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Monday, August 10, 2020

Empty theaters, unsung operas, canceled tours: Europe’s artists vs. the virus


PARIS — For Europe’s actors, musicians and dancers, the summer months are usually spent crisscrossing the Continent, hopping from one festival to another.

Not this year. Although European economies have been slowly grinding back into gear, bans on mass gatherings to curb coronavirus infections mean major tours and large-scale events have been canceled. And while some theaters and concert halls have reopened to smaller audiences, many are warning of bankruptcy if they are forced to keep running at reduced capacities to meet social-distancing regulations.

Starved for entertainment and human connection, many had hoped the culture industry would bounce back as soon as conditions allowed. But, like most other sectors, Europe’s artists and cultural venues are facing months of lingering uncertainty.

"I’m hearing from companies that usually make 80 percent of their revenues on tours — often most of it between May and August — and they are really struggling," said Stéphane Segreto-Aguilar, who runs Circostrada, a European network of circus and street art performers.

Acrobats who normally train like elite athletes have been locked out of their rehearsal spaces for months, making it difficult to launch into performances at short notice even if they are now permitted. And growing fears of potential second and third waves of infections are making it almost impossible to plan ahead, according to Segreto-Aguilar.

"We’re already seeing lockdowns being reinstated in parts of Europe, and events that were back on track being called off again, like in Catalonia," he said.

Most European governments have announced specific measures to prop up their national culture industries during the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from modest grants and loans to billion-euro-plus schemes in the cases of Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

But the survival of the cultural industry seems to be higher priority in some countries than others. French President Emmanuel Macron gave a passionate speech pledging major relief for the arts in May, including a plan for mass commissioning of new artistic works by the state. That same month, the German government announced it had earmarked €1 billion for the arts along with significant funding at regional levels.

Elsewhere, however, the picture looks worse, with freelancers struggling to make ends meet and cultural venues that don’t fit neatly into categories qualifying for relief facing the possibility of shutting their doors for good.

Germany ‘can and wants to afford it’

In some countries, the cultural sector has been better prepared to weather this crisis due to decades of heavy state investment and better social protection for performers.

Germany, for example, has invested long term in culture because "it’s a country that can and wants to afford it," said Katharina Schmitt, a director and playwright based between Germany and the Czech Republic. Although the future is uncertain, a long tradition of public subsidies has cushioned venues in both countries from lost ticket revenues during the pandemic, she said.

As an illustration, she pointed to the Berliner Philharmonie, which sold tickets at an average price of €48.90 in 2014. For each of those visitors, the concert hall received an additional €66.90 in public funding.

It’s a very different picture in the U.K., where venues traditionally enjoy little state support and are heavily reliant on their own ticket sales. While that business model means the arts normally contribute healthy sums to U.K. coffers, British theaters have spent much of this crisis warning of impending catastrophe and receiving no support. Hit London shows including "Hamilton" and "Les Misérables" have been called off until 2021.

The U.K. government finally announced a £1.57 billion arts rescue package in early July, under pressure from a celebrity campaign to stop Britain from turning into a "cultural wasteland." But by that point, some theaters had already announced mass redundancies or permanent closures. On Twitter, culture vultures suggested the arts were not a priority for Boris Johnson’s government because the theater-going public is less likely to vote Conservative.

In Hungary meanwhile, the right-wing government has made use of an emergency arts scheme to advance a nationalist agenda. Playwrights and composers were offered modest grants to write new compositions, but there was one major condition: They had to be themed around the centenary of the Treaty of Trianon, an event that has long formed part of Viktor Orbán’s nationalist rhetorical arsenal.

"Content-wise, it was just a propaganda thing," said Fanni Nánay, a Budapest festival organizer. "It was really a scandal."

Netflix steps in

Making a living as an artist or performer was precarious before the pandemic. Of the 2 million Europeans who work as artists and writers, about half are self-employed and most rely on short-term contracts and one-off gigs.

Still, some are better protected than others.

In France, performers and theater technicians benefit from a social security status intended to offer a degree of protection from the precariousness of their work. During the pandemic, these 130,000 French "intermittents" have been granted an extension of their rights to payouts, while registered "artistes-auteurs" — creators of literary, dramatic, musical, choreographic or artistic works — have also been granted tax relief.

Across all industries, the self-employed got a rawer deal in some countries than in others. Germany’s freelance scheme was widely praised for swiftness and simplicity — Schmitt said €5,000 landed in her bank account just days after she applied for emergency aid — while freelancers in Hungary and Spain received little help, other than being let off from their usual tax bills.

"That came to about €400," said Igor Bacovich, an Italian choreographer living in Spain. "We didn’t get much support, especially considering that we lost so many jobs."

Many Italian freelancers, meanwhile, had to wait for weeks to receive a one-off €600 payment weeks after applying for relief. Self-employed Brits were told in March that they would receive nothing for at least two months.

Plenty of British culture workers still do not qualify for financial help under the new government scheme, and many theater workers have now applied for emergency grants from a fund set up by James Bond director Sam Mendes with the help of a £500,000 donation from Netflix.

The fund is one of a wide array of NGO, private and citizen-led initiatives that have popped up to help where governments have not, a reflection of Europeans’ pride in their cultural offerings.

Help is out there, said Segreto-Aguilar, but "the difficulty often lies in knowing the aid is available and how to get hold of it."

The question now is whether cash can reach small theaters and arts groups in time to keep them from folding. Funding from arts councils and foundations can often only be accessed via lengthy grant applications. In Paris, Mayor Anne Hildago promised ahead of her recent reelection to take financial control of venues on the brink of collapse; two are already seeking to take up her offer.

Similarly, small but historic venues in London may simply end up closing. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern, an LGBTQ cabaret club, is among those brought to the brink of bankruptcy by the pandemic. There has been no let-up in its rent, and the lack of government support forced managing director James Lindsay to "go out with the begging bowl" and ask members of the public to stump up £50,000 to help the establishment stave off bankruptcy.

The club is a beloved part of the local queer scene, but like many such nightspots, it falls somewhere between being a bar and a performance venue. It would not normally receive arts funding.

Now, however, it is a race against time to find out whether the club will qualify for emergency aid under the U.K. culture package. The venue is currently welcoming just 35 percent of its usual clientele due to social-distancing restrictions. Without additional help, "we won’t be able to go on like this for more than eight or 10 weeks," Lindsay said.

EU to the rescue?

Given the urgency of the situation, the EU’s culture agency Creative Europe has sped up implementation of the €48.5 million grant program it is running throughout 2020 and has fast-tracked applications to maximize the chance of relief reaching organizations before they go bust.

Ahead of last month's summit on the bloc's next long-term budget and recovery fund, the culture industry pushed for a doubling of Creative Europe’s funding. The program has become an increasingly key player in arts funding since its founding in 2014, particularly for cross-border projects and as national budgets have been depleted.

A number of high-profile European artists — including performing artist Marina Abramović, film director Agnieszka Holland, writer Nina George, composer Jean Michel Jarre and singers Björk and MØ — even issued a joint call for the EU "be bold and to invest in culture and the arts, to invest in all our creative futures."

The €1.64 billion now on the table for Creative Europe as part of the budget deal reached at the summit is a slight increase on figures put forward by the Commission in May, but still falls short of what the industry needs, advocates say.

"It is, of course, a very modest and a bittersweet increase – yet it goes in the right direction," advocacy group Culture Action Europe said in a statement. It also called on European leaders to "fully include culture in their national strategies" on how to allocate new money coming in via the recovery fund.

Critics may argue that culture is a luxury in times like these, and yet EU citizens clearly value it — they spent the lockdown binging on TV shows and online offerings, said Tere Badia, Culture Action Europe's secretary-general.

"Culture is a fundamental part of the European project," said Badia. "It’s not just any other sector, it binds us together. Try to imagine a country without any culture — what would there be left?"



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