Iain Munro: Covid-19, one year on

Iain Munro

Last March, I had just returned from an inspiring week-long trip visiting artists and organisations, from Inverness, through Caithness and Sutherland, to Orkney and back. The shadow of the virus fast loomed into view but none of us could have imagined the pain, devastation, and loss that it has subsequently wrought for so many.

For those working in the creative sector, the speed, scale, and severity of impact of the lockdown was astonishing. Venues closed overnight, freelancers’ work opportunities evaporated, and income fell away. The creative lifeblood of Scotland was thrown into turmoil overnight, a situation exacerbated by the uncertainty of when it would be over, and people could ‘get back to normal’.

There was – and is – no going back. The world around us, and how we live our lives, has fundamentally changed.

I’m acutely aware of the stress everyone working in Scotland’s art and creative sector has been dealing with. The personal and professional pressures are enormous. And yet, where it’s been possible, the resilience and adaptability shown in the face of the ongoing challenges brought about by Covid-19 has also been inspiring.

Artists and creative organisations, across Scotland have adapted their work, including those in the screen sector, ensuring that creativity has continued to be a vital and life affirming part of all our lives, helping us all cope with the challenges presented by the pandemic.

With deep roots in their various communities, many cultural organisations have also stepped up to the challenge of supporting the Covid-19 response effort in other ways, such as helping local communities through food distribution, assisting the vaccination effort and smaller initiatives like friendship calls and distributing art packs for children.

Since March 2020, our focus at Creative Scotland, and Screen Scotland, has been on making every possible effort to play our role in helping to alleviate the negative impacts of Covid-19 on people and organisations across the creative and screen sectors. Critical to this has been the delivery of ongoing funding through our established routes, as well as distribution of emergency support through new funding streams such as Bridging Bursaries, Hardship Funds for Creative and Screen Freelancers, support funds for Cultural Organisations, Theatres and Independent Cinemas.

Since the start of the pandemic a year ago, and by the end of this month, we will have distributed £75 million in emergency funding support, in addition to the £90 million through our ongoing annual budget. This equates to almost 12,000 funding awards to both individuals and organisations – around 10 times the number in any given year. That has taken an enormous effort to deliver, and I want to publicly thank the staff and Board of Creative Scotland and Screen Scotland for their unwavering commitment and care in delivering this work.

The challenge facing Scotland’s creative and screen sectors as we move to an environment of recovery, cannot be understated. Our recently published survey of the sector, drawing on more than 600 responses, makes for stark reading. It provides real-life evidence of financial loss, impact on jobs, reduced creative work being produced, and cross-sector concern for the future. All of this makes it clear that cultural recovery will not be straightforward, easy or quick, will vary across different parts of the sector, and will require continued investment, not just to sustain people and organisations, but to support the changes necessary to adapt to a different post-pandemic world.

This is clearly a hard environment in which to plan forward with confidence, but we recognise how important that is. Following work on our strategic priorities and approach to funding that was undertaken in 2019 and the early part of 2020 – then paused due to the pandemic – we are now revisiting this as the route map for moving out of the pandemic becomes clearer. This will include a new approach to funding for individuals and a new approach for providing both short and long-term support for organisations. The timing and duration of this will be carefully considered to ensure a smooth transition from the existing funding model. We will have more to share from May onwards after the Holyrood Parliamentary elections.

Covid-19 is clearly something we are all still dealing with on a daily basis and will be living with for a long time to come. The very welcome roll out of vaccine availability, coupled with the recent announcement of the easing of restrictions over the next months, means we can, at least, begin to look to the future with a degree of hope and cautious optimism.

It is a fragile situation, but we are moving from where we have necessarily been – how to keep people apart to avoid the virus spreading and thereby protect lives – to a position, in light of the vaccine and as re-opening conditions allow, of how to support and enable people to come together safely to enjoy live arts and cultural experiences again.

Our published research tells us how important creativity has been to people during lockdown, with 96% having enjoyed cultural activity from home, with screen and digital playing a vital role, but also how much people are looking forward to taking part in culture in person and with others once the pandemic recedes. However, for this to happen, purposeful and sustained funding for sector recovery and renewal will be required over the coming years if we are to maintain and further develop Scotland’s cultural strength.

And there is real cultural strength – the recent Nations Brand Index, published in February this year and which looks at the global reputation of different countries across the world, demonstrated that the most improved aspect of Scotland’s international brand over the past two years has been our reputation for culture. Given the context we have been in, this is nothing short of remarkable and also demonstrates the importance of art and creativity, not just to jobs, to the economy, to our health and well-being, but also to our international standing and to our collective future.

Our culture and creativity have never been more important.

Iain Munro