Polka redevelopment frontage sketch (c) Foster Wilson Architects


What next for our arts scene?

Our fantastic arts & culture scene has been severely impacted by the fallout from the pandemic. Here’s how they’re fighting back

The pandemic has had dire consequences for the arts & culture industries. The government recently announced that live performances can be held outside. and pilots are taking place to see how indoor performances can safely return but It is not yet clear when venues will reopen. There is no timetable, although some are planning an autumn programme. Meanwhile, the government has pledged a £1.57bn rescue fund for the arts and heritage sectors, but it is not known yet how that will be distributed. So, where does this leave our arts scene, which has become the lifeblood of our communities?

Landmark Arts Centre

Teddington’s Landmark Arts Centre should have been celebrating its 25th anniversary in style this year, but instead found itself launching an emergency fundraising appeal in April as its closure, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, meant that it faced having to shut down by mid-May. A massive fundraising effort has raised over £50,000, including £2,700 raised in a day by local organisation, Teddington Together, who staged, Rockin The Lockin, when 25 local musicians gave up their time to play a 12-hour live-streamed virtual music marathon. It also received a boost when Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal reprised their Normal People roles as Marianne and Connell, with Andrew Scott’s Hot Priest from Fleabag, to record a sketch for RTE’s Comic Relief in the building, and lend support to the campaign. Donations received so far ensures the centre’s survival until November but without knowing when the doors can be reopened again, the fundraising needs to continue. Meanwhile, the centre has been running virtual classes and will be holding the annual Summer Art School from 1-27 August and the Summer Art Salon over three weekends from 7-23 August.  All will take place in a socially distanced, but friendly environment.

OSO Arts Centre Theatre, Barnes

As well as a performance venue, OSO is a place where anyone in the community can have a creative outlet, whether through staging a production or participating in weekly classes. When it had to close its doors in March, it wanted to create an online arts programme that would continue to serve the community. In addition to providing theatre in video form, ’The House Is Now Open’ was developed with the principal aim of giving local people a platform to continue to participate in its artistic community from home. Explains the centre’s Jonny Danciger: “Through this, 94 performing artists have forged new connections with each other, remotely creating 27 original performance pieces. 13 visual artists have created artworks at home, displayed in our digital ‘Isolation Art’ gallery alongside works by local children.” It also launched Bedtime in Barnes with local celebrities, including actor Virginia McKenna and astronaut Helen Sharman, recording readings of bedtime stories for young children. Many classes have continued over video calls: “In this way, our online arts programme has been driven by creative contributions from the local community. In a time when arts institutions across the country are under threat, seeing such a strong creative spirit in the local area is hugely encouraging,” says Jonny. So what’s next? “A couple of weeks ago Canon Brass turned up to play some quintet arrangements of classic jazz tunes by Barnes Pond. The buzz across Barnes confirmed that live performance cannot return soon enough. With the restrictions as they are, the creative industry needs to come up with creative solutions for staging live performance in a safe and responsible way. At the OSO, our attention has now turned to getting live performances back on their feet. We’re hoping to reopen in September, with our first events taking place at the end of the month. Our space is flexible, so we’re able to expand the auditorium space across all three studios, doubling the size of the area in which the audience are seated. Instead of typical tiered seating, we’ll be setting chairs up around small tables in a ‘cabaret style’ layout. This lets us ensure that physical distancing can be observed whilst maintaining a viable capacity, with tables available to be booked by households as well as individuals. With an exciting programme of comedy, theatre and music, we hope to create an atmosphere in which everyone feels comfortable attending live events again.”

The Polka Theatre

Sadly, the re-opening of Wimbledon’s much loved children’s theatre has been delayed to spring 2021. Polka was due to reopen its state-of-the-art children’s theatre this autumn but the delays to construction caused by the pandemic now mean that the building can no longer be completed in time. In a statement, the theatre said: “This is a huge blow to Polka. The charity faces both the loss of its vital income-generating winter productions, as well as increased costs to the redevelopment – putting a £500K+ hole in its plans. Despite this, Polka is continuing to support children, families and teachers through its newly established Polka Online programme and tailored creative learning activities.” Peter Glanville, artistic director, added: “We know that when we are able to reopen our doors, children are going to need imaginative play and creative opportunities more than ever, as we work to reconnect with each other and reshape our communities.”

The Rose, Kingston

Over the lockdown, the Rose has initiated various programmes to keep its vision alive, including readings from prominent actors and creatives in the industry filming themselves reading their favourite poems, as well as launching the #RoseEndures fundraising campaign. It is implementing Covid-19 safety measures and has just announced that it will be operating its summer schools for young people.

Wimbledon BookFest Autumn Festival

Much anticipated on the literary and community calendar, Wimbledon BookFest is hoping to be able to offer a weekend of events on Wimbledon Common, if guidelines permit.  The event is planned for 12-13 September in a bespoke marquee and will feature high profile speakers, literary stars and children’s authors. Audience size will be limited but events will be digitally streamed. The festival’s Word-Up education programme with schools will run throughout the autumn and will be particularly celebrating the work of black writers. Merton state schools will receive copies of books from authors including Akala, Afua Hirsch, Lemm Sissay and Floella Benjamin.

Battersea Arts Centre

BAC took its Going Global programme online when it closed its doors in March. While restrictions are ongoing, BAC is handing over its social channels every summer weekend, to artists, and communities. From Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, it wants to see people using its platforms to share content or initiatives they care about, amplify someone else’s voice or create a piece of art.

Autumn hopes

On the 9 July, Ambassador Theatre Group, which operate New Wimbledon and Richmond Theatre, among many others, announced that all performances are suspended until 20 September. Epsom Playhouse has rescheduled many shows until autumn, as has Fairfield Halls. ATG has welcomed the government’s announcement. Mark Cornell, group chief executive said: “It is essential that these funds are made available to all areas across the cultural ecosystem, from the subsidised sector to independent contractors, artists, producers, technicians and venue operators. This is an important step towards securing the future of Britain’s cultural life and I’m very grateful to the Secretary of State and his team for their determination and perseverance in bringing this about. We now need to unite to restore audience confidence and work in close partnership with the health authorities to remount British theatre as soon as is appropriately possible.”

Local comedy

Comedy clubs, which are often held in small spaces that only add to the atmosphere, face a real struggle. Some have been running virtual gigs through lockdown. Following the government’s latest announcement, Outside the Box jumped at the chance to re-open and announced gigs outside in the beer garden at the Royal Oak in New Malden. Crack Comedy, meanwhile, continues to offer a programme of virtual gigs and urges people to sign an open letter ( open-letter) to save live comedy, pressing for it to be treated as all other art forms, which would help it access vital funds.

Live music

Banquet Records, which has brought huge names to Kingston, has been live streaming sessions from artists through the pandemic. And live shows are lined up for when they get the go ahead. Says Banquet Records’ Jon Tolley: “It’s been a tough time for music promoters over this period. All signs point to gig venues being second only to nightclubs as being the last places to be able to re-open, and when that happens they may well have to be at a reduced capacity. The financial viability of live music events is really in doubt, and many grassroots venues were already struggling. The Music Venue Trust has done sterling work to help secure the future of smaller venues for the remainder of the year, but there’s still very real concerns about how venues can run again while keeping social distancing measures in place.”  He adds: “We’ve lost so many concerts this spring and summer, but putting it into context it’s nothing compared to the loss of life [seen through the pandemic]. “Music will always be there. Live gigs will be there when we’ve gotten through all of this.”