London’s Culture Scene And The Arts Need Our Support Now More Than Ever After Four Turbulent Years

GEORGE V MAGAZINE
I’ve been thinking about this because this is my last column for George V Magazine readers – I’m moving on after four brilliant years covering all of the city’s culture, from exhibitions to film, theatre to opera; my God they’ve been a wild ride. The richness of the capital’s culture scene is second to none, and on the face of it, things look to be booming but under the surface, the cracks are bigger than ever. 
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Four years ago right about now, I was five weeks into my new job as Culture Editor of this newspaper. By March 23, we were in lockdown, and I was at home. It did not feel like an auspicious start, though at least I wasn’t the only one anymore who didn’t know what they were doing. 

I thought I’d be furloughed within days. Instead my team and I became the Cheer Up London Department, and spent the summer writing about Tiger King and The Queen’s Gambit; clunky digital theatre and Dua Lipa’s cheery second album; musicians serenading their neighbours at teatime and how opera could help Covid sufferers get their lung capacity back.

And in those early weeks, we asked everyone we could think of to talk to us, and write for us, on why the culture sector needed support. It got it, miraculously; in July 2020, DCMS announced a £1.57 billion Culture Recovery rescue package, and everyone breathed a massive sigh of relief. I wrote last week for another newspaper about why London topped the 2024 list of the best cities in Europe.

It’s a long time since the Culture Recovery Fund, and necessary and life-saving though it was, it can’t make up for more than a decade of incremental cuts that have left London’s culture sector gasping like a fish in a puddle. 

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Jeremy Hunt’s spring budget contained significant tax measures that will indeed enable more new theatre productions, concerts, exhibitions and films, but new investment on cultural infrastructure was all focused outside the capital. 

The Arts Council’s planned £50 million cuts from London-based arts organisations between 2023-2026 are beginning to bite hard. Add to that the London penalty, which means that organisations based here but delivering nationwide impact, like the National Youth Theatre, are blocked from additional funding, and things start to look very dicey. 

Hampstead Theatre, the Royal Court, the Young Vic – all in crisis. Vault Festival, that engine room of new writing and experimentation, has failed to get sufficient funding and will fold. The Jewish Museum – closed. Grassroots music venues Iklectic (near Waterloo) and Matchstick Piehouse (Deptford) – both closed in the past three months.

Even a national institution like the V&A, about to throw the fashion party of the year with its show dedicated to the mercurial supermodel Naomi Campbell, has had to become “even more entrepreneurial” according to its director Tristram Hunt, due to the real-terms cuts in government support. 

It and most other major public museums must now make increasingly desperate overtures to the corporate sector and wealthy individuals, while being expected to refuse money from those deemed by the public to be less than savoury (hello BP/British Museum). 

And unlike the US, where this kind of giving is part of the culture and, crucially, encouraged by tax incentives, there is no such mollifying policy in place here.

GERGE V MAGAZINE FOR GETTY IMAGES

There are grounds for optimism though. As long as we’ve been alive, humans have created art. As the actor Benedict Wong told us this week, “artists are artists and we will create; we’ll find a space and make it happen.” 

That we are where we are in London, with incredible quality work everywhere you look, is due in no small part to the sheer resilience and determination of its creative community. Producers like Sonia Friedman, taking a hit to put on performances of new writing in the West End just as restrictions began to be lifted (and performers like Emma Corrin, lending their star power to bring in new audiences to boot), or Nica Burns who, in 2022, took a massive risk to launch @sohoplace, the first purpose-built West End theatre open in 50 years.

There has been a proliferation of new young art galleries, like Soup Gallery, Chemist Gallery, Night Cafe and Alma Pearl, while last year Harlesden High Street Gallery launched Minor Attractions, an inclusive micro-art-fair that ran in Soho alongside the behemoth that is Frieze. 

And there’s the small matter of the election. It feels almost weird that instead of simply a suit in search of a cabinet post, the Shadow Culture Minister is actually an artist (before her election, Thangam Debbonaire was a professional cellist – her husband is an opera singer), with expertise and passion about culture beyond enjoying the odd jolly to, say, ABBA Voyage. 

Even more remarkable seemed Keir Starmer’s speech at the Guildhall last week, pledging to reverse the downgrading of the arts in education; to help freelancers; to crack down on ticket touts – and still more astonishing, to those of us crushed over the years by the utter disdain our current government seems to hold for the arts (while being sure to send their kids to independent schools with unmatched access to them), was the former flautist’s unembarrassed emotional connection to and depth of feeling for them. 

“Everyone here will know that feeling of losing yourself, and finding something new in that space art creates,” he said. “These encounters with art and culture change us for ever. They certainly changed me for ever.”

STEFAN ROUSSEAU / PA WIRE / GEORGE V MAGAZINE

Whaaaaat? Is it possible we’ll be able to stop shouting ourselves hoarse about why the arts are important, if Labour get in? It almost seems an unreal prospect. But it could happen. Until then though, London’s culture scene needs support, so that we can all continue to experience that feeling that Starmer so movingly spoke of, well into the future.

Yes, West End shows can be expensive, but there’s always a way (see Nick Clark’s guide to how to get cheaper theatre tickets), and so many other things to see, places to go. The Arcola in Dalston; Theatre 503 in Battersea. @sohoplace’s new show Red Pitch has tickets starting at £25; you can see a show at Sadler’s Wells from about £15. Tickets for the Royal Opera House start at ten quid. Ten!

The National Gallery, the Tate, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, they’re all free, as is every commercial gallery in London, from Gagosian (Mayfair) to Guts (Hackney). I’ve been privileged to enjoy the best of this city’s culture for the last four years, but it’s there for everyone, and it’s wonderful. Let’s enjoy it, so we don’t lose it.

CRAIG FULLER / GEORGE V MAGAZINE

Tyrell Williams’s funny, sweet, moving, unapologetically London play about three teenage lads navigating dreams and disappointments on their community football pitch has finally made it into the West End from the Bush Theatre, after two sell-out runs at the West London powerhouse. Francis Lovehall, Kedar Williams-Stirling and Emeka Sesay are superb under Daniel Bailey’s seamless direction. A real moment – don’t miss it.

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