THIS had all the makings of being a vintage year for the arts in Oxfordshire. Impressive programmes of plays, shows, gigs and concerts, visits by international stars, the return of popular events and even a clutch of new festivals, was set to make 2020 a year to remember.

While that proved true, it was for all the wrong reasons.

The arts sector was among the first to be hit by the coronavirus pandemic and the hardest hit. Many venues which closed their doors in March are still closed and have no idea when they will be realistically able to reopen.

And while productions, events and festivals have been rescheduled, there is still unease over how – or even if – they will go ahead.

Yet Oxford’s art organisations remain upbeat.

Buoyed by grants from the Cultural Recovery Fund and the start of vaccination, optimistic figures in the creative arts are looking forward to a brighter future – even though things may get tougher before they get better.

“Well, 2020 didn’t quite go as planned!” says Louise Chantal, joint director of Oxford Playhouse.

“The greatest challenge of Covid-19 has been the uncertainty nationally and especially within the theatre industry.

“Grants from the Arts Council and the Culture Recovery Fund, coupled with the extraordinary generosity of our audiences in donating to the Playhouse Plays On fund, have enabled us to look beyond the current part-time programme of live and digital ‘meanwhile’ activity.

“The second lockdown affirmed the hard decision to postpone panto till 2021, but we’re presenting a ‘Selection Box’ of online family shows for all ages instead.

“2020 meant the Playhouse had to embrace new skills, create new partnerships and reach new audiences. But the best lesson of all has been the resilience of our team, and how much the Playhouse means to so many people.”

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Her sentiments were repeated by Alexandra Coke at the Old Fire Station.

“We’ve spent 2020 in much the same way as other arts centres: very busy behind the scenes,” she said.

“At the start of the pandemic we teamed up with Oxford Hub, to support the fantastic Oxford Together movement with manpower and fundraising.

“We’ve run creative projects like Postcards From A Pandemic, commissioned new pieces of artwork for Lights Up, and invested in streaming technology to bring shows to your living room.

Oxford Mail: Oxfordshire theatre managers lit up their buildings with red light on Monday, July 6, 2020, to highlight the financial emergency in the sector caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The Old Firestation, Oxford.Oxfordshire theatre managers lit up their buildings with red light on Monday, July 6, 2020, to highlight the financial emergency in the sector caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The Old Firestation, Oxford.

“On our website you can watch An Intervention by Olivier Award-winning playwright Mike Bartlett, SOLD by Oxford-based company Kuumba Nia Arts, Jonny Donahoe’s (of Every Brilliant Thing and Jonny & The Baptists fame) new solo theatre show Forgiveness, and comedian Josie Long’s show Tender.

“It’s a tricky time for the arts sector at the moment, as it is for everyone. Stay safe, and support your local theatres if you can.”

Ria Parry, Joint Artistic Director at The North Wall, in Summertown, said the north Oxford venue had been delighted to reopen.

She said: “It has been a tumultuous year for the arts, for Oxford and for the country. Cultural offerings have got a lot of us through the last few months, from podcasts to poetry, Netflix to Spotify. Lockdown would not have been the same without the stories, music and culture keeping us going, whether for entertainment, solace or inspiration.

“We were so pleased to reopen our theatre and gallery spaces to the public this autumn. Our small but brilliant team have been amazing, working flat out to ensure the safety of our audiences and artists.”

She added: “We’ve just finished our live Christmas season with performances from Nick Cope, Jericho Comedy and M6 Theatre, alongside YouthLab workshops, and rehearsals for our new OX2 Collective Young Company. There’s still a chance to catch Korky Paul’s Winnie and Wilbur’s Magical Moments exhibition in January.

"We’re ready for 2021 whatever it may bring.”

Anna Sturrock of Pegasus Theatre, in East Oxford, is looking forward to a better 2021.

She said: “At a time when creativity has been so important for young people and their wellbeing, Pegasus has found ways of entertaining and supporting participants and audiences throughout this year.

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“After a summer of free online shows and classes, plus regular check-ins with our more vulnerable participants, we opened our doors in September for drama and street dance sessions, PegasusYoung Companies and our full-time Acting Diploma.

“We’ve got another challenging year ahead but looking forward to seeing shows back on stage and who better to help us get underway than slapstick comedy legend and star of Gifford’s Circus Tweedy The Clown who’ll be with us 22-23 January.

Caroline Jones, Director of The Story Museum encouraged people to enjoy its seasonal show.

“At The Story Museum we know the power of stories to inspire, connect and heal,” she said. “Covid has reminded us all how important shared experiences are and since the delay to our planned reopening in April, our focus has been to adapt our galleries in order to safely welcome families into a world of 1001 stories, where they can escape from reality and journey into their imaginations.

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“After nine glorious days of full reopening in October, the second lockdown hit.

“But stories show us that heroes and heroines can overcome adversity and that happy endings sometimes take a while to achieve.

“So once again our galleries are open, and we’ve got a brand new Christmas show full of songs and stories for all the family.

“And while we don’t know what further twists in the plot lie ahead of us, we’re delighted that at least for now we can offer families some much needed seasonal joy.”