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We must change attitudes towards the arts to save Sheffield’s thriving cultural sector

Urban regeneration has made Sheffield a buzzing cultural centre. We can’t let COVID-19 turn back the clock on our vibrant arts scene.

Showroom Cinema

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK arts sector has faced a major crisis which has left many arts organisations struggling to stay afloat. The sector has been particularly badly hit in the North of England, where the pandemic has been seriously felt. Even before the latest lockdown, many areas of the North were under tier 2 and 3 restrictions, meaning that cultural venues had to be shut. This, on top of the initial cancellations and closures of the first lockdown, has had a devastating effect on the Northern arts scene.

The political response to this crisis has so far been lacking. Although the government has announced measures to help the arts sector – such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the £257 million pledged in October to help struggling arts organisations – many of those who work in the sector feel that these measures have been too little too late.

To make matters worse, Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s comments about the perceived ‘viability’ of some jobs were widely interpreted by people working in the arts as a signal that they may find themselves needing to retrain and find work in other sectors. It seems that, in the current political climate, keeping the arts alive is not much of a priority.

This political attitude to the arts runs contrary to thinking which, in recent decades, has made the North of England a thriving cultural centre.

Following the decline of industry in the 1980s and the subsequent economic downturn, many areas of the North suffered deprivation and unemployment. In the 1990s and early 2000s, efforts began to ‘regenerate’ many Northern towns and cities. Art and culture were at the heart of this regeneration. There was a widespread consensus that investment in the arts was a good thing, which would bring economic activity to the North. In other words, the arts were seen as something to be proud of – something to value, cherish and nurture.

Sheffield benefitted from this period of post-Thatcher urban regeneration. The city was one of the first to designate a Cultural Industries Quarter, which included the Showroom Cinema, founded in 1993, and the Workstation creative industries hub. In 2001, the Millennium Gallery was opened and in 2003 renovations began on Sheffield City Museum and the Mappin Art Gallery, which reopened in 2006 as the Weston Park Museum.

In 2009, Tramlines Festival was launched to celebrate Sheffield’s rich musical heritage and showcase local talent. Sheffield also hosts Doc/Fest, founded in 1994, which is now the UK’s largest documentary film festival, attracting filmmakers from across the globe to our city. All of these events, attractions and organisations make Sheffield a buzzing cultural centre. This has shaped our collective identity, making Sheffield a destination for visitors and generating economic activity, which has benefitted the city and surrounding region.

Following the financial crisis of 2007–2008, investment in the arts began to slip down the political agenda. Since then, cuts to arts funding have been widespread and the austerity programme has left some councils unable to afford ‘non-essential’ services like festivals, museums, galleries and arts events.

This is particularly true in some deprived areas of the North, where increasingly pressurised councils are often strapped for cash. To fill this gap in funding, many arts organisations have been forced to turn to commercial activity. This has arguably made them even more vulnerable to the closures and cancellations brought about by COVID-19.

Although arts organisations have done their best to adapt to the conditions of the pandemic, many of them will need substantial government support if they are to weather this storm. This will require a change in the current political attitude surrounding the arts, which paints the arts as optional, rather than essential, to society – something which can simply be cast aside in times of crisis.

Politicians will need to recognise that the arts industry is a valuable part of the UK’s economy, in both the North and the South. Not only does it generate income, it also brings meaning and joy to all our lives. This is particularly important in deprived areas of the country, where not everyone can easily access arts events and opportunities.

Too often, this debate is presented as a battle between artists and politicians. But we are all affected by this. Even if we don’t regularly go to museums and art galleries, art is all around us; it’s the TV shows we watch, it’s the pictures on our walls, it’s hearing a live outdoor gig or a busker as we walk down the street.

To address this crisis, we need to acknowledge that the arts matter to us all, regardless of socio-economic status or where we live. Far from being an optional extra, the arts are a fundamental part of a rich and vibrant society in which everyone can thrive.

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