After four turbulent years for London’s cultural scene, the arts need our support now more than ever


Exactly four years ago, I was five weeks into my new job as Culture Editor of this newspaper. On March 23 we were in lockdown and I was at home. It didn’t feel like a promising start, although at least I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what they were doing anymore.

I thought I would be furloughed in a few days. Instead, my team and I became the Cheer Up London chapter, and spent the summer writing about Tiger King and The Queen’s Gambit; clunky digital theater and Dua Lipa’s upbeat second album; musicians serenading their neighbors at teatime and how opera can help Covid patients regain their lung capacity.

And in those first weeks we asked everyone we could think of to talk to us and write for us about why the cultural sector needed support. It got it miraculously; in July 2020, DCMS announced a £1.57 billion Culture Recovery rescue package, and everyone breathed a huge sigh of relief.

I’ve been thinking about this because this is my last column for the Standard – I’m moving on after four brilliant years covering the whole culture of the city, from exhibitions to film, from theater to opera; my god it was a wild ride.

I wrote last week why London topped the list of Europe’s best cities in 2024. The wealth of cultural life in the capital is unparalleled, and at first glance things seem to be flourishing. But beneath the surface the cracks are bigger than ever.

It’s been a long time since the Culture Recovery Fund was established, and as necessary and life-saving as it was, it cannot compensate for more than a decade of incremental cuts that have left London’s culture sector gasping for breath like a fish in a pool.



Jeremy Hunt’s spring budget included significant tax measures that will indeed enable more new theater productions, concerts, exhibitions and films, but new investments in cultural infrastructure were all focused outside the capital.

The Arts Council’s planned £50 million cuts to London-based arts organizations between 2023 and 2026 are starting to take effect. Add to that the fine in London, which means organizations based here but with national impact, such as the National Youth Theater, will not receive additional funding, and things start to look very risky.

Hampstead Theatre, the Royal Court, the Young Vic – all in crisis. Vault Festival, the engine room of new writing and experimentation, has not received sufficient funding and will go bankrupt. The Jewish Museum – closed. Grassroots music venues Iklectic (near Waterloo) and Matchstick Piehouse (Deptford) – both have closed in the past three months.

Even a national institution like the V&A, which is about to host the fashion festival of the year with a show dedicated to the erratic supermodel Naomi Campbell, has had to become “even more enterprising” because of the real conditions, according to director Tristram Hunt. cuts in government support.

It and most other major public museums now have to make increasingly desperate overtures to the corporate world and wealthy individuals, while being expected to refuse money from those seen by the public as less than savory (hello BP/British Museum).

And unlike in the US, where this kind of giving is part of the culture and, crucially, encouraged by tax breaks, there are no such palliative policies here.

    (Dave Benett/Getty Images for the)    (Dave Benett/Getty Images for the)

(Dave Benett/Getty Images for the)

However, there are reasons for optimism. As long as we have been alive, people have been making art. As actor Benedict Wong told us this week, “artists are artists and we will create; we will find a space and make it happen.

The fact that we are where we are today in London, with incredible quality work everywhere you look, is in no small part due to the enormous resilience and determination of the creative community. Producers like Sonia Friedman, who hit the big time by mounting performances of new writing in the West End just as restrictions began to be lifted (and artists like Emma Corrin, who lent their star power to attract new audiences), or Nica Burns took a huge risk in 2022 to launch @sohoplace, the first purpose-built West End theater to open in 50 years.

There has been a proliferation of new young art galleries such as Soup Gallery, Chemist Gallery, Night Cafe and Alma Pearl, while last year the Harlesden High Street Gallery launched Minor Attractions, an inclusive micro art fair that took place in Soho next to the behemoth that is Frisian.

And then there’s the small matter of the election. It almost feels strange that the Shadow Culture Minister, rather than simply a suit seeking a cabinet post, is actually an artist (before her election, Thangam Debbonaire was a professional cellist – her husband is an opera singer), with expertise and passion for culture that goes beyond enjoying a bit of cheerfulness, for example ABBA Voyage.

Even more remarkable seemed Keir Starmer’s speech at the Guildhall last week, in which he pledged to reverse the degradation of the arts in education; to help freelancers; to tackle ticket sales – and even more astonishingly, for those of us who have been crushed over the years by the utter disregard our current government seems to have for the arts (while ensuring they send their children to independent schools with unparalleled access to them), was the former flutist’s unapologetic emotional bond with and deep feelings for them.

“Everyone here knows that feeling of losing yourself and finding something new in the space that art creates,” he said. “These encounters with art and culture change us forever. They certainly changed me forever.”

    (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)    (Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

(Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

Whaaaaat? Is it possible that we can stop shouting ourselves hoarse about why the arts are important if Labor gets involved? It almost seems like an unreal prospect. But it could happen. But until then, London’s cultural scene needs support so that we can all continue to experience that feeling that Starmer spoke so movingly about, well into the future.

Yes, West End shows can be expensive, but there’s always a way (see Nick Clark’s guide on how to get cheaper theater tickets), and there’s so much more to see and places to go. The Arcola in Dalston; Theater 503 in Battersea. @sohoplace’s new show Red Pitch has tickets from £25; you can see a show at Sadler’s Wells from around £15. Tickets for the Royal Opera House start at ten pounds. Ten!

The National Gallery, the Tate, the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, they’re all free, as is every commercial gallery in London, from Gagosian (Mayfair) to Guts (Hackney). I’ve had the privilege of enjoying the best of this city’s culture over the past four years, but it’s for everyone, and it’s wonderful. Let’s enjoy it so we don’t lose it.

What the Culture Editor did this week

Red tone, @sohoplace

    (Craig Fuller)    (Craig Fuller)

(Craig Fuller)

Tyrell Williams’ funny, sweet, moving, unapologetic London play about three teenage boys navigating dreams and disappointment on their community football pitch has finally made its way from the Bush Theater to the West End, after two sold-out runs at the west London powerhouse. Francis Lovehall, Kedar Williams-Stirling and Emeka Sesay are fantastic under the seamless direction of Daniel Bailey. A real moment – ​​don’t miss it.

All that glitters, Orlando Whitfield

Recovering art dealer Orlando Whitfield’s book, which comes out in May but I’m reading now to review, tells the story of his friendship with the now infamous Inigo Philbrick, in addition to that of Philbrick’s years-long, Byzantine international art fraud, for which he was ultimately convicted in 2022 arrested. Fascinating stuff, but so far I’m still not convinced of Philbrick’s much-vaunted ‘charm’. He sounds like a walking red flag.

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