Could Rishi Sunak’s ‘retraining’ advice cause more harm for the arts and performance industry?

Ballet dancers

On Monday this week, “crass” Cyber First adverts surfaced on Twitter, sparking outrage in the creative industries. It followed the initial outcry from those working in the arts, after Chancellor Rishi Sunak apparently stated that they should retrain given the current economic climate. Georgia More reports.

On Tuesday 8th October, ITV released a quote from Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Twitter stating that “musicians and others in [the] arts should retrain and find other jobs”, which ultimately went viral. ITV quickly admitted that they had misquoted Sunak and removed the tweet. 

However, the vague blanket statements he made in his ITV interview were not much better:

“I think money has gone to independent cinemas and independent music venues just in the last week. So that’s £1.5 billion. It’s an enormous amount of support to preserve our important cultural institutions in all our local town centres […]”

“(INT.) But that’s a different job, isn’t it? That’s you saying ‘go and get a different job’ […] (SUNAK) That is a fresh and new opportunity for people. That’s exactly what we should be doing.”

The Cyber First Campaign

Following this, adverts for the government’s Cyber First campaign appeared online, one of which depicted a ballerina, and suggested that her “next job could be in cyber”, ending with the caption “Rethink. Reskill. Reboot”.  Culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, openly distanced himself from the campaign and admitted it was “crass”.

While Sunak’s statements were not explicitly aimed at the creative sector, it is clear that the government believes it has done more than enough for the arts industries during the pandemic, after allocating the Arts Council a £1.5 billion grant. Sadly, it is unlikely that this money will reach the pockets of the actual artists and performers that fuel the industry, as it is barely enough to keep the venues in which they would be working open and running.

“I know it’s quite cliché to see people telling you to get a better job but it happened to me,” stated Lewis Edgar, a second-year Urdang student. “I feel like I’m back at school again with someone who has no idea about how much training and passion you need […] because it’s a tough industry and you have to want it to be in it.”

Has Sunak truly supported the arts?

Self-employed people and smaller businesses have been able to apply for financial aid during the pandemic, and Sunak has also now replaced the furlough scheme with his Job Support Scheme. Again, this won’t be much help to most of the actual creatives in the industry, as their jobs aren’t seen as ‘viable’ according to the regulations of the scheme.

Even without this seeming degradation of the arts, the industry has already suffered greatly over the last eight months. With the closure of theatres, galleries, and stadiums, it has been incredibly difficult for creatives to earn a living, having struggled with little to no support or communication about their reopening until recently.

London theatres reported the loss of over 2000 jobs in August alone, as many theatres cannot afford to keep on their ushers, cleaners, box office or front of house staff, to name just a few.

Disparaging careers in the arts

Comments like Sunak’s which dismiss and undermine the hard work of those in the arts continue to hurt the industry further financially, and may eventually lead to such jobs being accessible to a even smaller elite. Many already unfortunately believe that creative careers are not ‘real jobs’, or that they are not worth pursuing because of what it takes to ‘make it’ when your connections to such industries are limited.

What people fail to remember is that training in performance or art can take decades. These artists dedicate their whole lives to their discipline; they become their art.

Lewis continued this sentiment in his statement, saying “that’s why the response has been so massive from anyone who works in the arts. Because we all want it, we’ve all struggled and fought for it so much … to then be told you’re not skilled is an insult.”

Looking at another segment of the arts, people often forget that TV and film are also part of this industry. Actors, producers, scriptwriters, sound technicians and many more all work towards creating entertainment that is consumed in our daily lives, as well as throughout national lockdowns, and yet people are so willing to overlook them. Netflix alone reported around 15 million new subscribers in April 2020, and gained around $5.77 billion in revenue that quarter, as lockdowns became commonplace around the world. 

This issue is not unique to the pandemic

There needs to be more respect and support for artists and performers as a whole, let alone during a pandemic. Thoughtless campaigns and comments from the government, like those of Rishi Sunak, can only deter this from happening in the future.

Rishi Sunak has since released a statement on Twitter:

“To people concerned by inaccurate transcript reports that I told musicians to retrain… here’s the transcript. I did not say it and I do not think it […] Musicians don’t need to retrain. When it’s safe, venues need to reopen.”

Lewis stated “the arts brings in more than agriculture and British flights combined in terms of income […] but that’s not recognised because it’s got flashing lights and jazz hands attached to it.”

Today, the arts industries contribute almost £13 million to the economy every hour.