Sir Cameron Mackintosh is in good spirits. “Despite the horrific humiliation we’ve all been subjected to, we’ve had the best November and December in years, even pre-Covid years. In fact, we’re in better shape than usual by February.”
The producer credits “a great pile of shows”, including the blockbuster Hamilton and the revamped Les Misérables, playing in eight West End theaters he owns. The influx of tourists, in part attracted by the weak pound, helped. In addition, since the summer “without and artificially emerging; plan ahead to beat railway strikes. We are so grateful to them: the mantra that the show must go on has never been more vital.”
That’s the mantra, but for anyone running an arts organization in 2023, “the little things that infect us all” are felt on a larger scale. Yes, an updated version of Les Mis at Sondheim Theater plays in cramped halls in 2015, but lighting and heating this house now “costs at least 20 percent more” than it did three years ago.
Other organizations undertaking major construction and renovation projects are citing headache-inducing supply chain issues and rising costs. By the way, of course, Covid did not pass. Also, the experience of most venues is that audiences don’t return to pre-pandemic levels, and regular strikes further add to the worrying uncertainty.
The art stories that made the headlines in 2022 were often about hot-button polarizing issues like canceling culture, identity politics, and civil disobedience. It was the year climate activists threw tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Emma Corrin of The Crown wondered if Best Actor and Actress awards would be replaced with non-binary distinctions, and National Trust membership took action against the conservative Restore Trust. But as we move from one challenging year to the next, these issues do not seem to be the top concerns for those leading London’s landmark cultural organisations.
The biggest ongoing challenge for Tristram Hunt, director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is “managing inflationary pressures” on ongoing renovation and major construction projects. In July, the former Childhood Museum, renamed Young V&A, will reopen in Bethnal Green. V&A East Storehouse in 2024 (The museum’s extensive reserve collection has been moved from Olympia’s Blythe Road) Hackney Wick will have a 16,000m2 visitor site. In 2025, its sister project, the 7,000-metre V&A East Museum at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic site in Stratford, will open in the heart of London’s new cultural East Bank.
Gus Casely-Hayford was appointed inaugural director of the V&A East and retired from Washington, where the black Briton runs the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. “The V&A will be the main cultural tenant in London’s youngest, most dynamic, diverse and fastest growing community,” says Hunt. But does hesitation creep into his voice as he adds, “If we can manage all this and keep South Ken this excited, then we’ll be in good shape”? Annual visitor numbers in South Kensington are still only 75 percent of the 4.3 million registered before the pandemic.
Audience numbers are also a problem for Axel Rüger, who has been CEO of the venerable Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly since 2019. RA does not receive regular government funding. Instead, it is the main source of income for this internationally unique institution. (an academy, RA art schools, and a program of major exhibitions for peer-selected artists) comes from the Friends membership program, which is currently £135 a year. In 2019, RA had 95,000 Friends. Now, there are 80,000. Most of its audience comes from London and the southeast. “We are very grateful to all our Friends who have remained faithful like a warm shower of love during this difficult time,” says Rüger. “But despite that, we are 15,000 behind.
“The rhetoric about Covid was that there would be a gradual but consistent return in visitor numbers. Not just from my colleagues in this country, I think we’ve reached a plateau, and perhaps the best we can hope for with the ongoing economic situation is that we maintain the current level.” For example, when RA’s fuel bills have tripled, it’s a tough situation to be in.
“We live in an era of crises, now the energy crisis is the latest,” says Kate Varah, who joined the National Theater as executive director in the spring of 2022 after spending five years at the Old Vic. When asked what are the most pressing issues in his inbox, he lists a frankly frightening array of issues, most of them related to “Covid’s long tail”: depressed box office; Covid mitigation costs; A lack of skills after people leave the industry during quarantines; the need to support staff in the cost of living crisis; supply chain issues; an increase of “up to 600 percent in some cases” in material and energy bills.
And it doesn’t end there, in 2024/5 NT will begin repayments of the £19.7m loan the government received in December 2020 from the Culture Recovery Fund. “And let’s be honest, the fact model has changed since we got these loans,” says Varah, who was a corporate lawyer before she started working in the arts. In November, NT’s annual subsidy from the Arts Council England (ACE) for 2023-2026 was reduced by £850,000. It will still receive more than £16m a year and is luckier than some: The Gate, Donmar Warehouse and Hampstead Theater are losing 100 percent of their funding, while at present, English National Opera will only be subsidized. The company is moving north.
Luckily, the positivist Varah enjoys a challenge. “We are trying to think of tomorrow’s crises and a model that will enable us to be financially agile and sustainable in the long run. It is an industry that embraces innovation.” It marks the success of NT’s broadcast series – recently, National Theater Live’s Prima Facie starring Jodie Comer at the Harold Pinter Theatre was the UK’s highest-grossing event theatrical release and now National Theater Home can also be viewed via Eighty percent of UK state high schools are enrolled in the free National Theater Collection. He also mentions the Green Theater Book, an initiative that aims to improve sustainability and cut costs through practices such as recycling sets.
“I have never worked with a group of people who are more commercially savvy, open, enterprising and smart, referring to my previous life in the corporate industry,” he says. “We must be brave: we have little, but we must turn it into gold.”
Is the government giving enough due to gold spinning due to the fact that the UK’s world leader of creative industries is our biggest soft power? The industry provides over 6 percent of all UK jobs and is still growing. “We’re planting seeds of talent here,” says Varah. “Look at the writers on any HBO show and you can usually follow them to the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Bush.”
Nadia Fall runs the acclaimed Theater Royal Stratford East, a historically radical East-end outlier that will soon welcome new neighbors like the V&A and Sadler’s Wells. Growing up in Lewisham of Asian descent, Fall overcame parental objections to pursue a career in theatre. She proudly refers to Stratford East as an “unofficial university”, which runs four youth theater programs, she says. There is a lack of technical skills in the industry right now,” she says. “We’re educating young people because there are real jobs available.”
He worries that cuts to local council funding could force Newham to lower the theater’s grant. “There is a lot of concern about anti-social behavior. But is there a place for young people to hang out, other than on the corner of a street or in the mall. [Westfield Stratford is opposite]Are they looking for things they can’t afford? We do a lot of environmental civic things here.
Hunt, a former Labor shadow education secretary, also worries about the youth. His most serious concern is the collapse of creative education in public secondary schools. If we are worried about culture, history, identity and creativity, the decline in the number of young people taking up design and technology, music, drama and art worries me much more as a museum leader than discussions of identity politics. ”
What about some of these conflicts? In July, Just Stop Oil protesters glued themselves to the Royal Academy’s copy of The Last Supper. In the summer of 2021, RA was targeted by trans activists because their shop was selling works by Jess de Wahls, a textile artist with gender-critical views. The RA’s initial “cancellation” reaction to withdraw de Wahls’s work fueled the anger even more. “We could have handled it better,” Rüger admits. “We have learned a lesson from this confrontation. We will always defend freedom of speech, but I would love to see society return to a less sarcastic culture of debate.”
The V&A’s collection explores the history of design and protest through artifacts, including a Josiah Wedgewood anti-slavery coin and design materials from Extinction Rebellion. “We strongly support the right to protest,” says Hunt. “But we also think it shouldn’t fall on groups to close some areas of a public museum to others.”
Does Mackintosh have any concerns about targeting shows? “The world is so awful that I can imagine anything!” says. But for now, he wants to see theatrical producers less distracted by controversy and focus more on producing world-class works. “Especially in the subsidized arts, people worry about the ingredients before they even get the recipe,” he says. “My New Year’s wish would be that we let the best artists put on the best show possible and employ the largest possible group of people.”
Fall says: “Culture cancellation is a red herring. While the whole country is suffering and we are struggling to keep art alive, it cannot be at the top of our agenda. As artists, we have to be careful, but we can’t walk around in fear. This is a moment to be brave, because if we are not brave and full of energy, then we will not succeed. Art is a place to explore difficult conversations.”
Rüger hopes the large audience will return to the London galleries and benefit from what they find there. “It is our culture that binds us together. “The community provides activity, fun, entertainment, but also solace,” he says. In particularly gloomy times, Hunt says: “It’s important to have an understanding of beauty. It may sound fanciful and bourgeois, but beauty is extremely important to the human condition.”
It has been announced that NT has joined Ticket Bank, a Food Bank-like initiative to distribute unsold tickets to those who can least afford it. This aligns with one of Varah’s key goals for 2023, “sprinkling more joy.” Joy is the reason we all get into the arts, but accessing it has been quite difficult over the past few years.
He adds: “We must ensure that art survives under our watch.”