18 April 2020

Comment: Creative venues will need our support when the lights go back on

Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Director of City and Culture, comments on the vital role the creative industries play in supporting wellbeing and the challenges they face as cities lockdown.

Sheffield Makes Music venue

Originally published in Sheffield Telegraph, 18.04.20

The place I call home is Sheffield for it is where I have resided for nearly thirty five years. Over these past three decades I have seen the city face many challenges from the decline and economic collapse in the 1980s to resurgence and reinvention in new and emerging sectors over the past decade.

I consider myself fortunate to work in a vibrant creative city, fiercely independent, warmly welcoming and pragmatic to the ninth degree and surrounded by inspiring colleagues in both the University of Sheffield and the creative sector. Every evening as my period of self-isolation lengthens and the hourly zoom, hang ups or meets increase, I look out of my window in Walkley to seek out the familiar skyline of the Arts Tower silhouetted against the horizon. The Arts Tower has always been my own personal way finder, a symbol of the university that employs me, a beacon of architectural design, function and engineering in one complete building and always signifying I was nearly home.

It was only until recently that I realised that something was missing, all the lights were out, the building was in complete and utter darkness, looming against the skyline like an ancient obelisk. The many hundreds of people who occupied the building, the architect students burning the midnight oil or internet browsers to complete their projects, all had scattered to the four corners of the city, region or world they came from. In all the years of living in Sheffield I can never ever remember the lights going out at the Arts Tower, even on Christmas Day the top floor studios were always lit with the spark of creativity and productivity that came from the School of Architecture.

The creative and cultural sector needs its audiences to return once the lockdown lifts

Professor Vanessa Toulmin

Director of City and Culture

This closure echoed the many hundreds of creative venues that too had to turn off the lights, close the doors and bunker down until it was safe. Theatres, museums, galleries, creative workspaces, studios, music venues all effectively in lock down. What then for the many thousands of creators, artists, makers, musicians, performers, event companies, festival organisers, actors, technicians, designers, writers, producers, directors, curators, the very creative ecology of our city who are nourished, sustained, employed in this our creative, leisure and cultural sector?

Governments and economists will look at the economic impact and the monetary figures are staggering as businesses overnight have lost over 90% of their income but still have 100% of their overheads. Some businesses have gone online or enhanced their digital offerings. Daily I receive links to online resources, offering West End shows, Virtual Museums, poetry recitals or interactive house parties. For it is culture and art and literature we turn towards to brighten our days or help us escape the physical isolation or from the claustrophobia of living in an enclosed space with our family unit.

But what of the often indelible and intangible benefits and blessings they also bring, how does one track or monetarise that? The mental health and wellbeing they harbour, the spirit of being part of a community they embrace, the creative ecology that enables talent to develop, take risk and flourish and finally the vibrancy and individuality they bring to our city.

As the pandemic folds its black wings over our city do not let it be the end to what we hold dear. Jobs will return, industries will be supported, manufacturers will start supplying goods other than those deemed essential and the varying sectors will produce balance sheets as evidence for their contribution to the GDP of the nation. We will mourn the many human losses that we will experience or read about and experts will continue to model the variable futures that face us. We will take pride in our amazing health workers, key workers, carers and volunteers who have kept us safe and cared for.

But when the Arts Tower once again lights up and the museums, theatres and galleries open and the festivals hopefully return please remember those creative industries that need your support. Virtual does not pay the bills on the studios, the rents on the venues or the overheads on our public assets. Nor does the virtual world provide the companionship, interaction and inspiration that people will be craving.

The creative and cultural sector needs its audiences to return once the lockdown lifts and to feel confident that the lights were never switched off but only on standby not the emergency setting.