OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on the importance of the arts in Bristol South

(Newspaper column as seen in the South Bristol Voice in August 2020)

Nationally, the arts and culture sector – including music, theatre, dance, comedy and art – contributes around £10.8bn to the UK economy, more than the country’s agriculture sector.

Britain is world-renowned for its music, literature, theatre and art and this city plays a significant role in this. Indeed, Bristol South home to a lot of innovative culture and arts – from Upfest to the SouthBank and the Knowle West Media Centre.

Not only is it an important part of the economy – creating jobs and encouraging local spend – but it has a significant role in the community, important for well-being and supporting young people.

Last month, after calls from those who work in and benefit from the arts and culture sector, myself and Labour colleagues, the Government announced a £1.57bn emergency support package.

The announcement also reveals what the Government’s understanding of arts and culture is as Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden talking of saving the ‘crown jewels’, places such as The Royal Albert Hall, The Old Vic and Shakespeare’s Globe. This does not reflect the arts and culture that people in Bristol South both create and enjoy.

I recently visited Tobacco Factory Theatres on North Street – for my first socially distant constituency visit since lockdown began. Myself and my Labour colleague Shadow Culture Secretary Jo Stevens met with the theatres’ Executive Director David Dewhurst and Artistic Director Mike Tweddle, who explained how the Coronavirus crisis has impacted them.

Things were looking bleak until they raised £60,000 from supporters and secured emergency Arts Council funding, which will see them through until October. They now believe they can find a way to safeguard the future of this important cultural asset, despite not expecting to run any live performances with an audience until social distancing measures are lifted completely – with no indication of when that might be. And, like many charities, there will be job losses – the detail of which they’re currently working through.

A lot of people in the arts and culture sector remain in a vulnerable position – many are self-employed freelancers in low-paid, project-funded roles. They have largely been forgotten by the Government. We’ve had to fight for them every step of the way – I’ve been pushing for a sector-based approach from the Government with support for those who need it most, and it’s clear that creative freelancers are among those. I spoke in Parliament last month and asked the Treasury to revisit the support and will continue to pursue this on behalf of my constituents.