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UK's lockdown-hit arts venues to get $2B rescue package

FILE - In this Saturday, July 4, 2020 file photo, visitors wearing PPE stand apart as they view Irises, 1914-17, by Claude Monet, a the National Portrait Gallery, London, as it prepares to reopen following the easing of coronavirus lockdown restrictions across England. The British government has announced more than 1.5 billion pounds (almost $2 billion) to help the country’s renowned arts and cultural institutions recover from the coronavirus pandemic, after some theaters and music venues warned that without support they might never open again. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP, File)

LONDON (AP) — The British government has announced more than 1.5 billion pounds (almost $2 billion) to help the country’s renowned arts and cultural institutions recover from the coronavirus pandemic, after some theaters and music venues warned that without support they might never open again.

The 1.57 billion pound ($1.96 billion) package for museums, galleries, theaters, movie theaters, heritage sites and music venues includes almost 900 million pounds in grants and more than 200 million pounds in loans.

Details of how the money will be distributed haven’t been released, but leaders of arts organizations breathed a sigh of relief at the announcement.

“When we heard last night, we slept for the first time since March,” Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of London’s Young Vic theater, said Monday. “It is a real vindication that we have been listened to and that the government understand that we were dying on our knees and also that we are an important part of our country’s recovery.”

Tamara Roja, artistic director of the English National Ballet, said “this package gives our sector a fighting chance of survival.”

Monday’s announcement comes after intense lobbying of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government by arts leaders, who say British culture is a 100-billion-pound a year industry, essential to the economy and to the nation’s global image.

Some U.K. arts institutions are beginning to open their doors after more than three months of lockdown, starting with the National Gallery in London, which reopens Wednesday. But social distancing rules and an almost total absence of tourists mean they face a big financial hit.

Theaters and concert venues haven’t been told when they can admit audiences, and several major venues, including Nuffield Southampton Theatres in southern England, have already announced they will close permanently or lay off hundreds of staff.

The rescue package is intended to help venues survive until April. But theaters warn they may go bust if they can’t get paying audiences through the doors until then. Some question why people are allowed to sit in tightly packed rows on planes but not in theaters.

Composer and impresario Andrew Lloyd-Webber tweeted: “Great to see the Government support the arts, but what we really need is for the UK’s theatres to open safely as soon as practically possible.”

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the support package would help safeguard Britain’s status as a “creative industries superpower.” But he said theaters wouldn’t be able to return to normal until the need for social distancing was over — and it’s too soon to say when that will be.

“I want to ensure it can happen,” he told the BBC. “I just want to be a bit realistic about the challenges of getting us back to that point any time soon.”

Across Europe, museums and art galleries have been the first cultural venues to reopen, although with much-reduced capacity. The Louvre in Paris opened its doors on Monday for the first time in four months, with face masks and advance reservations required.

In London, the National Gallery has introduced timed tickets, one-way routes, visor-wearing staff and hand-sanitizer stations in order to open its doors after 111 days — the gallery’s first shutdown since World War II. Even in wartime the building remained open for concerts and events, though the collection of works by artists including Caravaggio, Monet, Van Gogh and Turner was sent out of London to keep it safe.

“The gallery was open and it was there for the London public as the bombs rained down on the city,” gallery director Gabriele Finaldi said. “So we felt a responsibility that, as in the past the National Gallery had been there for the public, we wanted to be there when the opportunity arose to reopen.

“It will be very interesting to see how the public responds. We’re keen that they start coming, but I think the most important thing is that they feel safe, in the first instance. I think then confidence will build up, and then hopefully tourism will return to the city.”

But, he added, “it’s going to be very tough.”