“The genie is out of the bottle now,” said the delegate from Paris looking glumly out of my lap-top screen, “We are giving away all of this work for free. How will we ever get people to pay for the arts again?” It was June 2020 and I was attending one of those seminars that have only seemed possible since the Covid pandemic closed performing arts venues last March. 250 creative industry delegates from across Europe sitting in their kitchens or studios sharing their plans about how to keep the sector alive without a live audience.
For most, digital was the answer, a hasty reconfiguring of artistic programmes, creatively adapting to the constraints the global pandemic had placed upon them. For Renfrewshire Leisure, that meant gigs from musicians’ bedrooms or working with local film-makers to produce new documentaries constructed from archive footage. For the National Theatre, it was repeats of past shows on YouTube. Artists responded to the call for help, delivering creative workshops online or taking the National’s lead and posting older content to keep audiences going. But it was almost all free to the viewer and that was what was worrying the French delegate. Eventually, no pay, no art.
The arts costs money. When we are transported by a piece of music or deeply moved by the words of an actor or the movements of a dancer, we tend not to think about money. The salaries of our great writers are not discussed in the same way as the remuneration of our great footballers. Sponsorship is usually a little more low-key in the arts than in sports and with few exceptions, arts companies haven’t quite got to the point of lucrative television deals. But it’s not just the relatively low-key nature of arts sponsorship or the comparative lack of public profile of our artists that stops us thinking about the money. It’s the fact that when we go and see something in the theatre or visit and exhibition or read a book, we’ve already paid for it. We know how much it was worth; it was worth the price we paid. And without paying that price, nothing happens. Theatres close, nothing is painted, no books are written. It might not be a transaction that we consider very often but the livelihoods of our artists and creators depend upon it.
As a producer of the arts forced to convert to a digital world, I am perfectly willing to accept the digital experience is not a like-for-like substitution. One of the things that makes live art so special is sharing that experience with a room full of other people. It’s the shared knowledge that there was no digital special-effects, no camera trickery, no filters but what we experience is the raw, visceral, live truth. And that’s exhilarating! We connect with the work and its creator in a way that film or TV can occasionally emulate but never surpass. Acknowledging that your lap-top screen is not quite as convivial or authentic as our venues (please forgive any presumption!), the Paisley Book Festival took the decision not to charge for tickets. Thanks to the support of Renfrewshire Leisure and our incredible partners at Renfrewshire Council, Future Paisley and Creative Scotland we’ve been able to ensure that all our contributors this year are paid the industry rate and we are part of a network of opportunity keeping artists creating in these difficult times. But that support will not last forever and there is another side to this story.
Paisley Book Festival took the decision there should be universal access to this event for everyone. One of the great advantages of the digital format is access. Many people for whom attending an event would be difficult or intimidating are able through their devices to access more quality creative work than ever before. Covid has hit some communities and individuals very hard. It has foregrounded some of the iniquities in our society and forced us to reflect on the fragility and isolation that are a feature of so many lives. Books have been a vital anchor and therapy for many. By making a donation, we’ll be able to ensure the most vulnerable people in our communities and neighbourhoods can continue to find joy through reading and writing. To return to the thoughts of the French delegate, yes, artists did give a lot for free. But the arts are about humanity and I believe that our audiences will understand that without their generosity, artists and audiences alike will be left staring at a blank screen.
This year’s Book Festival programme can be found here.
Rikki Payne is an Arts Manager for Renfrewshire Leisure.