One Year On
On this day last year, I did something I never imagined I’d do – I told everybody in our organisation to close our building, go home and not to come back tomorrow. I told the Front of House team to close the shop and the café and to send all of the stock to our foodbank links in Gateshead. I sent home hundreds of Silver participants who were coming in for their regular daytime classes – many of them live alone and it is the social focal point in their week. I sent home an administration team of over 100 people, asking those who had a laptop to take it with them and saying to all of them that we’d figure out how to keep going the next day. And I walked into the start of our orchestra’s rehearsal and said that they would need to stop playing together for a while. In a way this was the hardest thing to do – to ask 37 people, whose core purpose it is to work together week-in week-out to create music, to stop in their tracks, go home and just wait. None of us had any idea what I was really saying and of course we had no idea what lay ahead.
It had started in mid-January with a very short conversation with my colleague, our Chief Operating Officer, who said she thought we should look at how we’d close down for a few weeks if we had to. We agreed she would set up a working group – of course! – and then our conversation swiftly moved on to other matters. By mid-February we’d agonised and decided to cancel a long-planned Spring orchestra tour to China, Japan and South Korea and then eventually on 16th March I called the Chair and Vice Chair of our board and said I thought we should close for an undefined period, cancel all upcoming concerts, classes and the upcoming International Jazz Festival and take it from there. There was no formal instruction from anywhere to do all of this, but it was really clear that it’s what needed to happen.
The rest is recent history and present reality. And what a tragic and disturbing history it is. So much illness and death, so much isolation, loneliness, hardship, challenge for so many individuals, families and communities. In one way or another it will leave a scar on all of us.
In the scheme of things Sage Gateshead is tiny, but closing down any operation is a difficult thing to do. And for a cultural venue it’s just so against the spirit of everything. Being open, humming, available, with an ever-changing programme, different audiences in and out: this is what we do. It’s in our bloodstream. Repeatedly over those first few weeks I was saying to colleagues, to musicians, to myself – stay at home, don’t go into work, for now we wait to see what this is. I was constantly pushing back against the impetus to do, to connect, to make music happen. Stopping it all was a bigger job than you might think. But then why would you even think about it!
People ask me regularly how challenging this has been for Sage Gateshead. The honest answer is very and even more honestly it will continue to be challenging for a very long time to come – we know that we are going to be one of the last sectors to fully re-open and it will take time to recover. For the entire cultural sector across the country, indeed the world, there has been and continues to be a risk of collapse. Without the financial support we have had from audiences, donors and government and without the tough decisions we’ve made to cut costs, we would not be here. It is as simple as that. But even so I cannot spend too much time on that aspect of things. First, there are plenty of instances of much greater challenge in this story and secondly what is survival for except to be part of recovery, to build a meaningful future? Indeed many people, as they have pledged money to the charity over the months, have said to me that we need to come through this with reasons to live our lives and that music, arts, culture, organisations like Sage Gateshead provide this.
So from the very start – after the initial shock – we’ve concentrated on what we can do now. And on what the future should look like.
Looking back, there is something quite extraordinary in how much has happened in one year – generated out of the determination to survive, to provide and to get ready for the future. Even something as mundane as thinking about the information under my email signature is not something I could have envisaged last year. Information about a 3 year fundraising campaign to secure the charity’s very survival – I’d have doubted whether we could set it up so quickly at the same time as taking down all evidence of what preceded it so as not to confuse supporters. We have worked hard to increase our accessibility: we’ve put all of our work with young people online; the same for all of our adult and family classes, and for our expanded support for musicians. We created a Digital Stage, learnt how to live stream, been in conversation with hundreds of people about how they are doing and what they hope for the future via phone and online, received hundreds of creative submissions from people about their response to Covid, given outdoor performances, made the venue Covid secure (and had two whole weeks of audiences in October!), commissioned films and projects…. In the 12 months which have passed, we’d usually have welcomed over 2 million people into the building, reached 7 million via broadcast and sold 500,000 tickets. We’ve not done anything near that, but we’ve reached much, much further than I’d have thought possible at the beginning.
All the while – in the eye of the storm – we’ve been thinking about the future. It’s in recovery that we think the arts and culture can really step forward – to help us connect socially, rebuild our wellbeing and help turn the wheels of the economy again. When the time comes, we’ll contribute to this.
When I look back to walking into the orchestra’s rehearsal a year ago to tell them to stop and go home, I remember feeling that it was so counter to everything we’re all committed to. If there’s one thing which links people in our sector it’s that we always make it happen – we keep the show on the road. I also remember stopping on the way in to talk to the conductor. As it happens it was Dinis, who we’re today – 1 year on – announcing as RNS’s Principal Conductor. The announcement is a first seed for the future and we will lay more seeds in coming weeks and months. We hope it is a sign of what will grow back and what will become even stronger, even more a part of people’s lives and our region. We are determined that our organisation will be at the core of this region’s recovery – contributing all we can. And much of this will be down to musicians and what music can do. Dinis will be based here, will be part of our recovery and above all wants to invite everyone to be part of our music. There’s a symmetry in him standing in the doorway as we were closing down and is now again standing by the doorway as we step towards opening back up. It is a symmetry which amplifies my hope that new beginnings are not far away.