Post-Corona arts will have to go beyond the broadsheets

Clair Woodward
6 min readMay 22, 2020

At least the virus that could crush the arts in Britain has the alliterative sense to start with a ‘c’, meaning that I can write the snappy phrase Coronavirus Culture Crisis. It’s what a tabloid sub would do for a headline, but as the tabloids are largely devoid of discussion about how the crisis is hitting the creative industry which employs many of their readers, it’s a headline that won’t be written.

I was Arts and Entertainments Editor of the Sunday Express for nine years — and don’t scoff and say “I didn’t know they had an arts editor!”, because I’ve heard it all before, especially when I was at an arts’ professionals conference when everyone was climbing over each other to get to broadsheet journalists for coverage of their projects, and I was left like the proverbial pork pie at a Bar Mitzvah. It was relatively easy to get chats with music or TV stars for the paper, but to get access to anyone in theatre or film beyond anyone in West End musicals, or fourth-billed movie actors was almost impossible. This is despite the paper still actually paying for theatre, opera and dance critics to write a weekly reviews spread, from which publicists were still happy to use quotes and star ratings on their publicity material.

Of course, much of this lack of access comes down to performers and/or their publicists feeling they don’t want to deal with certain newspapers, due to their political views, or feeling that appearing in them will damage their brand or reputation, which is all fair enough. But to get the majority of Britain on side when it comes to financing the arts sector in a post-Corona Britain, things are going to have to change when it comes to publicising them.

Most arts bodies have hard-working outreach bodies who seek to involve wider communities with their work, and charities such as the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation seek to promote arts and culture for the public benefit. However, how do people whose lives aren’t touched by these schemes get involved with the arts? Those who don’t read broadsheet newspapers, watch arts programmes on TV or look online to find out about arts events ever get to find out about how to get involved?

A perfect illustration of this was when I was at the Sunday Express, and spotted that an organisation aiming to get young people who’d never otherwise go to the theatre to get involved. Their lead patron was an internationally famous British actor, so I asked if they could do a comment piece on their involvement for my paper; either written by them, or ghosted by someone. The reply came that: “I can offer you a quote.” A quote will not fill an 800-word slot, I replied; can’t you offer more? The answer came that they couldn’t, as they’d already done a piece about their organisation with a broadsheet. They could have gone to the Mirror if they felt the Express was too right-wing, but yeah, go to publications which by and large aren’t read by the people whose lives they’re trying to enrich, why don’t you.

I really believe that in order to get the public on their side when it comes to asking for public funding to enable them to get on with their socially and economically important work in a post-Covid world, arts organisations must stop preaching to the converted in their media plans and try to wholeheartedly embrace everyone, not just their normal patrons.

This week, culture secretary Oliver Dowden appointed Neil Mendoza, provost of Oriel College, Oxford, as the UK government’s Commissioner for Cultural Recovery and Renewal; an “expert and independent voice” to deal with the pandemic’s impact on arts industries. There is also be a new Recreation and Leisure Taskforce chaired by Dowden, with members including Mendoza and Arts Council England Chairman Sir Nicholas Serota, the ENB’s Tamara Rojo, Lord Michael Grade and Baroness Lane-Fox.

I hope one of their aims will be to extend the enjoyment of the arts to the masses in the way it is on the continent, where trips to opera and theatre are a more common way for city-dwellers to pass an evening than they are in the UK, and not just re-opening cultural bodies to those who have been using them since the year dot.

However, the Local Government Association — whose members spend just over £1bn annually on theatres, museums and libraries — has already pointed out that the new body is a culture club formed of the usual cultural suspects from London-based organisations.

Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Chair of the LGA’s Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, said: “Councils’ run over 3,000 libraries, and more than 350 museums, public archives, numerous theatres and galleries, and are the only organisations whose responsibilities and expertise cover the entire DCMS agenda and the responsibilities of the Taskforce. Their contribution to the country’s public recreation and leisure offering will be crucial to the economic recovery following the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is hugely disappointing that councils have not been invited to be represented on the Taskforce and removes the local voice on cultural renewal. National ambitions cannot be delivered without giving councils a place on the taskforce and ensuring that plans are grounded in reality.”

Not having a representative from the regions, where arts communities arguably have to work much hard to get both finances and audiences, is a massive mistake, but one I’m not surprised by. The Taskforce was a great opportunity to broaden arts involvement in a post-Covid climate, but it looks like business as usual. And you can bet that government press officers are already lining up big interviews with the usual culture media to get their message across, rather than have some of the better-known committee members do a chat with a tabloid, or ask someone like Jodie Comer, who started acting at a Liverpool state school, to talk about what culture means to her on The One Show or This Morning, to promote the new strategy. (I am available to consult on brilliant ideas like this).

On the Sunday Express (which I left in 2018), we did manage to get some excellent access to big arts names and organisations who saw the benefits of different media. I interviewed Grayson Perry for his Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman show at the British Museum; Sir Richard Eyre talked to the paper about his film The Children Act. The Tate and the National Gallery gave us superb access to their blockbuster shows, and could see the benefit of being on the cover of the Review section. BBC Arts were also especially helpful.

I’m not suggesting that Richard Eyre or Antonio Pappano are going to pull in many clicks for tabloid websites (not unless they are surprise bookings for Celebrity Love Island), but if a hugely popular actor is going to do a major play — as Benedict Cumberbatch did in Hamlet in 2015 — perhaps a PR strategy should involve the star going beyond the usual “broadsheet magazine/Front Row interview/bland press release for the use of everyone else” route. I am, of course, aware that talent does press in order to publicise a show to sell tickets, and that these big names can sell a show out with minimal publicity. But wouldn’t it be great if a big star did one interview for something that would reach a different audience, just to pique some interest with people who’d never thought about going to the theatre before?

In a post-Corona arts world, things will have to change, so surely, it would be an idea for the talent and their PRs to broaden out the range of outlets they deal with, to get more non-Boden clad bums on seats, and keep money returning to the sector which brings over £10bn a year to the economy. It will be a bigger fight than ever to get state funding for the arts in the future, and it would be a good idea for the artistic elite planning to get their mitts on taxpayers’ money to dirty their hands and properly engage with different kinds of media to win over the general public. Otherwise, I might have a sneaking suspicion that some don’t actually want the plebs in at all.

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Clair Woodward

Journalist, editor. Writes about arts, entertainment, life. Follow and commission me — Twitter @clairywoowoo