As Artistic and Executive Director of London's Wigmore Hall, John Gilhooly is one of the most influential figures in chamber music in the United Kingdom and across the world. As Covid-19 continues, Bachtrack has been seeking to shed light on how the pandemic has affected arts organisations of different types in different countries; Gilhooly is the ideal person to fill in the chamber music part of that complex puzzle and we are very grateful to him for answering our questions.

John Gilhooly
© Frances Marshall

DK: Opera houses, orchestral venues, choirs and chamber venues such as the Wigmore Hall have been affected by Covid-19 in very different ways. I’m sure you will have talked to many colleagues: how do you perceive your experience to be different from theirs?

JG: This is a difficult time for everybody in the live performing arts and we are all in some degree of financial trouble. Some of us had good reserves built up over many years from prudent management and effective fundraising, but the reality facing all of us is that, at some point, cash could run out no matter how well placed we were at the start of this epidemic. Many of us have applied for UK government funding from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

I have talked on a daily basis to colleagues internationally. I don’t envy anybody running an opera house or orchestra right now. We have no idea when international touring will recover and opera is one of the most complex art forms to stage, even at the best of times. It was a great joy to see Britten Pears Arts resume concerts and the live broadcasts from BBC Proms and the Royal Opera House. 

Right across the country small festivals, outdoor, indoor and online performances are scheduled and this gives everybody some hope. There is an ecosystem within classical music and we want it to survive as best it can. I’m delighted to see the Southbank Centre and its resident orchestras announce online autumn activity. London needs both the Barbican and the Southbank to come back in good health and I was heartened  to hear Sir Nicholas Kenyon announce plans for a small number of live concerts in the Barbican yesterday. My heart goes out to freelancers, especially those who have fallen between the cracks in terms of government support and missed out on any form of social welfare. 

I should dispel any notion that things have been easy for Wigmore Hall. We have made tough choices, furloughed most of our staff and already lost six to redundancy. It has taken 15 years of hard work to build up an effective fundraising network and the confidence of donors. Major gifts don’t just fall from the sky. Anybody who thinks so has a huge misunderstanding of how fundraising works. I have been able to approach some major donors to underwrite part of our ongoing series. It’s very personal. Donors only give if they believe in an organisation's track record and leadership. They quite rightly demanded to see a rigorous case for support alongside all of the other painful financial cuts that we have made. Most of the senior staff have taken a 40% cut in salary and we will reduce our salaries further to help us get through to Christmas if necessary.

Paul Lewis playing at the Wigmore Hall, June 2020
© Wigmore Hall

We haven’t been handed a “whole pile of cash”. One donor has agreed to underwrite some of our costs if, and only if, we exhaust all other potential sources of revenue and savings including online fundraising during broadcasts, core audience support and any further government support. Anybody who says that Wigmore Hall has experienced a soft landing is misinformed.

The Hall will not come back 100% in post-pandemic times and the future for live performance art is undoubtedly changed. Another reason why it is dangerous to peddle the myth that fundraising is easy for anyone in this sector is that such misinformation could easily inform a potentially disastrous government arts policy. There is a danger that the arts could be told to move towards an American model where private funding replaces state support. This was mooted about ten years ago and remember that, unlike the US, the UK as yet does not have an existing culture of extensive philanthropy. The economy is in serious trouble and it will be difficult enough to keep all our existing donors on board.

Because of our empty hall broadcast series in June, I had many opportunities to speak publicly about all of the arts. I kept in touch with the Chairman of BACH and the Directors of ABO and IAMA, and many national and international promoters discussing how to best use Wigmore Hall’s prominence to advocate for the industry in general. We are all in agreement that the arts can, and should, play a major role in our national recovery in post-pandemic life.

Mark Padmore & Mitsuko Uchida - Winterreise rehearsal, June 2020
© Wigmore Hall | Tricia Yourkevich

Classical music has an older demographic than other arts and chamber music even more so. How have you been able to reassure your audience that they will be sufficiently safe?

We have rigorous health and safety processes and risk assessments in place, which have been reviewed by medical experts. At most the Hall will be 20% full for performances. There will be temperature checks on arrival, one-way routes and staggered entry times to prevent audience members crossing unnecessarily. Our ventilation system is operating 24/7 in a Covid-safe mode. The auditorium and all of the seating will be cleaned with an antiviral fog before and after each performance.

We have to stop saying chamber music is for old people.  Last year, 25,000 people visited us as part of our ‘Under 35’ years of age ticket scheme. Through external surveys we learned that 70% of our younger audience and 70% of our core audience both said they would like to come back soon to safe, socially distanced concerts. We will be discouraging anybody with underlying health conditions from coming out, but ultimately that’s a decision between them and their medical professionals.

Video streaming has become a major part of the future plans of most houses. Many houses have chosen pay-per-view streams; you’ve chosen free streams: can you comment on that dilemma?

We are going to amplify our fundraising message around each stream with a suggested minimum donation. Our experience so far suggests that this will help us cover artist fees in full and we will find other ways of covering core costs. If this model doesn’t work, we will consider a pay-per-view option or a season ticket in the Spring. The autumn programme of 100 concerts and the reaction in terms of donations online will tell us a lot.

Outside Wigmore Hall
© Benjamin Ealovega

It’s been said that “all arts organisations must now become media companies”. Tell us about the process of preparing the Wigmore Hall for filming and what it takes to enter the media world.

I went on record in 2012 saying that every arts organisation has the potential to be its own broadcaster. Our Board of Trustees backed this strategy and we created the resources and technical capability to do this soon after. When we made the decision to broadcast the lockdown series in June, we could and would have gone ahead under our own auspices. However, BBC Radio 3 came on board as our partner and it made the series all the stronger. That spirit of partnership is key for the industry going forward in every sense. We will broadcast 70 concerts under our own auspices in the months ahead and Radio 3 will join us in partnership for the remaining 30. 

On the events that you have been able to stage so far, how has the pandemic affected the way artists perform?

There have been all sorts of complications about social distancing. In June we could only have a maximum of two artists on stage. Now we can invite slightly larger ensembles with some restrictions still around singing, woodwind and brass. I have now been able to invite some small choirs for Christmas.   

It’s wonderful that we can now have an audience and reconnect the sacred triangle of composer, performer and a live listening public in one place. However, even in the empty Hall, performers gave their all. They were all emotionally drained when we went off air after each concert in June. Something about the unique circumstances we were in, and the fact of just getting back on stage, made these into very special occasions online.

Wigmore Hall
© Nick Guttridge

More broadly, can you comment on the post-Covid-19 future for the arts?

We should embrace this as an opportunity to do things better, making our music available to a much broader demographic and assisting in the national recovery from the pandemic. The arts can play a huge role here. Access to the arts and culture is access to our national life and the universal right of every citizen. Confidence comes from participation in the arts and gives people a broader view of the wider world and the ability to challenge and make change happen. We need a future where people don’t feel locked out, left behind or excluded from the arts.

The arts should be central to the wellbeing of the nation regardless of the over £100 billion that the heritage and culture sectors bring into the country each year. We cannot be accused of shroud waving or asking for special pleading. Every sector is suffering so classical music needs to be united, calm and reasoned with good arguments.

You must have been through a nightmarish process of endless cycles of contingency planning and replanning. How have the last six months felt for you personally and professionally?

It’s been tough but there is no point in complaining. I hope that by focusing on a positive message around the Hall, it has been useful for music and the arts in general. Life is exceptionally busy, constantly moving programming around and working on worst case scenarios. I try to keep smiling and to communicate positively to staff and to audiences. With the right attitude we can all come out of this leaner and stronger.