john gilhooly

Fight for survival: John Gilhooly talks COVID and classical

Ahead of the Ivors Composer Awards tonight (1 December), we asked John Gilhooly OBE, artistic and executive director of Wigmore Hall, to talk us through the impact that COVID-19 has had on the classical sector.

  • 1 Dec 2020
  • min read

As I sit at my desk to pen these words, Wigmore Hall is preparing to yet again open its doors to the public in early December. Throughout this second lockdown, we have streamed and broadcast many concerts, but we are all looking forward to welcoming a socially distanced live audience back to our Hall, just like many other venues across the land. Recently in England, we were able to welcome small audiences back safely, as part of the government’s phased reopening plans, and we demonstrated that it is safe and that it works. Here in London we are very grateful to do this again under the Tier 2 restrictions, but it is not the same story yet for all four nations, and various venues will continue to keep their doors closed because of local restrictions or inadequate financial resources to do anything significant just now.

'As we continue down this uncertain road ahead, we draw on our inner strength, our resilience, and most importantly our solidarity, as a community of musicians and music lovers.'

 

2020 has been a year where our musical world has been largely immobilised, and even for a while, totally silenced. We have taken the first steps on the tough road towards recovery and, despite some setbacks on that difficult, shared journey, we can be proud that we are certainly far from defeated. We hope the arrival of a vaccine early in 2021 will allow us to plan a bit more confidently. Virtual attendance at events over the past eight months has been an uplifting reminder of the power of music to transcend boundaries, sustaining us as a united, vibrant artistic community, and shows us all that risks being lost, if we don’t collectively support classical music. As we continue down this uncertain road ahead, we draw on our inner strength, our resilience, and most importantly our solidarity, as a community of musicians and music lovers. The spirit of partnership seen in early lockdown will be key for the industry going forward in every sense. Various parts of the world will begin to recover at different times over the next year and we will need to help each other out.

As an industry, we are grateful for the government support we have been given so far, but we need acknowledgement from the top of government that this could easily be an eighteen month or longer crisis for live performance. The Entertainment & Events Working Group and various working groups in each region, feeding into the Cultural Renewal Taskforce, have heroically represented classical music. We need the government to maintain an ongoing honest and open dialogue with our industry. We need every opportunity to better explain the hurdles and complexities ahead. The cultural recovery fund alone is not enough to sustain us to this time next year, for instance, and there is nothing to suggest that we will be anywhere near back on our feet by then as an industry. Exemption from quarantine for our artists who must travel for work, and who represent us so brilliantly abroad, as well as those of international standing who so desperately want to visit us here, is vital in keeping us at the forefront of the international musical world. The sector is making huge efforts to draw in audiences for live performance and we need those in power to look again and help us achieve all of this. As I write this article in early December, quarantine is still a big problem.

'The government has already taken some good steps forward and they have listened. However, listening is not enough, we need a faster solution for getting aid to the self-employed.'

 

Of course it’s not just about saving iconic buildings and cultural institutions. So many livelihoods have been affected by the various measures needed to respond to, and contain, COVID-19, not least the self-employed and freelancers, who so often get overlooked and left behind. Sadly, recent announcements from the Chancellor of the Exchequer did nothing to help these people. By March 2021, if things don’t improve for the self-employed, some will not have earned for a full year. Furlough has been extended
until the end of March, but we need a similar scheme for those who have already fallen between the cracks from social welfare support.

We must continue to be very clear about the scale of what will be lost. The government has already taken some good steps forward and they have listened. However, listening is not enough, we need a faster solution for getting aid to the self-employed. Many have worked hard for decades, paying their taxes and giving so much of themselves to society. Social welfare in bad times is their right and we must not delay any more in helping them. It’s as simple as this: a right delayed is a right denied.

‘Live’, the umbrella group representing the entire music sector, estimate a loss of 170,000 jobs, almost ⅔ of the live workforce, by Christmas, and we know that unemployed musicians are already turning to food banks for support. And it’s not only musicians and venues that have been hit, but all parts of the supply chain: infrastructure companies for outdoor events, transportation, music, instrument and equipment hire. The cultural recovery fund has already saved 10,000 jobs in England but, given the potential length of this crisis and the fact that the live events industry will be the last to reopen, we will continue to seek a better understanding from our civic leaders, and a national solidarity and support which should be given freely, unstintingly and pretty quickly.

'We must not be accused of shroud waving or asking for special pleading. We need to be united, calm and reasoned with good arguments. With the right attitude, we can hopefully all come out of this leaner and stronger.'

 

When the time comes to rebuild our society and our economy, we must ensure that we have not allowed our cultural ecosystem to be greatly diminished and now is the time to construct a visionary narrative shaped to accommodate great artistic expression and to support all the livelihoods that make this unique expression thrive. The arts can and should play a significant role in our lives, in our wider community, and for people of all ages and backgrounds, and even more so in these difficult times.

2020 has been a year that has forced change right across society. As an industry we should embrace this as an opportunity to do things better, making our music available to a much broader demographic and assisting in the national and international recovery from the pandemic. Access to the arts and culture is access to our national life and the universal right of every citizen. Confidence comes from participation in the arts and gives people a broader view of the wider world and the ability to challenge and make change happen. We need a future where people don’t feel locked out, left behind or excluded. The arts should be central to the wellbeing of the nation regardless of the many billions that the heritage and culture sectors bring into the country each year. We need to draw on every resource we can to heal and rebuild our society and we must not allow music to be neglected or overlooked in this. We must not be accused of shroud waving or asking for special pleading. We need to be united, calm and reasoned with good arguments. With the right attitude, we can hopefully all come out of this leaner and stronger.

 

Photo by Kaupo Kikkas