Social isolating is having a profound impact on Brighton & Hove’s arts. Cllr Siriol Hugh-Jones looks at some of the city’s problems and solutions.
The music industry and arts sector has been badly hit by the Covid-19 lockdown. Concert halls, galleries, theatres and museums lie empty, and, as we roll into May, many of us will be keenly missing our fantastic Fringe and Festival.
But this period of ‘downtime’ also gives us an opportunity to review how Brighton’s incredible cultural offer can be further improved for the benefit of the whole community.
Brighton & Hove is full of artists, singers, songwriters, composers and musicians. Every year, Arts Council England is inundated with applications from Brighton-based organisations. The Brighton festival is one of the UK’s leading arts festivals and, with ticket sales in 2018 of over £1 million, is an important source of revenue and a much-loved annual tourist attraction. The city’s schools music service, Brighton & Hove Music & Arts, does fantastic – and often highly innovative and inclusive – work in leading school-age music activities. And there is a host of great small arts venues such as the Verdict, Fabrica, ONCA, the Komedia, St George’s, the Marlborough, the Prince Albert, the Latest and the Green Door Store (to name but a few), many of which are run on a shoestring.
Less positively, while the popular Theatre Royal is too small for many shows, the Hippodrome remains closed and may be developed as a hotel. Redevelopment of the Corn Exchange and Studio Theatre has been delayed. We have only one dedicated jazz venue and the Dome’s dry acoustics do classical performers no favours. It is no accident that some of the Festival’s highest-profile classical concerts do not take place in Brighton at all but in Glyndebourne.
Many live performances happen in local churches which, with a few exceptions, have too generous an acoustic for anything larger than a small ensemble, or in cramped upstairs rooms above pubs. Greens have been campaigning for over a decade for a dedicated city art gallery too.
Given the gaps in infrastructure, it is astonishing that Brighton & Hove continues to punch far above its weight. Credit for that must go to the different players – the performers, managers, arts administrators, directors, programmers and a whole host of hardworking volunteers, as well as to the dedicated audiences. That said, and given the current crisis, we could and should be doing much more to tap into the vast potential of Brighton & Hove’s cultural scene.
I believe the solution lies in collaboration. There are so many individual artists, performers and venues within Brighton & Hove who plough their individual creative furrows but have little idea of what support is available, what organisations are on hand to represent them and, simply, who else is out there. How many gigging musicians are aware of the Brighton & Hove Arts and Creative Industries Commission, for example?
That is why I think there needs to be a concerted effort to bring together the wider arts community. The Cultural Summit that was to have been held at the Attenborough Centre at the end of March could have been an important step towards this. For the moment it has been postponed but, in any case, this process of casting the net wider, of creating a real community of artists has to be an ongoing, long-term process.
Such a community could bring benefits not just in terms of better representation but also artistic inspiration. When you are focused on the next creative project, the next funding bid, the next rehearsal, it is sometimes difficult to find space to look at what others are doing. But I believe it is only through bringing the city’s many and varied artists together that we will begin to appreciate the greater possibilities that collaboration opens up.
Such collaboration might be between the arts – music performances combined with exhibitions, for example. But it could also be across different sectors, perhaps involving some of Brighton & Hove’s cutting-edge digital technology or games industry businesses, or the health and care sectors. The recent offer by artists of a free portrait to the first health worker to respond crossed boundaries between sectors, to the benefit of all involved. At present, social prescribing for mental health issues varies from one GP surgery to the next. Why not have a proper discussion between the city’s arts and health sectors of the health benefits of art or photography classes or instrumental lessons?
Clearly, solving the problem of the city’s cultural infrastructure is a long-term project which will require immense dedication, perseverance and considerable funding. But in such emotionally challenging times the arts are an essential outlet. The council and its partners in the sector have a particular responsibility to lead here, but we can all find a role in building on the community spirit that has emerged in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown. Art is for everyone, so let’s share it.
Cllr Siriol Hugh-Jones is a Green Party councillor, cellist and organiser of the Crossing Borders Festival for Sanctuary on Sea in 2016 and 2018.