What next for the arts? Rufus Norris and Maria Balshaw swap notes

At 2.30pm Rufus Norris, director of the National Theatre and Maria Balshaw, director of Tate art museums and galleries, convene on screen – the new abnormal – for a conversation about the Covid-19 crisis and how they plan to help their institutions survive it. Norris is first to admit our get-together is not ideal as his blurred silhouette appears: “I’m at home, in the bedroom, because it’s the best internet spot. If things get really bad, I’ll have to speak to you on the phone.” Balshaw, at home in Kent, is similarly quick to identify the idiosyncrasies in her new working life: “I’ve got my museum director husband [Nick Merriman, chief executive of Horniman Museum] with me – we rotate in and out of this room.”

Erratic bandwidth is the least of the problems Norris and Balshaw face. Before lockdown, there was a £110bn creative industries sector, the fastest-growing in the UK. Now, the challenge is to keep cultural institutions out of intensive care. For although Arts Council England has launched a £160m emergency package across the cultural sector, the longer our museums and theatres remain closed, the more perilous their future becomes. But beyond the immediate question of when the Tate and National might reopen, this is, more positively, a moment of potential change: there are questions of how cultural appetites are altering as art in lockdown becomes more democratic. And questions about whether the Covid-19 crisis will make a good subject for theatre. What sort of art might develop post-lockdown?

But before looking ahead, it is necessary to look back – not least because of the way time seems to be behaving in our new world (moving so fast in one sense, so slowly in another). I begin by asking Norris and Balshaw to remember how they felt as they locked down their institutions. Did they have any idea what was to come?

Rufus Norris and Maria Balshaw

Rufus Norris: It was very odd because we were told in the most blunt, ill-considered way that people were not to go to theatres before we were given any warning or told to shut. Boris’s announcement came just before a meeting with the cast of The Visit. We decided mutually the actors could not go on. Afterwards, I walked into the Olivier at 7.30 – the show should already have been running – and sat in the empty theatre. I remember thinking: how long will it be before I’m back in this theatre again? My overriding thought was about safety. This had all come up very quickly. I felt a bit naive, felt that collectively perhaps we should not have relied on government and made our own call earlier.

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Who are Maria Balshaw and Rufus Norris?

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Maria Balshaw

Maria Balshaw is director of the UK’s four Tate art galleries in London, Liverpool and St Ives, a role she has held since 2017.  Previously, she was director of the Whitworth, University of Manchester and Manchester City Galleries.

Rufus Norris

After an illustrious 15 year directing career in the West End and theatres such as the Almeida and the Young Vic, Rufus Norris became artistic director of the National Theatre in 2015. Recent successes include My Country by Carol Ann Duffy and an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Small Island.

Thank you for your feedback.

Maria Balshaw: Like Rufus, looking back, I wonder why I didn’t realise sooner that what happened needed to happen. The truth is we were all living in real time and society as a whole didn’t realise. I remember the acute strangeness of opening the Andy Warhol show at Tate Modern on 10 March. Our donors did not want to be there – already worried about the virus. The president of the Andy Warhol Foundation had flown over from New York and was saying: “Everyone thinks I’m crazy but I wanted to be here and witness this.” The opening felt incredibly celebratory yet presaging of disaster to come.

How have your feelings changed over the ensuing weeks?
RN
: It’s been so fast-moving. The problem with closing down an organisation on the scale of the National is it takes a huge amount of effort, furloughing – nobody even knew how to spell that word a few weeks ago – and emergency planning. It’s like scrabbling in a swimming pool, trying to find the steps. When you don’t know what’s going on for a long period, it’s incredibly wearing. As the leader of an organisation, you’re not doing the job unless you look at the worst so you can start trying to plan ahead.


Andy Warhol’s Mao (1972) at the Tate Modern

Andy Warhol’s Mao (1972) at the Tate Modern. Lockdown began days after the Warhol exhibition opened on 12 March. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

MB: At the beginning, it was shocking but people thought the crisis would last three weeks. Possibly six. Now we’re at a moment where we have to think about more than the recovery of individual institutions and our sectors. We’ve got to start thinking: how do we shape the world for the new normal? The pressures we’re under – financial, practical and emotional – mean we’ll not be the same on the other side.

When do you expect to open?
RN
: That’s the million-dollar question. Maria and I are in different sectors from that point of view – our business is about bringing large groups of people together. About 60 to 70% of the National’s income comes from people visiting and buying tickets. We’re very supportive of the government’s policy on social distancing. But the reality, in blunt terms, is that if we have two metres social distancing we can only sell one ticket in six or seven – which is not viable.

Teatro Franco Parenti in Milan is reducing seating from 500 to 65…
RN
: With the levels of subsidy in some European houses, that might be worth it but it’s out of the question for a commercial theatre.

Cameron Mackintosh says theatres are unlikely to reopen until 2021 – is this unduly pessimistic?
RN
: He’s possibly right: he’s talking about his theatres getting back to a place where audiences are comfortable to come back in large numbers. That’s going to require audience confidence which may only return when there’s a vaccine. Until social distancing can be relaxed, it’s hard to imagine getting back to a place where we can become viable. In terms of the timetable, we’ve plans for September. We’ve plans for January. I’m making plans for April 2021. But I have to say the January and the April 2021 plans would involve us going insolvent. Without additional government support 70% of theatres will be boarded by Christmas.

When will the NT’s money run out?
RN
: It depends on furloughing. If it keeps going, it won’t cover all our costs but will give us longer. Our turnover is £100m a year. In full swing, it costs two million a week to keep the place going. Some money comes from the Arts Council but we’re losing several million a month.

MB: Like the National, we have reserves but even an organisation as large as Tate will face massive challenges. Rufus will be cross with me if I’m not frank about that. We’ll face a huge challenge if we have an extended period with very few visitors. The reopening of the Tate’s galleries won’t be immediate. Museums fall into the third phase of easing of restrictions which means London museums might open late July through to September, probably a few at a time.

What plans are you putting into place?
MB
: All my colleagues are working at fever pitch to see how we can make museums open yet socially distant. How should we deal with hygiene and safety issues? How do we think about the numbers of people coming to us? In London, one of the biggest issues is going to be public transport. We don’t want it overwhelmed. We’ll be advocating that people who live locally walk to our institutions. I walk to work on good days – a fantastic thing to do in London.

Will Tate have to start charging for entry?
MB:
We’ve done a remarkable amount through lockdown to reach new audiences. I want us to be there for the whole British public even if we have to welcome people in smaller numbers. I wouldn’t want to put a barrier in the way of anyone coming. Free entry is more important than ever.

RN: We’re also looking into everything. We’ve a whole team working on creative ideas about social distancing. Can you get people masks? Can you build extra toilets? Can you only pre-order drinks? Can you put plastic screens between people on seats? What happens if you just do every other seat? We’ve cut production budgets in half. We’ve had wage cuts that our brilliant staff have had to take and it’s much worse for freelancers – they’re in a desperate position.

The playwright James Graham suggests an “aggressive government bailout” is needed…
RN
: “Aggressive government bailout” feels blunt but we’ll need government support. The Arts Council does not expect us to fulfil our duties during lockdown – it’s not as if we have zero money coming in.


Interior of the Olivier Theatre auditorium in London’s National Theatre.

Interior of the Olivier Theatre auditorium in London’s National Theatre. Lockdown rules closed it just before a performance of The Visit. Photograph: Simon Turner/Alamy

MB: We too have a grant in aid but, like the National, Tate earns 70% of its income through visitors. People coming back is what we need. I agree with Rufus the job retention scheme has been a godsend but we’ll also need further financial backing from the government. And any challenge for the Tate will be even more threatening for smaller institutions. This is going to be a period of the most acute challenge the arts ecology has ever faced.

And will smaller theatres survive?
RN
: Without support – no. If this goes on much longer, it’s very hard to imagine any theatre surviving. Whatever it means for the National, you can multiply several times for regional theatres. A lot of our work now is about advocacy to make sure the government, under huge pressure as it is, understands what our sector contributes and how urgent it is that a nuanced, informed view of helping us survive is taken on by them.

How worried are you by surveys reporting that many people are frightened by the relaxation of lockdown? Does your role include a need to reassure the public?
MB
: Our world has changed beyond recognition. It’s understandable people feel fearful. Museums, galleries and the arts have a huge role to play in rebuilding social confidence. People may have to come differently – book a time slot, come in one way, leave another way. We’ll need to reassure the public the numbers will not put them at risk. And this is urgent because of another challenge our country now faces: people’s emotional wellbeing, social connections and mental health.

RN: The worst thing would be if we opened too early because of financial need. If we rushed back and audiences came to our spaces and we hadn’t looked after them properly and they got sick – that must not be allowed to happen. It would be a disaster if we opened up and had to close down again. Reassurance will only be possible when the time is right.

I gather you’ve been ill with the virus yourself, Rufus?
RN:
I was very ill for a couple of weeks but thankful it didn’t take me to hospital. I know a lot of people who have been very ill.


The National’s One Man, Two Guvnors with James Corden

The National’s One Man, Two Guvnors with James Corden has been a streaming hit Photograph: Simone Joyner/Getty Images

Has this period made you reflect on what your jobs are for now that getting bums on seats/people through doors is out of the equation?
MB
: We’re dealing with large-scale disaster management yet, in a more profound way, this crisis reminds us why human beings need art. You can see the hunger for it and people’s desire to create themselves. The silver lining of what we’re going through is that people have been given time back and are using it to make paintings, throw pots, watch theatre, dance and sing.

RN: Or they’re also going back to their photographs or getting creative in the kitchen or garden – the surge of creativity is really encouraging. There’ll be a generation, won’t there? The lockdown generation – who really got on with stuff while they had the space.

MB: I was particularly moved by the singing on balconies in Italy. It’s people saying: I’ll not be silent in the face of fear. It gets to the heart of why we make art. And then there was Sacha Lord’s livestream Hacienda-style Manchester club night that went on the whole night, attracted millions and raised funds for that bit of the creative sector. What a brilliant idea – people raving in their own homes! That’s an image I want to hold on to….

Meanwhile NT at Home is hugely popular and has received more than £100,000 in donations…
RN:
It’s had 8 million views in the last five weeks. We weren’t expecting the donations but are now able to pay the actors. We’re introducing a broader range of titles. Our initial thinking was: people are going through a tough time, so what do they want? They want a comedy, so One Man, Two Guvnors… Sometimes, theatre can be a way of saying: “Just relax…”

Will there be a new appetite for live art post-lockdown?
MB
: Just as people need to be back out in the world, they need to be seeing and thinking about art – it’s not a luxury. People have discovered so many new things digitally. It’s the hook that’s going to give them confidence to step out of their front doors again. I’ve made some wonderful discoveries during lockdown such as the live stream of Broken Wings by ENB – a ballet about Frida Kahlo.


English National Ballet has been live-streaming the Frida Kahlo-inspired Broken Wings.

English National Ballet has been live-streaming the Frida Kahlo-inspired Broken Wings. Photograph: English National Ballet

RN: I’ve found a variety of things – I especially enjoyed The Fireman’s Ball by Miloš Forman. I watched it with my partner and our two sons – a simple film, a satire. It appealed to our particular, weird, family taste. It’s hilarious. We have, obviously, been spending a lot more time together as a family – the one unadulterated, wonderful upside of lockdown.

Are you in touch with colleagues in Europe and the US?
MB
: We’re actively in conversation in Europe, North America and beyond – we’re having Zoom meetings with colleagues in Italy and China because they’re at a different phase – there’s a huge amount to learn from them. We’re having brilliant creative conversations about how to reschedule touring exhibitions, make sure nobody loses out and let things happen over a longer time frame.

RN: David Lan [playwright and director] recently organised a call with European, American and British artistic directors. In normal times, theatre can be a competitive environment but we all believe in what this sector brings to society and we’re working together.

Will lockdown/coronavirus make a good subject for art/theatre?
RN
: Yes – although it is difficult when you’re in the middle of something to understand what impact it will have. But new writing is sure to emerge… If we reopen in September, what will people want to watch? They’re going to be nervous. We’ll have to give them a good reason to come and make it a real event…

MB: Early in lockdown, one of my staff – an artist – sent a lovely message saying: “The artists among us have been practising lockdown for some time.” Unlike theatre-makers, artists depend on time apart. But it is possible lockdown might make artists focus in a new way. The deep emotional issues raised by this virus will infiltrate their minds as they have ours.

What specifically are the emotional issues?
MB:
We’ve been going through a period of collective mourning because we took everyday social contact for granted – that sense of ourselves as human beings as part of a larger social whole. That’s been fundamentally challenged. We operated societally and individually as though we could overcome anything. We could fix things, cure things or pay to get ourselves out of difficult situations. None of those options has been open to us. Living with a sense of uncertainty is what people have been having to get used to. You can see they’re desperate for resolution: please tell us the answers. The truth is we don’t know how we are going to recover. Yet once we know we can reopen, I think we’ll definitely be ready.

RN: Having been starved of live art, it’ll be like coming back to food you have been denied, there’ll be a great appetite for it. The crucial thing is to make sure we are there for audiences when that happens.

The National Theatre is streaming productions for free on YouTube as part of National Theatre at Home (nationaltheatre.org.uk/nt-at-home)

The Guardian

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