Pandemic conditions have shaken the foundations and functions of the arts infrastructure to the core, illustrating the baked-in flaws while exposing the polar perspectives on conditions for a healthy, productive arts ecology in future. There was little emergency funding or practical support for individual freelance artists, and an apparent failure to acknowledge their dire situation after being hit by a dual economic and emotional tsunami. Although ensuring equality in the workforce is a beacon principle for the funded arts, staffers in arts institutions were able to benefit from furlough, while compounding the precarity of freelance artists was somehow socially acceptable to funders and most arts funded institutions. As David Byrne of New Diorama Theatre pointed out in October 2020, ‘If the current arts system is to have any chance of getting through the challenges in the long term, the people at the helm of arts institutions have to get far better at sharing out the resources. They can’t keep saying “it’s that other thing over there that’s the solution” [and] absolving themselves of any responsibility for doing the hard thinking and decision-making’.
Reset and recovery tactics by government and Arts Council England prioritised the arts in terms of bricks and mortar, which had been painstakingly created over the last three decades through a combination of substantial National Lottery capital investment in the arts, and consolidated by regular funding to a hierarchy of permanent arts organisations. In his response to an appeal for financial support made by 550 UK arts freelancers in March 2020, Arts Council England CEO Darren Henley argued; ‘While it may seem … that large NPOs may be in less need of sympathy or support, the reality is that they … employ thousands of people …. [and] their collapse triggers the collapse of entire ecosystems of human talent on which everyone in the sector depends’.(1) ACE’s supply-chain policy explanation illustrates Alexander and Peterson Gilbert’s assertion that the UK model is by far the most extreme market-orientated arts economy in Europe.(2) In the trickle down processes of a neo-liberalist arts infrastructure it’s inevitable that artists are treated transactionally, their main value being found in providing services to bolster the status and trading balances of hiring organisations. Work outsourced to artists by arts organisations is tightly defined, temporary by nature, offered highly-competitively and at short notice.
Artists’ observations made in the public domain, but anonymised here, typify the perspectives and concerns of many about the unsuitability of contemporary work contexts and expectations; ‘… awful briefs written like it’s a contract for a CEO position and specifying pre-application, unpaid site visits and other set dates and outcomes and the size of your final piece and what the piece will tell the audience to think and the budget is £2,000’. In particular, the family circumstances for self-employed artists are effectively disregarded when work available is most often offered on minimum rates with fixed budgets; ‘Artists who are also parents often work in an art world environment where it is expected that private life does not enter. Exhibition previews are scheduled at bedtime, residencies offered without pay or childcare, and a general feeling that if you’re a working parent, you’re not exactly taken into account’. Illustrating Covid-19’s harsh impact on the livelihoods of freelance artists, evidence to the DCMS Inquiry into the pandemic’s impact on the arts by CVAN (Contemporary Visual Arts Network) found that two-fifths of freelance artists immediately lost work at the point of the first 2020 lockdown. Acme’s submission to this inquiry demonstrated that three-fifths anticipated an annual income drop of 80-100%. Significantly, the criterion to show at least 50% of income from self-employment made three-quarters of visual artists ineligible for the Government’s Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) and Arts Council’s Emergency fund for individuals.(3)
In a sector whose long-term resilience is driven by the expression of intrinsically-held beliefs and values, the pandemic escalated artists’ emotional fragility in equal measure to their economic insecurity. Forced to be socially distant from the highly-individualised frameworks supportive of well-being, artists lacked – and continue to lack – essential encouragement and emotional comfort from families and close friends. As Croydon Culture Network concluded, individuals were isolated and overwhelmed when faced with loss of access to their particularised support networks. Their personal resilience was impacted not only by the immediate income loss, but ‘the overbearing demand to build new sources of income rapidly’. As Alistair Cameron asserted in the Lockdown Gazette; ‘The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted something we all knew: top-down, centralised, one-size-fits-all approaches, heavy on remote bureaucracy and diktat, do not work well. Local responses have been far more effective, drawing on inherent skills and resources’.(4)
In direct contrast to the top-downers’ preference to maintain the discriminatory food chains of the status quo at all costs, place-specific activists and interest groups in arts and culture spheres perceive the pandemic’s exceptional circumstances as opportunity to imagine a radically different, fairer, inclusive arts ecology. As Kerry Harker observed at the Turning Arts and Cultures in West Yorkshire Upside Down symposium in October 2020, ‘Power – including in the arts – must be distributed and not consolidated centrally. We’ve really got to get past culture’s economic impact too, [and] if the model of the large institution doesn’t work anymore, what’s next has to be about distributed infrastructure’.(5) Cosmetic tweaks to what has proved to be an arts funding system that is failing much of its constituency, are no solution to delivering human thriving and sustainable arts recovery. Remedies instead lie in structural upheaval. Several studies including by the Campaign for Cultural Democracy and Cooper and Sleaford conclude that enabling productive, healthy, inclusive frameworks for social good in the world ahead are premised on redistributing power, funding and economic accountability away from top tier arts management to the gregarious grassroots.(6) As YVAN (Yorkshire Visual Arts Network) Director Sue Ball also commented at Turning Arts and Cultures in West Yorkshire Upside Down, ‘In the face of Covid there is a lot more local networking and support, it’s gone back to the local, which is really important to consider now [in] making a case for West Yorkshire, and the role of those, particularly artists and visual art spaces that are [at] local level, [and] are pretty much vital to cultural life’.(7)
Aligned with Raworth’s ‘doughnut economics’, such an approach forges an inclusive, productive and differently measured arts ecology that is people-centred and local first.(8) As Cooper also concludes, broadening definitions of what constitutes arts development and growth ensures as much weight is given to the measurement of environmental and social well-being for individuals as it is to economic factors; ‘The arts and culture ecosystem must be supported from the grassroots up, rather than only funding the larger, higher profile theatres and organisations, and expecting the benefits to trickle down. Only then can we see a ‘levelling up’ of arts and culture provision across England’.(9) Achieving the nuanced artistic and economic conditions that artists and their communities deserve rests on three power shifts. Firstly, the diversification of arts policy through consistent engagement with the development and identification of appropriate delivery frameworks that will sustain divergent, localised communities of interest, including independent visual artists, over the longer-term.
Secondly, rather than the gatekeeping, which undermines artists’ ability to get ahead on their own terms, it’s democratising arts development processes and creating contexts for co-validation that will ensure a fair, inclusive arts ecology for the future. The final shift acknowledges the subsidiarity principle, in which a central authority performs only those tasks which can’t be performed at a local level. Creation of a common wealth – in both economic and well-being terms – in all the divergent localities, communities and regions of England will only arise through devolution of substantial levels of national funding away from a London-centric arts body. Giving artistic and economic responsibility to accountable localised arts structures offers a way to strategically re-align arts development with local authorities and mayoral constituencies, and integrate it into the remit and actions of citizens’ assemblies. Common adoption of a ‘just in time’ delivery expectation for artists’ work across current systems, coupled with a meagre artist R&D resource which is allocated on a highly-competitive basis, not only exacerbates economic and emotional precarity, but is wasteful of most of artists’ talents and contributions to society.
Within the creation of fairer and more sustainable arts developments in the future, Rewild the arts’ ambition is to release this ‘thwarted potential’ for wider social benefit.(10) As one of its founders Andrew Pinnock comments, ‘National arts portfolio development is a lot like gardening: make a plan, take care of plants/arts organisations that feature in the plan and weed out competitors when they threaten to grow and flower without permission. Weeding thwarts potential. Growth that could have happened no longer does. Seeds whose moment might have come in a future season never get that far. It’s wrong to let past planning decisions define the whole of the future if those decisions were bad or unimaginative in the first place’. Scoping and delivering such new frameworks are far, far more complex than keeping on with the ‘trickle down’ arts economy pursued for decades by government, arm’s length agencies and the arts organisations enjoying regular funding. However, it’s in the products of these granular infrastructures that the future arts ‘crown jewels’ will be initiated and realised, and where the biodiversity that the arts need to navigate through the rocky, uncharted territory of the ‘new normal’ ahead will be created.
Dr Susan Jones is an independent arts researcher and commentator with specialist insight and evidence of artists’ livelihoods and arts policy matters.
With thanks to David Byrne; Artistic and Executive Director, New Diorama Theatre, Andrew Wilson of Same Skies Think Tank, Sheridan Rawlings of Brewtime Collective, Preston, various artists for conversations informing this text and to Lauren Velvick for consistent encouragement and patience.
- Extract from Arts Council England CEO Darren Henley’s response to a letter of concern in March 2020 presented by 550 UK art freelancers: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1KB6UfGflY_kalslrVSW09OzhpYm-ETq0Qn9lqFaiLgA/edit?fbclid=IwAR00POxzm8FnOSLdf9676oX_gHyid9e134cZATAFbR7BLMZEGSeD5ynX3mI
- See Alexander, V. & Peterson Gilbert, O. (2020) Analysis of the influence of neo-liberalism in the configuration of the values of culture. London: Goldsmiths University.
- DCMS inquiry written submissions, including from Acme, Croydon Culture Network and CVAN, as cited across this text, are at https://committees.parliament.uk/work/250/impact-of-covid19-on-dcms-sectors/publications/written-evidence/.
- Lockdown Gazette 2 put together in October 2020 by the For Solidarity network is at https://issuu.com/thenewbridgeproject/docs/lockdown-gazette-2_web
- Organised by Same Skies Think Tank, Turning Arts and Cultures in West Yorkshire Upside Down was held virtually in October 2020. Comments here are from the report at https://sameskiesthinktank.com/themes-quotes-links-turning-arts-cultures-west-yorkshire-upside-down/
- Examples include the Manifesto for Cultural Democracy researched in 2017/2018 https://culturaldemocracy.wordpress.com/ , and more recent investigations by Cooper, B. (2020) Cultured Communities: The crisis in local funding for arts and culture. London: Fabian Society and Seaford, C. et al (2020) Achieving Levelling-Up: The Structures and Processes Needed, LIPSIT Report, November 2020 https://lipsit.ac.uk/project-outputs/
- Note 5 Ibid
- See Raworth, K (2017) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. London: Random House.
- Cooper, B. (2020) Ibid.
- Rewild the Arts is at https://www.rewildthearts.org