I’m an optimist. I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will subside and that we will get over it. I don’t know when and I don’t know how – whether by a vaccine as we did with polio, by containment as with tuberculosis, or by changing our behaviour and infrastructure, as we did with cholera in the 19th century. But I believe that the world will return to “a new normal”, and the arts world with it.

But what should that new normal be? Even before the pandemic, two huge issues bedevilled us: climate change and inequality. The arts have a huge part to play in the solution of problems bedevilling the planet: the arts can communicate understanding at an emotional level that – for many of us, at least – rigorous logic cannot reach. The arts can provide solace and focus for damaged people in desperate need of it. But also, the arts industry must look at itself in the mirror. Are we making the changes we should to reduce our negative impact on climate change? Are we doing everything we can to ensure that our work reaches everyone, not just the privileged?

The question is particularly timely in the United Kingdom at this moment. Creditably, the government has announced a £1.57 billion bailout for the arts sector. Applications for the “Culture Recovery Fund” open today, with grant allocations in England for up to 75% of a £500m tranche due to be made in late August and early September. Welcome though that money will be to many, it’s hard to escape the observation that the terms of reference are tactical rather than strategic: the money is there to preserve existing institutions of various sizes over a short term period (until March 31st next year) rather than to look ahead. Perhaps that’s the best that could be done with limited thinking time available, but is that actually what we want?

Consider orchestral tours. With air travel predicted to constitute a quarter of all emissions by 2050 and long haul biofuel-based or electric flights still in the realms of fantasy, it simply can’t be OK to continue touring in the way we have done. Or consider the “star system” whereby top conductors, soloists and opera singers spend their lives in an endless sequence of airport lounges, flying into a city to impart an all-too-brief sprinkling of stardust before moving on, too soon, to the next engagement. Perhaps that could be justified in a world in which air travel wasn’t demonstrably harmful, but now? Surely there are better solutions to ensuring that cultural exchange continues and that ever more people get to hear performances of the highest quality.

The pandemic has provided few positives for the arts world, but here’s one of them: it has highlighted quite how great is the level at which people find the arts valuable. One of the most uplifting things has been to read about concerts given in care homes and the immense joy they have brought, another has been to discover how English National Opera singers' understanding of breathing skills can help patients acutely ill with respiratory disease. It turns out that music can give an extraordinary boost even to patients with severe dementia.

I'm not the only person to whom the joy of collaborative music making – even over the Internet in virtual events – has become clearer. Before COVID-19, I was happy to be a regular attendee at concerts and opera. Over the period of lockdown, music-making – as opposed to just attendance – has become steadily more important to me, and making music with other people, whether it’s with friends and family, with my singing teacher or in virtual choirs, has become an unadulterated joy and a significant help in retaining my mental equilibrium.

The major decisions about bailouts have been entrusted to Arts Council England. The wording of the application documents makes clear that their priority is the preservation of what exists. They are looking for evidence that (a) you have been an arts organisation worthy of their support in the past (and probably receiving it) and (b) the money will stop you actually going bankrupt between now and March 2021.

That bias makes it instructive to do some analysis of the grants that ACE have awarded in the past. I’ve added up the numbers for the four years 2018-22 in classical music, opera and ballet: the lion’s share of the £430m of funding has gone in large chunks to high prestige organisations. 70% was spent in grants of over £10m each to just eight organisations. Grants below £1m account for 2.5% of the total, grants below £5m for less than 9%. [The raw numbers are readily available here: I’ve identified 54 classical music, opera and ballet organisations, excluding multi-genre venues – I may have missed some.]

Well intentioned as the approach undoubtedly is, it’s worrying because it looks like a short term tactical response which doesn’t feed into any kind of medium or long term strategy.

Historically, there may have been an argument for concentrating scarce resources on arts groups with high enough visibility to attract tourists. With tourist revenues close to £150 billion and the UK’s thriving arts scene a major factor in attracting them, it made sense to keep institutions like the Royal Opera House and English National Ballet at the top of their game.

But COVID-19 has turned that argument on its head. The harsh reality is that inbound tourism is going to take years to recover and it’s likely to be a year or more until big venues can operate at anything like their former capacity – which means that their economics are going to get worse. If the Arts Council intends to preserve the biggest players more or less as they were in February, they’re going to need some very deep pockets for a very long time.

Whenever I look at the way that orchestras and opera companies are configured, I get the sense that education and “outreach” are separate functions decidedly removed from the principal business of elite performance. There are varying levels at which leaders are passionate about their work in schools and local communities, but the prestigious concert series or opera seasons come first. If we’re going to travel less, maybe now is the time to refocus the arts on localism, on ensuring that elite performing groups are massively more involved with their local communities than they are today.

So in contrast to short term palliatives, I would like to see a strategic approach which considers two big questions:

  • How can we spread love for music more widely amongst an ever bigger percentage of our population?

  • How can we do more to encourage people to take part in collaborative music making, in addition to attending performances?

I’m not a government planner and I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I’m pretty sure that about some things that have to form part of them:

  • Fuse the arts and cultural agenda into education policy. We want education and outreach to be at the heart of what our institutions are all about – not a bolt-on.

  • Rebalance the funding bias from large grants to large organisations in favour of smaller grants to smaller ones.

  • Embrace localism: we want to see local musicians performing, enthusing and teaching in their communities. No-one should be forced to travel to London to see the best or to work in London to perform with the best.

  • Make diversity a primary objective. Prioritise institutions who are dedicated to bridging cultural gaps rather than simply demonstrating membership of minority groups. To give an example, from a few years ago, of Dutch National Opera’s project to bring site-specific opera to Amsterdam’s Chinatown, creating short operas around the stories of the Chinese immigrants and performing them in the restaurants that belonged to them.

As one example of many ideas that work in these directions, consider this plan from conductor Sam Evans: apply £0.5m or so to hiring 1,000 of our best out-of-work freelance musicians to undertake music education projects around the country.

For a typical small scale project deserving of government help, look at Mary Bevan and WIll Thomas’s Music at the Tower: a small, local summer concert series set outdoors in a small North London park, helping musicians to make a living at the same time as bringing in an enthusiastic, mainly local, audience.

The UK’s cultural budget is small compared to those of our European peers (at £622m per year, the Arts Council has around a third of the culture budget of the German federal government, but bear in mind that German states and cities also fund the arts). We need to make every bullet count in the long term as well as in the immediate future and I pray for the grant of wisdom to those making the decisions.