With the upcoming Coventry City of Culture 2021, the Commonwealth Games cultural program, large arts organisations, small arts organisations and internationally-renowned companies, the West Midlands’ has an acclaimed arts and culture sector that has been growing rapidly.
The arts feels like the forgotten industry in the coronavirus pandemic, as the cultural sector has been hit hard. Arts and culture is the beating heart of the West Midlands and we need to work together to keep our industry alive.
The West Midlands Culture Response Unit has been set up to develop a plan for arts organisations to rebuild across the region. Led by Culture Central, I spoke to their Director Erica Love about the aims of the response unit and how they plan to aid the sector’s recovery.
“We initially set the WMCRU up as a response to COVID19 and a recognition that we were going to be stronger together as a cultural sector when making our cases and being heard,” Erica said. “The principle is to look at the visibility, viability and recovery of the sector across the Midlands. Everything from freelancers to big organisations.
“Because we’ve got a collective voice, we are able to make representation to government, arts council, local and regional councils and local enterprise councils too.”
The arts is hugely important, and the UK lockdown has only cemented that fact. What have we been relying on during quarantine? Television, film, books, music – the arts. The WMCRU’s audience report said that 80% – 90% of people are missing live events.
“The arts is going to be crucial in people’s recovery and wellbeing. Kids have just had a really long time off school, it is going to be really difficult for them to go back into those spaces and all of the challenges that go with that transition, change and anxiety,” Erica said.
“The arts does such a great job with mental health and wellbeing. It is crucial and core to a lot of that work, as well as bringing joy. So many times you go to festivals and events and watch families really enjoying spending time together, laughing and appreciating all kinds of different art, festivals and activity.”
“It is that real world experience isn’t it? That moment that you share when you look at someone and laugh or cry. Or the feeling of being in awe of somebody being able to do something incredible. It’s sharing that experience with other people who are all feeling the same way.”
In order to move forward and rebuild that sense of community, Erica emphasises the importance of gathering information in order to understand how the whole sector has been impacted.
“We are researching the whole sector including data on income losses, job losses and also seeing where audiences are at,” Erica explained. “But we are working on more exciting things too like the comeback film, where we are able to inspire people and give them hope that we will be coming back as a sector and there will be great things in the future.”
The WMCRU are coordinating activity around the cultural organisations. One strand is the public campaign – showcasing the work the West Midlands are doing. The other strand is supporting the sector in its recovery. They’ve already put together a Midsummer festival taking place online on Saturday 20th of June.
This free one-day festival is going to celebrate arts and culture in the West Midlands through theatre, dance and music. There will be a wide range of live, archived and pre-recorded cultural activity available online including performances which have never been seen before from companies including the Royal Shakespeare Company, ACE Dance and Music and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. All inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This is the first project by the WMCRU and it will pave the way for how the unit will shape future work in order to bring arts and culture to the West Midlands.
“It’s quite clear that it is going to be a while until anything is back to any kind of normal,” Erica said. “Tyrone Huggings, who is part of one of our working groups, put it beautifully one day in a meeting. He said: ‘The theatres and the culture sector are a bit like the canary and the mine, we are on a bit of a journey and when we know we can shoulder to shoulder each other, we know we’ve got through the other side and the danger is gone.’
“But in the meantime, what are we going to do that is different? How are we going to make sure our audiences enjoy things? We are having to think about different spaces, outdoor spaces, live performance and digital. It’s about collaborating across the region to offer different experiences.”
What is the importance of arts and culture in the West Midlands?
Theatre is a massive economic driver for arts and culture, especially with two huge upcoming events with the Commonwealth Games’ culture program over the next two years and the Coventry City of Culture 2021.
“Arts and culture is so vital in terms of tourism. Our region has some of the best internationally known and respected arts and cultural organisations who produce work and tour work. That is such a draw for domestic visitors and international visitors,” Erica said.
“But also, there is the health and wellbeing side to it. You can’t forget the joy that culture brings. Quality of life, enjoyment, community, all of those things that make us human. I believe in both the economic argument and the sociological argument as well.”
How can you support the arts locally?
1 – Watch and take part online.
You can access so much work taking place virtually across the West Midlands on their website. Including Midsummer this Saturday and virtual tours of our arts organisations on the Virtual West Midlands hub.
2 – Write to your local MP
Public support is vital to the survival of the West Midlands arts and culture sector. By creating the unit, WMCRU have already created a collective voice and you can amplify that by expressing your concerns for the industry to your local MP.
3 – Ticket donation
Local venues are currently taking in no income and they are in need of your support until they can reopen. You can help keep the industry alive by either donating the price of your ticket, accepting credit on account to spend later or making a donation.
4 – Buy a gift voucher or membership
Not only are you giving yourself something to look forward to, but gift vouchers and memberships are fantastic gifts for friends and family. This is a brilliant way to support the arts now and enjoy what it has to offer later on.
5 – Share
Keep the community alive by sharing content being created by West Midlands artists and organisations online.
What does the future look like?
Erica hopes that this sparks new and interesting collaborations, packed venues and a strong day and night time economy. “I am really looking forward to embracing the opportunities with the Commonwealth Games,” said Erica. “I hope we see different ways of working digitally and different ways of doing things. What has been great to see is lots of different groups of artists and individuals working together who might not have sat round the same table before.
“We will have a different outlook and understanding, all organisations have been severely affected but we are all standing side by side going through these challenges together.”
The future of our industry doesn’t look easy and it’s a long road to recovery. But we can work together as a region to get back to the remarkable city that we are. As Culture Central’s film says: “Our time will come again, and the comeback, is on.”
Find out more about the West Midlands Culture Response Unit on their website.