking at some of the "mitigations" he was suggesting based on the South Korean production of The Phantom of the Opera, but that such plans have to be weighed up with "the wider impact and the R number".

When pressed further on why people can gather together in pubs, but not have the choice to do so in theatres, Dowden said that people shouldn't be gathering, and again said that it would be a long time before social distancing rules are lifted - and that it was unlikely the pantomime season would go ahead because of "transmission risks".

However, the arts rescue package - though welcome - is of limited use to theatres if they can't also make plans to reopen and kickstart their earnings in the near future. And holding performances with social distancing rules still in place isn't economically viable for most venues, which rely on something like an 80% capacity in order to make their money back.

Oliver Dowden also appeared on BBC Breakfast, where presenter Dan Walker questioned whether the rescue package had arrived "too late", and pointed out that many arts workers were not covered by the Government's furloughing or freelance support schemes. Read more and watch a video of the exchange via the Express HERE

Playwright James Graham, who has been a passionate campaigning voice for theatre, said on ITV's Good Morning Britain that, thanks to the investment, it was possible for 1,100 theatres to survive - and it was now our mission to provide access to as many people as possible. Watch below!

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