What the Pfizer vaccine means for live music, theatre, cinemas, and art galleries

The vaccine is counted on to save our arts. But with a possible extended lockdown and economic gloom, what's the reality on the ground?

Still deserted: Coliseum Theatre, London
Still deserted: Coliseum Theatre, London Credit: Chris Jackson

The possibility of an imminent Pfizer vaccine for Coronavirus – with the NHS potentially ready to roll out medication from next month, according to Matt Hancock – has injected Britain’s creative industries with a dose of much-needed optimism.

Despite live performers, venues, galleries and museums demonstrating exceptional creativity in connecting with audiences through live streaming, social media and socially distanced events, a vaccine could present vital respite from the devastating financial impact that Covid has had on the arts.

But are the arts really saved? Is utopia really around the corner? A quick cure is clearly out of the question after many months of duress, and lockdown continues, with no sure end in sight. Representatives from across all our key culture sectors share their thoughts on what the future holds.

Alex Bruford, music agent at ATC Live

Alex Bruford has been immersed in various sides of the live music scene for many years, as a musician, a tour manager, and most recently as a partner/agent at music agency ATC Live, which works with a roster of multi-genre acts including Nick Cave, Metronomy, Coldcut, and The Lumineers. 

“The progress with a vaccine is hugely encouraging for the live music and events sectors,” he says. “Clearly it will take some time to roll out, and we envisage that it will ultimately be a combination of a vaccine and rapid testing that gets us back to full capacities, but with progress being made on all fronts, there is light at the end of the tunnel.” 

He notes some key changes to the way that artists and audiences have responded to music since Covid emerged as a global concern early this year:

“At the start of the pandemic, socially distanced shows were not something that artists or promoters were keen on.  However, as time has moved on and it's become apparent that it will be some time before regular touring resumes, more artists are keen to just play in whatever format is possible, and socially distanced shows have been selling out instantly. We expect to see more socially distanced touring at the start of next year prior to a return to full capacities.” 

Nick Cave performing alone at Alexandra Palace in July

Live music and youth audiences are inextricably linked, and there is not only the question of when a vaccine will be available, but who it will be available for, as Bruford notes: “If the vaccine is not available to all generations, but can be used in together with rapid testing, then it could be a case that an audience member needs either a vaccination or a negative rapid test to enter the event. The more routes to re-starting full capacity events we can progress, the sooner we will get there.” 

Even with the prospect of pandemic protection on the horizon, there are still clearly tough times ahead. 

“The two biggest challenges for live music at this point are the lack of income and the uncertainty,” says Bruford.  “Many of the companies and especially freelance crew involved in live music have had no income since March. The Cultural Recovery fund has been fantastic for many organisations, but there are still plenty who have slipped through the net and are facing at the very least a full year with no income. Couple this with the uncertainty of when shows can resume and it's a very difficult landscape to navigate.  Major live tours are normally planned at least 12 to 18 months in advance, so decisions are being made about future plans with no information at all to base those decisions on.” 

Sam Thorne, gallery director of Nottingham Contemporary 

“As an art gallery, the pandemic situation has been tremendously challenging, not least because of the awful uncertainty,” says Sam Thorne, who has been director of Nottingham Contemporary since early 2016. “The majority of the exhibitions we do are in partnership with museums around the world as well as nationally, planning two or three years ahead; when we reschedule, we’re having to do that with international cities.”

Nottingham Contemporary reopened in early August, with two exhibitions: Grace Before Jones (dedicated to the formidable Grace Jones, who was also due to curate London’s Meltdown arts festival in summer 2020) and Jimmy Robert: Akimbo; encouragingly, audience figures were up to 70 per cent of what they’d be pre-pandemic. “It went really well; visitors and staff felt safe,” says Thorne, though he adds that numbers dwindled as “second spike” anxieties grew again – and Nottingham’s council actually closed its gallery spaces when the city was designated Tier Three, before the current Lockdown was announced.

The Nottingham Contemporary  Credit:  Rii Schroer

Thorne is positive that a potential vaccine gives the gallery/museum sector something to work towards – and points out that venues have increasingly been working together. “It’s not that galleries and museums have traditionally been competitive, more that there’s now a much more collegiate, collaborative approach, sharing information on a local and global scale,” he says. 

The aim is to reopen the gallery post lockdown in December, and to extend the latest exhibitions into spring 2021. If an approved vaccine is available by then, Nottingham Contemporary will also resume its once busy live events programme, from performance to family workshops (the gallery has a markedly young audience, with more than half of its visitors under 35).

Some plans will remain on hold, including an ambitious playground designed by Turner Prize-winning architecture collective assemble and local schools, but Thorne argues that a vaccine could bring art and performance into progressively open/outdoor spaces, and that the digital realm remains a virus-free creative zone: “We can learn a lot, about the gallery and museum as a place of broadcast, as well as a place of coming together.”

Catherine Des Forges, director of the Independent Cinema Office

“Because I work for the independent cinema sector, a lot of the venues we work with are community hubs and social spaces, and they have a sense of responsibility to their audiences,” says Catherine Des Forges, director of the Independent Cinema Office: the UK organisation in support of film venues, festivals and exhibitors. “They’re really mindful of the way that the pandemic has affected people in very different ways – and that when a Covid vaccine is available, that might benefit some people more quickly than others.” 

The pandemic has even impacted on our viewing variety, as Des Forges says: “The lack of big budget Hollywood releases has meant that the smaller films have been programmed and seen on a much wider scale.”  

Des Forges expresses a “cautious optimism” about the potential of a vaccine; she points out that while government furlough schemes have been helpful, much of the support has been very time-limited – and she’s particularly keen that the cinema sector takes any positives learned into its future plans. 

Ghost town: an independent arthouse cinema in Crouch End Credit: Shutterstock

“Although many independent cinemas did reopen over the summer, they’re closed again now, with the exception of some venues in Wales (where lockdown has just been lifted). Because people haven’t been able to go into spaces in the same way, there’s been a lot more audience engagement through digital screenings and events, where geography, mobility and cost are less of a barrier. We need concrete changes to keep that going in an inclusive way – and to become a sector that looks after its audiences and staff.” 

Michael Asante, co-artistic director of Blue Boy Entertainment

“There is nothing that can really beat that live performance experience,” says Michael “Mikey G” Asante, co-artistic director of the East London-based, globally celebrated hip hop dance/theatre collective Boy Blue. “We went to the Black British Theatre Awards last month; it was all socially distanced and masked up, but all of us were just aching for that time that we spent in a live space, just being able to experience live music and dance moves.” 

Boy Blue haven’t stopped moving during the pandemic (Asante is on a break from rehearsals when we speak), but they have crucially adapted into digital realms, and while Asante obviously welcomes the Covid vaccine news, he’s also stoical about the timing: “People are talking about live events being back by summer next year, but so much has changed, the virus even changed with different strains appearing. We have to trust the medical experts to do what they’re doing around this vaccine, but we hope the rush to get us back to normal doesn’t overlook the need to keep us safe and make sure that everyone is supported.” 

Asante describes Boy Blue’s online projects as “another ‘limb’ to build strength in”; the creativity they’ve explored through filmed performances will continue to be channelled into their works with live audiences. 

“Everything is socially distanced; if you look at our films, there will never be any time that the dancers are in the same space – they will always find themselves two metres apart. We’re questioning the idea of what does this look like, how can we be safe in presenting work on stage?” 

Boy Blue’s inspirations, audiences and education work have always been youth focused, and Asante points out: “There’s going to be a whole generation who have lived through this; the whole thought of how we’re going to interact from now on, and how it’s going to be very different – we already see it and feel it. Even with mask-wearing and the vaccine, there are always going to be sceptics and people who aren’t keen to adhere to what’s going on.” 

At the crux of everything, says Asante, is the mental health issue: “So many people have lost their lives, and there are also situations like long Covid, but I also feel the mental wellbeing of people is one of the biggest challenges we’re facing. This is where arts and culture are going to come in; they’re going to have to save the day in that regard, and people like Rishi Sunak will be looking towards artists, performers and venues to create that good feeling again, of elation, self-expression and letting go. Art in itself is going to be a part of that healing.”