General manager, Town Hall Theatre
Like many other sectors, the performing arts industry - overnight - has been flattened by the Coronavirus pandemic. All businesses have been deeply affected, but the creative industries in particular have been hard hit, leaving artists, arts workers, and audiences floored.
At the Town Hall Theatre we have spent the last 10 weeks cancelling and postponing, rescheduling, and refunding. Our hearts are broken. Box office and bar staff, technicians and actors, playwrights, directors, choreographers, dancers, musicians, stage managers, designers, and stage crews throughout our industry now find themselves in what Stephen Fry described as "dark times indeed for the performing arts".
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine the world anew. Creative outputs may take new directions as the arts struggles to manage the ongoing impact of the lockdown, and the future impacts of social distancing on audiences and on the creation and performance of work. We, as a sector, are working collectively and creatively to try and overcome these challenges.
However, with theatres, galleries, live music venues, libraries, closed, the Government now needs to follow the example of our European neighbours and further afield, and step in to help individual artists and arts organisations get back on their feet.
The Victoria government in Australia, for example, followed a two strand approach – one introducing a Sustaining Creative Workers Initiative which supports individual artists and arts workers by allowing them to continue working on existing projects, create new works, develop skills, and conduct research and/or market exploration; and another Strategic Investment Fund for arts organisations, designed to provide them with stability and meet immediate and urgent needs during the shutdown.
'The pandemic may have dealt us a knock-out blow, but with help locally and nationally we can get back on our feet - and make Galway an even bolder, even more creative and even more inclusive city than before'
Government also needs to help us overcome the challenges posed by the impact of social distancing on audience capacities. Specifically, we need the 2m social distancing guideline reduced to the WHO guideline of 1m. At 2m distancing, we can achieve just 10 per cent of our previous audience capacity – at 1m distance, we can double that capacity to 20 per cent, and if we follow the concept of household group separation, we can push this further, possibly to as high as 35 per cent. Even then, we have a serious viability battle on our hands, hence the need for financial intervention and support.
As a sector, we are actively exploring the introduction of a suite of safety measures, including the use of temperature scans, enhanced cleaning, and sanitising procedures and perhaps even the wearing of face masks, and considering, in the short-term, a recalibrated programme of events featuring shorter performances, without intervals, and productions involving fewer people on stage.
John Tusla, former director of the Barbican in London, said the arts matter "because they embrace, express, and define the soul of a civilisation". The arts, artists, and arts workers have been good to Galway and to the nation, being a significant cultural, social, and economic contributor to both. The pandemic may have dealt us a knock-out blow, but with help locally and nationally we can get back on our feet - and make Galway an even bolder, even more creative and even more inclusive city than before.
Galway West Sinn Féin TD
One of the lessons learned from the Covid-19 experience is that the political, social and economic principle of recent years of 'There Is No Alternative' is really a vacuous approach which limits what we can achieve as a people.
Before the outbreak of this crisis, working remotely was rare. The large number of people now working from home proves there is no reason why many companies in Galway cannot provide this option, at least on a phased basis. As we have seen in recent weeks, this can help reduce traffic, help people avoid long commutes, and improve our general quality of life.
The proliferation of online classes, lectures, discussions, and meetings also represents an exciting potential for the widening of public access to information on everything from our history and culture to economics and science.
One of the blocks that has hindered equality of access to the above is the availability of high speed broadband across the State, or lack of. The Government mishandling of this has been a shambles. We need to make it a priority to provide high-speed broadband connections to every home and business, and it has to be State-led. Private suppliers will not service areas which are not deemed “commercially viable”.
In general, we have been forced to recalibrate what we see as the important things in our lives. What really maintains a healthy and enjoyable life is a decent income, safe working conditions, a roof over your head, easy access to good quality healthcare, and being afforded the opportunity to do what makes you happy, whether that is walking, running, spending time with friends and family, listening to music or your favourite podcast, taking on new projects, or reading a book.
'We deserve to live in a society that allows every citizen the opportunity to understand and enjoy the poetry that exists all around us'
Now is the time to invest in the appropriate infrastructure to facilitate the increased number of people out walking and running. Galway is one of the best cities in the world in which to live and work, but there is an urgent need for increased walkways and cycle lanes, as well as the outdoor picnic benches and free public water fonts we see in other towns and cities across Europe.
What is really crucial is that our Government needs to shape the economy around these fundamental human needs and desires. Donegal writer Seosamh MacGrianna once said the world is full of poetry to those who can understand it. What this lockdown re-affirms is that we deserve to live in a society that allows every citizen the opportunity to understand and enjoy the poetry that exists all around us.
There have been muttering from the dark end of IBEC about the fact that a minority of those on the emergency €350 Covid-19 payment are better off than they were working.
Such disciples of economic common sense never question the legitimacy of jobs that do not pay those who do them enough to cover the rent. One Covid era change that should stay in place is the increased rate of social welfare payments, particularly for young people who faced targeted cuts in their payments during the banking crisis.
An increase in social welfare payments for those under-25 could, in a city like Galway, act as a revitalising subsidy to an arts scene that could do with some revitalising. The Galway arts scene has its origins in young people with ideas, many of whom were on the dole, in the late 1970s and 1980s.
The dole is the most democratic arts grant Galway has ever seen. It gets money straight into the hands of the most potentially vibrant part of the arts community. I remember Mike McCormack saying to me once that almost everyone who is anyone in the arts in Galway “did a tour of duty” on the books of what I like to call, though not to their faces, the Department of Public Happiness.
My wife thinks I am a workaholic, and she’s probably right, but I started writing poetry in 1995 when I was 28 and described myself as having “retired”. I lived, very modestly, in a rented apartment in Salthill with no central heating. I have since graduated to be, though I don’t like to admit it, a pillar of the literary establishment locally.
'If we want other such arts entrepreneurs to flourish we must give them sufficient dole money with which to nourish their dreams'
I am the creative writing director for the Irish Studies International Summer School at NUI Galway and after our regular Over The Edge readings the only drink I can tolerate is champagne. Prosecco just won’t do, honey. I have an accountant. Women from Threadneedle Road, who also play golf, attend my poetry workshops. I am, dare I say it, a literary entrepreneur.
If we want other such entrepreneurs to flourish we must give them sufficient dole money with which to nourish their dreams. A few will, no doubt, grow big, mad, beards, write sonnets they will never show anyone, and end up living alone in houses that are allegedly haunted. But does the average Fine Gael voter really want such types bringing them their flat whites in any case?