A Collective of Arts Associations Question the Unfair Shut Down of Performing Arts Spaces

Image source: britishtheatreguide.info

A Collective of Arts Associations representing entertainers and members of the creative and cultural sectors are questioning the decision by the Health Ministry to selectively ban certain public gatherings for entertainment or concerts. The Collective notes that following this announcement on April 21st, the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts issued a release saying that performance spaces under its remit were closed until further notice, without consulting arts organisations, producers, and other stakeholders.

The harmful impact of the current shutdown

There is a long list of upcoming shows which are now forced to be cancelled or postponed “until further notice”, due to the shutdown, without any consideration for the hundreds of people who will now become unemployed and lost income from sponsors, investors, and audiences. These include College Boy Jesse’s upcoming show “Soca the Love Story”, Penelope Spencer and Cecilia Salazar’s Mother’s Day Show “Threesome, Funsome”, the 50th anniversary activities planned by the National Parang Association of TT, the 2021 Calypso Queen Competition – Challenge Edition by NWAC, Fonclaire Steel Orchestra’s 55th Anniversary Concert, A Tribute Concert to Cultural Dance Icon – Torrance Mohammed and others. Producers, directors, performers, designers and other stakeholders would have now become once again unemployed and lost time, energy, money, and work which would have gone into putting on a production.

Different strokes for different folks

We note with some concern that some other venues where gatherings are allowed, remain open. Religious Spaces, Cinemas, Concert Halls, Theatres and Sporting venues – all have congregational activities and similar types of audiences and processes. These include, auditorium-styled seating, usher protocols and (except for religious spaces) – ticket purchasing systems. The performing arts community has adhered to the Public Health regulations, in some cases beyond the duty of care required and made significant upgrades and changes to its protocols to ensure that our audiences are safe to attend. To our knowledge, in the past 6 months there have been zero Covid-19 infection cases related to performing arts venues and zero performing arts venue shutdowns due to Covid-19 spikes, scares or incidents.

Why is the performing arts sector being specifically punished with a full shutdown, where other similar public-gathering businesses are allowed to remain open at various capacities with their news-published records of violations and Covid-19 spikes? What is the justification for the shutdown of all national performance spaces “until further notice”, beyond the 21-day stipulation announced for other restrictions? These questions arise as the sector was shut down without a contingency plan in place to mitigate the effects on those who depend on it for a living.

We recommend the following adjustments to the current decision:

  1. A further reduction of audience capacity
  2. Allow venues to remain open with access for Virtual performances
  3. Transition to outdoor performances at venues that can accommodate this service
  4. Zero LIVE audience = Zero venue rental
  5. Maintain ongoing communication with the performing arts stakeholders before making draconian policy changes that threaten the health and success of the sector

According to the Guidelines for Businesses/Facilities/Institutions Reopening after lifting of Restrictions Post COVID-19, section 7.1.4 Procedures to Address Sick Persons, businesses are required to conduct daily COVID-19 symptoms checks of employees, contractors, suppliers, customers and visitors entering the worksite; for example, using a brief questionnaire or thermal scanning. Performing arts venues are certainly in compliance, are the others? In addition, none of the events held at concert halls and theatres allow the sale of food, drink, or alcohol, in compliance with the Public Health Regulations (No. 8) 2021, Section 4: 11 and 12, which further reduces the risk of transmission of Covid-19.

Safety in the Performing Arts – beyond the duty of care

In compliance with another Ministry of Health regulatory policy: Guidelines for Cinemas and Theatres and the Public Health Ordinances, activities related to the performing arts and performing arts venues in Trinidad and Tobago have been subject to the strictest protocols, even those which are not compulsory, in order to keep patrons and ourselves safe. These protocols, which have been well managed by venues and producers, include the collection of data for contact tracing, audience management for entrance, exit, seating capacity, and seating arrangements. When patrons purchase their tickets at Queen’s Hall for example, they are required to choose their seats from the seating chart, which allows the venue to ensure that physical distancing is maintained.

These protocols were further strengthened during the 2021 Carnival season with the review and endorsement of Commissioner of Police Gary Griffith, who, with at least one venue, in conjunction with others, oversaw and partnered on maintaining ongoing police presence at performance events, to ensure compliance in the lobby, hall and backstage areas. Sending reports on performing arts shows and activities was also required by venues and producers to police stations to keep the authorities informed of ongoing activities in the sector. We question whether any Covid-19 contact tracing activities have had to take place using the data collected at performing arts venues prior to this shutdown. 

More than any other sector, people in the creative and cultural arts traditionally depend on gatherings/audiences to survive. Since March 2020, this sector has been one of the hardest hit, as it was one of the first to be closed and one of the last to reopen. People in the arts conduct their business at these venues and performance spaces are where consumers come to purchase our services. If essential tools of the trade (performing arts venues) are shut down, this drastically reduces our income-earning opportunities, as access to space is an important component for our operations.

In 2020, we creatives took the “down time” to strategise, network and pivot the performing arts for the new Covid-sensitive situation. We rebuilt our networks and created new on-stage and off-stage performance protocols to make productions happen, and we were successful in doing that. Our achievements have been sold out shows (for example the National Theatre Arts Company’s “Junction Village”) and safe, Covid-19-free execution of events and performances. Subsidized national performing arts spaces are also essential in a national emergency to keep the sector alive, especially when creative workers continue to meet the challenges with significant effort to achieve the successes we have over the past 6 months. This premature and unjustified shutdown in the face of strict and consistent safety measures, and a zero-incident record, seems unfounded and will compromise the work we have done to date.

Allow venues to remain open with access for Virtual performances

The Collective wonders why the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts chose to close the performance spaces completely, instead of allowing producers to transition to creating work for online/virtual platforms at these same venues. In this way, the live audience element is removed, but people in the arts would be allowed to continue possibly generating an income, given the rise in online viewing since the beginning of the pandemic. At present, the support required from government toward the creation of an enabling environment for the growth and financial viability of the sector is greatly lacking. 

Transition to outdoor performances at venues that can accommodate

Other options, which could be considered, are creating opportunities for outdoor events, such as the hugely successful concert recently produced by Vaughnette Bigford at the Naparima Bowl. Outdoor performance venues could also implement a further reduction in capacity, as with religious spaces and the public sector.

Reference is made to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Key planning recommendations for mass gatherings in the context of COVID-19, Interim guidance: 29th May 2020. The Background to the document states, “Mass gatherings are not merely recreational events; they have important implications on the psychological well-being of large number of individuals… …provide employment for a great number of people, and could leave a legacy of improved assets or capacities developed as a result of hosting a mass gathering event. Since mass gatherings have substantial political, cultural, social, and economic implications, authorities should assess the importance and necessity of an event and consider the option that it may take place, provided all associated public health risks are adequately addressed and mitigated.” 

In Section 3: Capacity to apply prevention and control measures, subheading Operational Phase, some of the prevention and control measures applicable to this phase are “hosting the event, at least partially, online/remotely/virtually; and hosting the event outdoors rather than indoors.”

These statements support our recommendation for the use of outdoor spaces, show the need for performances to provide psychological relief and employment, and underscore the necessity of the Arts during this period.

Zero LIVE audience = Zero venue rental

In a November 25th media release entitled, “National performance spaces open for business”, the Collective noted that the 50% rental rate reduction for these national performance spaces announced by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts expired at the end of December 2020.

If the current restrictions continue with regard to public gatherings, and these spaces are reopened for virtual performances, we are requesting a 0% rental rate amnesty period be granted until December 2021, which allows use of the venues in the aforementioned ways, thereby avoiding the need for government intervention in the form of a Cultural Relief Grant. Further discussions would need to be held with the Collective of Arts Associations close to the end of the amnesty period to assess the situation and make a further decision concerning the matter.

To add insult to injury…

The Arts Associations of Trinidad and Tobago have also been challenged since the August 2020 election, as they were in most cases transferred to the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts. Since then, most of the Associations have not been able to receive subventions to provide support and opportunities to our members during this challenging time. We understand that due to the economic state of the world, there is no money for further Cultural Relief grants, which some people in the arts still have not received.

We are therefore completely dependent on LIVE performances, and since the spaces have now been shut down, we are reliant on the intervention of the State. There are other policy recommendations and creative sector support measures which have already been brought to the attention of the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts but there is an URGENT need for open communication and action on the part of the Ministry, with regard to ensuring that our stakeholders have the support they need at this time. We reiterate the need to re-visit the consultation exercise already initiated by the Artists Registry, which includes stakeholder consultation on proposed amendments to the Corporation Tax Act and the relevant tax allowance related to the creative and cultural sectors.

The Collective of Arts Associations remains committed to maintaining open channels of communication and consultation with the Ministries of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, and Health, on these matters and any others which directly impact the sector.

Signed,

National Drama Association of Trinidad and Tobago (NDATT)

The Trinidad and Tobago Performing Arts Network (TTPAN)

Trinbago Unified Calypsonians Organisation (TUCO)

The San Fernando Arts Council

Trinidad and Tobago Promoters Association

National Chutney Association of Trinidad and Tobago

Tassa Association of Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago Copyright Collection Organization

National Parang Association of Trinidad and Tobago

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