Written by Fiona Boundy, Creative and Cultural Manager at Milton Keynes Council
An email landed in mid-March with the news that all non-essential meetings were to be suspended, we were to work from home and that an urgent briefing was needed to assess the immediate Covid-19 impact on MKC supported cultural delivery in 2020.
Since then, we are in an entirely new, day to day reality with a strange alien vocabulary that has become our normal…. lockdown, closure, cancellation and postponement, restrictions, guidelines, social distancing…
My role at MKC is to strategically lead the delivery of the city’s Creative and Cultural Strategy – a document and framework that sets out an ambitious plan to ensure that MK’s cultural offer truly reflects the size and diversity of the city. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is to work with a cohort of professionals across the sector whose collaborative, open and ultimately creative spirit ensures that they deliver exceptional work, often with very limited resources. In a wider strategic sense, Milton Keynes Arts and Heritage sector is vital to the city’s success – both in terms of the health and well-being of local communities, but also as a major contributor to the local economy.
Covid-19 has been devastating on the creative and cultural sectors locally, regionally, and nationally. This devastation has taken many forms and infiltrated every area of a complex and interwoven cultural ecology, which pre-lockdown made the UK’s creative and cultural sectors the envy of the world.
The main challenges of course are easy to identify – a loss of revenue – ticket sales and also grant-aid funding; the need to cover additional Covid-19 related costs; to place staff on furlough or worst case make them redundant; the need to shift almost overnight to digital delivery; the collapse of tours and co-commissions. On the less tangible side of the coin, the loss of momentum, morale, uncertainty, stress, loss of purpose, all of these and more combined to present a daunting scenario.
As we worked through the implications, working with my team, the daily conversations with the sector were vital – looking at various scenarios, the shared and different challenges depending on art-form, business model, scale, and operating structure were all factors that had to be looked at and taken into account, as well as a civic strategic steer in terms of how best a local authority can support.
So, what action did we take? In dialogue with colleagues at Arts Council England, DCMS and National Lottery Heritage Fund, SEMLEP and other local authority counterparts – the first action was to shift the emphasis of our MKC annual grant-aid programmes to support survival and resilience. We also made sure that we brought annual grant aid payments forward; enabled the sector to shift delivery to digital; assisted our organisations across the sector with funding bids for other emergency funding; ensured that our social media channels kept the sector up to date and informed of what help was available and used the intelligence provided by AHA-MK – through their collective sector response to inform our plans around additional governmental grant-aid and our bids for internal funding to support economic recovery.
Communication and knowing that we were there to support the sector has been vital. Listening, being responsive and as fleet of foot as possible has also been really important. Also, a regular email or zoom to check in on how people are doing remains crucial – as working remotely for many, is a challenge.
As we slowly work towards re-opening the sector, whilst there are many challenges still on the horizon, it is also a time of great opportunity. A time to reset priorities.
We will now closely look at what we should be doing in terms of supporting the sector and communities. We are about to launch our new Cultural Inclusion Action Plan – which sets out a road map to ensure that our cultural sector in the future truly reflects the diversity of MK’s communities in content and audience. Starting with a cultural apprenticeship programme and training for young people, we will work tirelessly to ensure that a positive change for many is brought about as a result of Covid-19.
Taking a moment to review, MK’s cultural sector have shown remarkable resilience and fortitude, with an exceptional willingness to adapt. We have seen an incredible shift towards digital delivery and this will continue. We know that the sector must be strategic in a post-Covid world, and work collaboratively in order deliver a local diverse and inclusive cultural ecology.