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Culture In Quarantine: bringing arts and culture into the home

Jonty Claypole

Director, BBC Arts

In almost every aspect of our lives, the past week has been amongst the most testing in modern history. We are concerned for the health of our communities, and the businesses and services that makes our society so vibrant.

In the world of arts and culture, it has seen the unprecedented but essential move of temporarily closing many of the buildings that welcome the public each day, and all activity that requires the gathering of large groups of people. For a sector that thrives on bringing people together to share live and shared experiences, and that brings benefits for us all, it raises the urgent question: what is culture in a state of quarantine?

For me, a precious ray of sunshine has emerged in the clear determination of artists, performers, curators and producers to keep creating and connecting with audiences whatever the circumstances. It is Wednesday afternoon. Our world turned on its axis only 48 hours ago. Yet already exciting plans are emerging that promise a means of keeping culture alive even if our ability to enter the spaces that normally supports them is increasingly limited. Theatres are developing ways to keep producing and sharing work from behind closed doors, book festivals are working out how to stream talks and ideas most effectively, museums and galleries are already announcing virtual exhibitions based on those which are no longer open to the public. Historically, artists thrive on periods of isolation and it seems certain that the current period will result in new plays, poems, books, films, paintings, sculptures and all other forms of art that might not otherwise occur.

In supporting this activity there is a clear role for the BBC. As a public service organisation, it has always aimed to be more than a broadcaster but a stage, gallery and cultural platform in everybody’s homes. Our commitment to artists has only increased in recent years with greater space given to music, performance, spoken word, the visual arts, creative documentary and new or emerging multi-disciplinary talent. This puts us in a strong position to deliver and deliver quickly.

Today, the BBC has announced its broader purpose during the coronavirus crisis. In the realm of the arts, we have said that we need to give British culture an audience that can’t be there in person. We will run an essential arts and culture service across platforms that will keep the arts alive in people’s homes, focused most intensely across BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio 4, BBC Two, BBC Four, BBC Sounds, BBC iPlayer and our digital platforms. We will do this in close consultation and collaboration with organisations like Arts Council England and other national funding and producing bodies.

This arts and culture service will include guides to shuttered exhibitions or permanent collections in museums and galleries; performances from world-class musicians and comedians; new plays created especially for broadcast featuring exceptional talent; the experience of book festivals with privileged access to authors and great ideas switched online; and quarantine diaries from creative visionaries. We will also be offering jewels from the archive, ensuring that brand new theatre and dance performances will join with modern classics to create a repertory theatre of broadcast. This includes new filmed recordings of writer Mike Bartlett’s Albion, director Emma Rice’s Wise Children, captured by The Space, and choreographer Crystal Pite’s Revisor.

BBC Radio 3 aims to keep orchestras on the radio in front of the listening public. In unfortunate situations where orchestras have had to cancel concerts and broadcasts we will work with them to choose recent collaborations from those ensembles to rebroadcast. In addition, at a time when many freelance musicians face uncertainty, BBC Radio 3 is looking to set up a series of special chamber studio recordings to showcase on In Tune and other related programmes on BBC Radio 3 the wealth of British classical music talent.

Just as important is the BBC’s need to simply reflect and cover what is going on: the difficulties organisations and artists are facing, and the imaginative solutions they develop to maintain their practice. In particular, Radio 4’s Front Row and Front Row Late on BBC Two will continue to report on the latest developments. The BBC’s Arts Digital service will refocus around sharing content and updates both from the BBC, its partners and the wider sector.

It has been proved time and again how beneficial arts and culture is to mental health and so we are also keen to continue to help people at home develop their own creative practice. The participatory arts and crafts campaign Get Creative is shifting its focus from events to the domestic arena. We want to provide everyone with activities to do either alone or with immediate family. BBC Four’s Life Drawing Live will return, by hook or by crook, to inspire and encourage everyone to take part.

In short, we envisage a virtual festival of the arts - Culture in Quarantine - rooted in the experience of both voluntary and involuntary isolation. All this will be done hand-in-hand with the wider arts and cultural sector through coverage and collaboration. Some things we will be able to do directly, others we will support in different ways or simply just put a spotlight on.

Our aim is to open up the BBC - its platforms, services and technology - even further to help arts and cultural organisations continue to reach audiences directly during this difficult period.

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