Coronavirus £300,000 toll on rural touring

RURAL touring arts organisations, including Artsreach in Dorset, Villages in Action in Devon and Take Art! in Somerset, have together cancelled more than 1,000 performances due to the coronavirus crisis. The total value of the lost performances is estimated to be almost £300,000, according to a report from the National Rural Touring Forum (NRTF).

For Artsreach, the impact has been less than for some of the other 30 rural touring groups, says co-director Kerry Bartlett: “Here in Dorset we had to cancel ten performances by four performers at the end of our spring season.”

But the outlook for the summer and onwards into the autumn is far from clear, she says: “|We have no touring activity planned for the foreseeable future, until such a time when government guidance around social distancing and gatherings changes.”

NRTF, the Arts Council-funded body which acts as the umbrella and advocacy organisation for the 30 rural touring schemes across the country, has put together a national picture of how the coronavirus pandemic has affected rural touring activity.

The impact on schedules is huge in terms of finance and performance numbers. Although most schemes have pledged to financially support artists where possible, with a combined pay-out of cancellation fees of £170,000, the long-term impact is still unknown.

The report suggests that many of the organisations and individuals who together make up the rural touring network – the rural touring professional teams, village halls and volunteer promoters – face the risk of not returning to service, or with ambitions severely damaged. Meanwhile many artists, mainly freelance and many of whom specialise in rural touring, need support to keep their livelihoods intact.

Rural touring of professional productions – music, theatre, dance, circus, comedy – to village halls, community centres, outdoor spaces, pubs and libraries is an important part of country life, with more than £1 million in box office sales in an average year.

The rural touring sector’s foremost concern is the safety and wellbeing of audiences, voluntary promoters, artists and staff. Schemes have deep personal connections in their rural communities. Audiences and volunteers are often drawn from vulnerable and at-risk categories.

One NRTF member’s chief executive is quoted in the report: “I’ve had to make the decision to furlough almost all staff, and within the week, I will probably be running our 12-person organisation single-handedly. We have safeguarded artists and staff costs, but it will take an immense personal toll.”

Holly Lombardo, director of the national forum says: “It is more important than ever to secure the strength and spirit of the rural touring sector and to ensure the hardest to reach communities continue to benefit from a diverse programme of arts and cultural. NRTF is helping to create the condition to sustain hope for their members and their communities.”