Last weekend, had things been different, we would have been opening Sage Gateshead’s 20/21 performance season with Royal Northern Sinfonia, a French conductor and music from Sweden and Germany. Due to follow in our opening week were Loudon Wainwright, Penguin Café, Postmodern Jukebox and Cliff Richard. 20,000 people would have passed through the building and many more would have joined us on the radio. The week was due to culminate this Saturday with another RNS concert entitled The Joy of Six.
This parallel world was planned more than 18 months ago when Covid-19 was not a thing. The silence at Sage Gateshead and other performance spaces across the world over the past 6 months is something we had never previously imagined; it was unthinkable, both artistically and financially. The very particular effect on the performing arts sector has left us on a cliff edge: 80% of our income has vanished overnight, and for who knows how long?
This isn’t just about financial peril for Sage Gateshead; it is about the benefits to social and civic life which are lost when cultural organisations cannot open. Sage Gateshead is a place to meet friends, be entertained, learn, hear in a new way, explore new ideas, make connections between different people – all through the shared joy of music. As a charity we are here to benefit our region and are a key part of the national and international mission to embed culture at the heart of civic life.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been discussing whether we should return to our previous ways of doing things at Sage Gateshead. The answer is that we can’t. The safety of audiences, artists and staff is our top priority so we will need to do things differently. But even beyond this, a lot of water has passed under the bridge in the past six months – social movements, digital advancement, new perspectives, new challenges and questions. It seems to me that even without the changes we have to make for public health, we would all want things to be different. What is art about if it’s not responsive to the world and its uncertainty and changes? We know that musicians and artists will be making different work and we know that we will all have changed as individuals and as communities.
As a cultural organisation, our job is to create space to reflect on change and explore what the future might hold. So we launched A Future for Live Music in the North East – a conversation with audiences, communities and musicians about what the future should be. Alongside this we launched a Digital Stage to share the work of as many musicians as possible and bring music to our audiences while our building and live activity were closed down. And we started a 3-year fundraising campaign called Crisis, Recovery and Renaissance, prompted by the many people who wanted to help us when they could see what significant financial challenges we face and the value of what might be lost.
Now, as we head into the autumn and six months into this new world, we are ready to announce a series of live performances, with full details to follow on 6 October. It’s not like any previous Sage Gateshead season – it is a new step into the future – a combination of new ways we have found of doing things online, some bold new artistic ideas, a continued conversation with audiences, communities and musicians about the future and a first and quite different live performance series based on the best of Sage Gateshead. Our announcements and activity will build gradually in the coming days.
Today our classes for adults and early years launch online, with a new benefit for participants of not having to worry about the logistics getting to Sage Gateshead. You can learn guitar and ukulele or join a choir, all from home for £5 in a session led by a tutor, or £3 for early years.
This evening a new online performance series launches on our Digital Stage: Sage Sessions brings the best new talent in an intimate Sage Gateshead setting to your home. Alongside this series, we’ve got four new Artists in Residence: Rapasa Otieno, Joe Snape, Man Power (Geoff Kirkwood) and Me Lost Me (Jayne Dent). They will be making work online throughout the season. Meanwhile we continue to support musicians in the North East with regular career advice sessions, health clinics and online socials to meet up and share ideas and experiences.
Next weekend we will launch our new term of work with young people. The urgency to ensure that we could continue to support young people through lockdown meant that we quickly moved as much as we could online last April. Now as we start the new term we’re back online with whole programmes. Young people will be able to play together in ensembles and collaborate in their music making, as well as take classes online – from early years to our junior conservatoire training. Meanwhile the In Harmony programme in Hawthorn and Bridgewater Schools will be a mix of live and online.
And last – but definitely not least – we have set a date for our return to live performance. From 23 October we will start a series on Friday and Saturday evenings in Sage Gateshead. Fridays will feature Royal Northern Sinfonia, and Saturdays contemporary musicians. Concerts will be an hour long with no interval, in a newly configured and Covid-secure concourse and Sage One. For anyone who wants to join us from home, we’ll live stream and if government guidance changes concerts may have to migrate online only for a while. Concert details will be released on 6 October, with 300 tickets per concert and a range of discounts and free ticket offers, including free tickets for NHS and Social Care workers.
With this series, as through our whole 20/21 programme, we aim to bring you the best of Sage Gateshead and something new, all with everyone’s safety at the fore. And throughout this season, we want to talk about the future with our audiences, our communities and musicians to help shape what happens next year and beyond.
At the core of Sage Gateshead – a world class orchestra, the next generation of outstanding musicians, the chance to learn music and learn through music, ambitious artistic projects with our communities – are some essential ingredients. We should all make a future for live music together and we can’t wait to get going with this.