Government and Arts Council England were praised in the Covid19 emergency for fast implementation of ad hoc strategies for financial support for arts and cultural institutions and job retention schemes for salaried staff. Despite the equality and diversity rhetorics of the funded arts, analysis of responses to the DCMS Inquiry into the Impact of Covid-19 reveal that individual freelance visual artists will suffer worst unless additional remedial actions are taken.
Some 177,000 self-employed people work in creative, arts and entertainment activities – including theatres, art festivals, live music performances, all mainly still closed. Rising self-employment isn’t an accident as it was incentivised by successive Government policies since the ‘80s. 10% of artists and arts businesses were self-employed then and thirty years later, over two-fifths of creative industries workers and three-quarters of visual artists are freelance.
However, the inherent fault lines exposed by Matthew Taylor’s 2017 report are colour-illustrated by Covid19. In the market-led arts economy, it’s freelancers whose contracts expressly work to the employer’s advantage who are the most vulnerable to trends and shocks. But as ExcludedUK estimated 60% of all those self-employed were ineligible for government support.
Submissions to the DCMS inquiry reveal that lack of access to financial support was far higher for freelancers doing creative, arts and entertainment work. Research by London-based Acme into artist studio holders and amongst Parents in Performing Arts shows some three-quarters of arts freelancers fell through a yawning economic gap. As Plymouth Culture described, these individuals experienced “overwhelming financial, physical and mental strain” due to the misplaced eligibility criteria of the government’s self-employed income support scheme (SEISS), also mirrored in Arts Council England’s emergency funds for individuals. Accentuating the existing funding imbalances, fewer than four-fifths of self-employed arts workers in North East England could apply for financial help from these schemes.
“Self-employed artists fell through the gaps due to zero hours contracts, PAYE work, having less than 3 years’ experience or portfolio [working meaning they earn] less than 50% from the arts” — Artworks Wales submission to DCMS Inquiry
Just over 2,000 anonymous visual arts practitioners benefitted from Arts Council England’s emergency grants for individuals, these drawn solely from those with practice forms already known to ACE. Visual artists were pitched against freelance curators, visual arts educators, community animators and independent visual arts managers and commissioners.
At the root of the self-employed visual artist’s economic plight is the much vaunted ‘portfolio career’. The glorious self-determination conjured by this term is a myth when set against their chances of sustaining art practices over time and faced with stringent competition for work with poor artistic and economic scope. Artists’ briefs frequently demonstrate little understanding of or sympathy for the differing social and economic circumstances of artists who reside outside commissioners’ immediate social sphere.
Examples of post-Covid work for artists include Thatcham Council’s commission for an experienced community artist and Appetite Stoke’s finite financial terms for a unique art work due for completion less than a month after application deadline. An unintended result when fees are fixed with neither scope to negotiate fees reflective of each artist’s particular professional and social circumstances nor for years of experience brought to the table, is that only artists with independent means get to perform in the high risk, low pay circus of the visual arts. As academics Richard Wallis and Christa van Raalte assert in their DCMS submission, by taking all the economic risk freelancers carry an ‘invisible burden’ that makes them uniquely vulnerable.
Views on how to achieve recovery are polarised although a common theme is capitalising on the crisis to reset the arts ecology within aspirations for a fairer, equitable arts system. One perspective comes from the ‘block-busters’ — including What’s Next? and CVAN consortia, both dominated by bricks and mortar regularly-funded organisations – who see the Arts Council’s existing 10-year Let’s Create arts policy as the rightful vehicle to steer England’s arts and cultural recovery.
Others call for more a strategic intervention to achieve ambitions for social inclusion and community cohesion. The view here is that substantial redirection of funding to local authorities and region-specific strategies would better support and amplify responsive localised infrastructures and directly aid those currently relegated to the bottom of the arts resourcing food chain.
‘…[Opportunity to] … reimagine the production of art and culture at hyperlocal, neighbourhood and community level’ – Brighton & Hove Council submission to DCMS Inquiry
Consortia in Cornwall, Croydon, Eastern England and West Yorkshire, amongst other places, reject the elitism of Arts Council’s London-bias and concentration of resources in top-tier National Portfolio Organisations. They argue instead for flatter, distributed enabling infrastructures that are more reflective of nuance and cultural variation and amplify diverse voices in arts development and advocacy. There’s rejection too of the inevitability of precarious livelihoods and future prospects of freelancers and micro ventures located in communities whose commitment to the arts and well-being of others has been taken for granted in government and arts emergency measures.
‘… [The arts are] as much dependent on the pipeline of small, community, experimental and emerging practice as on the ‘blockbuster’ bigger organisations who are drivers of economic growth’ — Paul Hamlyn Foundation submission to DCMS Inquiry
There’s more than a hint of a baseline flaw in how arts policy in England comes about. An oft-cited concern is that because the Arts Council doesn’t look for policy inspiration or insight much beyond the regularly-funded institutions and fosters what has become a secretive, over-competitive funding climate for anything else. It fails to acknowledge the value of or advocate to government for adequate resourcing for the gamut of grassroots arts activity. It’s notable too that while the majority of Inquiry submissions were from individuals including artists and those from artist-led groups, it’s only institutional and traditional leaders who’ve been called as Inquiry witnesses.
“A ‘local first’ approach to funding [will] activate local economies, public confidence and support national health and well-being” — Inc Arts submission to DCMS Inquiry
While Arts Council sees itself as remaining at the helm when ‘stabilising and resetting the cultural sector’ and ‘restoring revenue streams’, the future viability of current trickle-down structures and arts organisations’ pre-Covid business models is questioned as much in this set of evidence as it is elsewhere in arts and culture.
Preventing talent wastage
Aligned with existing cultural labour theory, this new evidence illustrates that current mechanics of making and measuring arts policy unintentionally threaten the fabric and an equitable social makeup of the cultural ecosystem and perpetuate the ‘wastage’ of many talents because only those who can afford to get to participate professionally in the arts. The new perspective from Comic Relief to ensure disadvantaged communities remain in charge of their own futures through acquisition of ‘agency, platforms and partnerships’ is a philosophical framework worth pursuing in future arts policy.
DCMS Inquiry written submissions are at https://committees.parliament.uk/work/250/impact-of-covid19-on-dcms-sectors/publications/written-evidence/
Taylor, M. (2017) Good work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/627671/good-work-taylor-review-modern-working-practices-rg.pdf
Commissioned and first published as Fund us like art depends on it by Arts Professional in November 2020.