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The Road to Recovery

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It’s bone-chillingly cold, mid-February, mid home-school #2, mid lockdown #3. Infection numbers and deaths are still high, although dropping, and vaccination seems to be going better than we dared to hope. I have been asked to do an early-morning radio interview about the role of arts and culture in recovery and I have plenty to say, but is it too soon? I hesitate. We have all learnt that Covid-19 is a moving target and it can move with astonishing speed. The pandemic, when all is said and done, is a matter of life and death.

The OED gives a dual meaning to recovery: the act of returning to normal state of health, mind or strength or regaining control; and the regaining of something which has been lost or stolen. Post-pandemic, we will need both. The two are interconnected – for many of us a sustainable and stable state of bodily health, mind and strength is connected to the restoration of things which have just not been possible for the past year.

Of course it’s not too early. In fact, at Sage Gateshead, we’ve been talking about recovery since May last year.  Even in the uncertain, early days of the crisis, we talked about it and tried to think about how we recover things for our audiences and our musicians. And we’ve been talking about how we recover things for our region and our city. The two are equally important and music can help achieve both. Music, and culture more broadly, have sustained many people through the depths of the pandemic. But they have not been on the front line like health and social care, like providers of essential services such as teachers, supermarket workers and bus drivers, or the people who work for the charities which care for the most vulnerable in our society.

Come recovery, the front line will shift. We will have our wellbeing to restore, our social connections to re-establish and our economy to revive.  This will need a new front line. How will we go about this in a way which is fair and reaches the whole of our society – in a way which sets us on a course through the 21st century and to what our country and our regions should be by then? That, I am convinced, is where the arts and culture can make a significant contribution.

Returning to a normal state of health, mind and strength will undoubtedly take time.  We will be a nation which is unwell by degrees – from those who have suffered illness, or the grief of loss through to those who have done well, in financial terms, but who have nevertheless, like all of us, been living their lives under  lockdown which is ultimately not good for anyone’s wellbeing.

The wellbeing of the nation will be in recovery. Of course this will partly be addressed by health and social care but it will also be channelled through the things which give our lives meaning and define our individual identities. One thing we know – both from lockdown and from the world pre-Covid – is that the arts and culture are hugely important for people’s wellbeing.  Just this week, I’ve seen feedback from a family which is logging on to our weekly online early years sessions – a lockdown baby and a toddler interacting and singing with other children once a week. Their mum says she has seen a really positive impact on health and wellbeing for all the family. This is one example, but our recovery from the pandemic will be a story of millions of individual recoveries.

We’ll all need to re-learn our social lives. To meet up with people – either by arrangement with people we know or by chance with people we don’t – will be strange after so long. One of the things I absolutely love about going to a gig or an event is being in a room with, say, 1000 other people who have independently chosen to come together to share the same experience: to hear music, see a play, watch dance. The only thing we can guarantee that we have in common is the music or theatre or dance we’re encountering together, right there and then. When a gig is great, you might have a strong individual reaction to it, but this is all the more powerful when you’re surrounded by people, most of whom you’ve never met before and will never meet again, all drawing breath at what’s happening on stage.

We were struck by the shift in booking patterns when we ran our Sage Live 2020 series in the autumn, which people could only attend in their own bubble.  In normal times, people come to Sage Gateshead to meet people from outside of their own household – in massive numbers. We can’t do that during the pandemic and the contrast is really stark. We are a place where social lives happen.

And economically there are challenges ahead. To take only one area, how do we re-build tourism, hospitality and retail? The answer will be in distinction in place – in towns, cities and villages having a unique identity and having strong, cohesive and resilient communities – thriving places will be where people both want to live and to visit.  As retail shifts and city centres re-shape, it will be the cultural spaces and activity within and around them which shape a centre and around which hospitality will wrap itself.

Pre-pandemic the arts in the North East were worth £400million and employing 2500 people.  They are a key part of why people come.  Promotional pictures of Newcastle Gateshead for inward investment or tourism promotion almost always feature a shot of the river, the Millennium and Tyne bridges, Sage Gateshead and Baltic: a marriage of our industrial past with our creative present and future. These are powerful symbols for our city and region and they will be crucial to restarting and reshaping tourism. Beyond this, what will be most powerful in economic recovery will be the arts and culture’s capacity to support education, to build confidence, to tell stories about a place and to help communities have ideas and realise ambitions. All of these things underpin our economic recovery.

As this new front line emerges, the arts and culture across the region will play a role in supporting people’s wellbeing and in building social and economic recovery. Beyond this restoration, they will also play a role in helping us think about why we are recovering  and what kind of recovered region we want – what we want our country and our society to be by the middle of this century.  Surely as we plough into its third decade from the extremities of a global pandemic, we will pause for thought over how and what we want to recover to. If there’s one thing which artistic experiences can do, it is help us imagine different possibilities for the future and new ways of doing things.  We’ve seen the inequalities in our society, we’ve looked into the deficiencies in our social justice, we’ve felt the pressure on our long-standing social and civic systems such as education, health and care and we’ve watched economic activity grind to a halt in many sectors. Now is a perfect time for the arts, artists and audiences to help us explore what we want the future to be.

It’s surely never too soon to start planning for this.