lmagically a small music venue. There are many such places scattered around the UK, the kind of place where you can meet an up and coming band, some folk or jazz, and the occasional stand-up comedian. I’m thinking of a real location, capacity 500, in the south of England. There is no live music anywhere else in this city, and has been for decades. Only it may not be there for long. It has just had its electricity bill, from the largely French state-owned company EDF (insert your own irony). That bill is 640% higher than the previous one.
There is no energy price cap for companies like this – that’s just for households. They engaged a broker to try and get them a better rate, with no success. The extra £31,000 for turning on the lights is more than what the boss is paid. They fear that if they go public, the landlord and their suppliers will panic and pull the plug. Which would really be the end.
One possible solution is to increase ticket prices from £8 to £12.50. Another, to pour a pint of lager from £5.70 to £8.20. But the last thing any of them want to do is pass the costs on to an already cash-strapped public, with inflation at 40 years high and the real value of workers’ wages falling the fastest in 20 years.
But what to do? Covid was a nightmare for locations like this, but the government eventually intervened with the cultural recovery fund. Mark Davyd, who runs the Music Venue Trust, told me that 50 to 100 members of his network are facing a “frankly impending crisis” – one that is even more threatening than the pandemic, because it is happening completely outside of political conversation. , which focuses on household bills. “It’s strange and tragically likely that more music venues will close than Covid,” he told me.
It’s not just small music venues. Thousands of small businesses and shops will be plagued by huge energy bills and the result will be job losses and shopping streets even more desolate than they are today. But let’s bring it back to the arts: the Lowry, the arts center of Salford, has already gone public with its energy bill tripled – at £1 million. There’s a similar picture at London’s Sadler’s Wells, Britain’s national dance theatre, where it’s just heard energy costs are also likely to triple, to £900,000. That’s on top of a dozen years of standstill funding — which in real terms means a reduction in the Arts Council grant of about 25%. It will take place all over the country, including your local arts center, unless it’s lucky enough to be locked into a long-term deal that isn’t expiring yet, or part of a government energy procurement program.
“Honestly, we look at ticket prices. And that’s difficult,” Sir Alistair Spalding, the theater boss, told me. He’ll probably climb the top of big popular shows, leaving the cheaper tickets behind – but even that policy, progressive in its way, where the rich take the expense, isn’t an ideal atmosphere for a supposedly inclusive, welcoming theater.
Inflation and its consequences, if it seeps through cultural organizations, will hit people hard: lives get even worse, poorer, when the Christmas show at your local theater, a precious family ritual, becomes unaffordable; if your teen can’t watch bands in her hometown; when the museum gets more shabby and opening times shorten and there is nowhere warm and free to take the kids for a few activities. When arts organizations are under this pressure, entire communities suffer.
Of course, the long tail of Covid makes this much worse. Employees are exhausted by the constant crisis mode. Staff are still affected by outbreaks. For many organizations, ticket sales have yet to fully recover. No one really knows if a whole bunch of people will ever kick the comforting Netflix habit and hit the road again. For example, the Proms are not the only ones to see a drop in sales of about 20% compared to 2019. The public is also booking tickets later to hedge their bets. A folk musician, who is touring this fall, tells me that stages are almost begging people to book early. Without enough presales, they may be forced to cancel shows for fear they won’t recoup their costs.
It’s not just energy bills that are skyrocketing: At Theatr Clwyd, in Mold, Flintshire, Steve Eccleson is workshop manager, responsible for building sets. He stares inflation in the eye because of the enormous rise in material costs. An 8ft x 4ft MDF board has gone from £6.79 in July 2020 to £17 in January this year. Plywood has risen from £29.98 per sheet in January this year to £43.75 in June. The tubes they use for scaffolding were £17.84 in 2020 but now £64.90. That means the cost of a set—say for the theater’s new musical, The Famous Five—has increased by 30% to 40%. The theater is also on the cusp of a major capital redevelopment, which Liam Evans-Ford, the executive director, is expected to increase by 20%, but who knows?
In the long run, there are investments that can be made to mitigate the worst effects of expensive energy: insulation, LED lighting, solar panels and the rest. Ten years ago, Glyndebourne poured £1m into a wind turbine which, after paying for itself in six years, will protect it from the current crisis. (Sometimes the opera house does have to buy energy, but it also exports to the grid, meaning it actually benefits from rising prices.)
The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester has a £4.3 million government grant to help it decarbonise – in the future, the sprawling buildings and historic working machines will get their energy from a water-source heat pump. Hampshire Cultural Trust, which manages the county’s museums, has used the same grant scheme, designed to decarbonise public buildings, to install solar panels on four of its buildings. In reality, though, things like this could have been done a long time ago; energy efficiency should have been higher on the political and cultural agenda. (A nonprofit organization, Julie’s Bicycle, has been promoting sustainability in the arts for 15 years.)
The situation requires urgent political attention in the short term and an energy ceiling that goes beyond households. The organizations that survive will be the ones that adapt relentlessly and focus entirely on “how we support people – both with their souls and with their stomachs – through difficult times”, as Elizabeth Newman, Artistic Director of Pitlochry Festival Theater in Perthshire , told me . Preserving people and giving places identity and pride is exactly what is needed as the country teeters between a pandemic and a recession. The problem is, it’s just that much harder to do.