Pandemic… this isn’t something that has been in any cultural risk assessment I’ve ever done.
We ‘do’ culture and plan events here really well but COVID-19 hit like a slow motion car crash - cancelling not just an incredible summer programme but putting a city’s regeneration on the line.
Since 2008 this city has swaggered its way to global recognition. With its distinct accent and personality Liverpool has used culture as the rocket fuel for regeneration (copyright Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson!).
It has trusted its rebirth on something that many economists think is intangible. Not so in Liverpool. We get the economic impact of culture - but it’s more than that. It’s a feeling you get from walking the streets when the cruise liners unload their passengers. It’s a night on Hope Street when the Philharmonic and Everyman’s audience spill out into the bars and restaurants. But crucially for a council the sector and its subsidiaries, retail, visitor economy and leisure pays £270million into the city’s coffers through business rates which in turn pays for essential services.
The confidence brought about by our year in the cultural spotlight in 2008 has grown over the last 12 years through a consistent message that our story is important and others will want to see it or be part of it. Not only does it support 60,000 jobs across the city region, it gives us a unique identity that people recognise across the world. Liverpool is a calling card for the UK and its international brand is culture. It means more here.
So when a pandemic rather than bad weather hits a cultural programme you can do one of two things as a city - spiral into decline, waiting for someone or something else to save you (no thanks), or come out fighting, creating initiatives that spark the imagination and bring us slowly and carefully out of an international disaster blinking into the light but ready to reboot
So we invented a short-term response and a long-term strategic plan and got some quick wins under our belt.
Firstly, we gave our investment money out within two weeks of COVID-19 hitting. This was a light-touch process to our 27 cultural organisations we regularly fund from Liverpool Biennial to Africa Oyé , the only criteria we put in was for them to honour freelance contracts.
Secondly, we devised the Liverpool Without Walls programme.
And, thirdly, we developed a ten-year strategy on the back of COVID-19.
Without Walls is about turning the city inside out – literally bringing businesses out on to the street with plans in place further down the line to remove barriers to cultural participation.
In simple terms we closed streets to traffic and repurposed capital spend to buy outdoor furniture for restaurants to fill those streets.
And then you have to bring them back to life.
The latest strand of the project has seen us add a £200,000 fund to take performances outside to attract residents back into the centre and to entice visitors from further afield.
It’s all about helping those forgotten freelancers - those who aren’t eligible for Universal Credit and who, as a result of this pandemic, seem to be hitting financial brick walls wherever they turn.
These artists brighten our lives and bring vitality and depth to our cultural institutions. The fund will award bids of up to £5,000 – and for freelancers this will undoubtedly provide a much-needed lifeline at this time.
We did all this (under council systems) in just four weeks
The effects of this pandemic mean we have to think differently - and if small things go wrong what’s the worst that can happen?
By supporting the cultural sector, we’re supporting jobs and the economy, so doing nothing is simply not an option.
We’re not denying this is a cultural sticking plaster. But if we don’t act now the sector will bleed out and the prognosis will be much worse.
And of course we welcome and are working with government to avert the collapse of this sector and our economy, but we can’t and we won’t just sit back and wait. Liverpool never has.
Claire McColgan MBE is director of culture Liverpool at Liverpool City Council