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We cannot be content to go back to what was before, as if all is normal… there needs to be a resur­rection of our common life.” Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Easter sermon – opined from the Archbishop’s kitchen and dissem­i­nated via social media to some 18,000 people – provided the cue for a discussion on how to ensure artists’ survival in an arts and cultural environment poleaxed by Covid-19

Emergency funding

As in the 2008 economic recession and austerity, Arts Council England’s Covid-19 emergency strategy has been to throw any cash it could find at the highly-favoured National Portfolio Organ­i­sa­tions. Preserving the immediate public-facing was again the priority, at the expense of anything else, so just a tiny proportion was reserved for individuals including artists. Exhibi­tions and live perfor­mances in NPO venues have been swiftly abandoned in favour of free-to-view digital offerings. Following ACE’s trickle-down’ model, many of arts organ­i­sa­tions have dispensed with those at the self-employed or freelance sharp-end – some of whom are also artists — who make up 70% of their human resources. Furloughed arts staff were catered for by immediate government measures. The arts self-employed who met HMRC’s criteria of earning at least 50% from self-employment had to wait until May for pay-outs. A spot-check (specif­i­cally for this article written in May 2020) suggests that many artists received in the region of £300 to live on for a month. 

Theoretical self-employment

A further compli­cation that I have previ­ously demon­strated is that self-employment is a theoretical status for visual artists. This is because artists are typically presented with budgets fixed at what arts organ­i­sa­tions are prepared to pay and high levels of compe­tition for work under­mines their ability as freelancers to negotiate for what they actually need finan­cially. Artists are predom­i­nantly portfolio workers’ who combine self-employment with PAYE and zero-hour contract work in and beyond the arts. This artists and self-employment conundrum is illus­trated in a survey by North East Cultural Partnership that found just 17% met HMRC criteria for emergency funds. 

Resilience for some 

The heady mix of new National Lottery capital awards and aggressive region-by-region fundraising in England forged a rash of new arts buildings over the last 30 years. But the majority haven’t ever been finan­cially viable, as even in 2005 when government funding to the arts was at its highest, they were judged under-resourced, lacking suitable levels of programme funding. As I wrote in Arts Profes­sional earlier in 2020, keeping the volume of building-based ventures afloat has consis­tently been at the expense of funding many individuals to gain artistic stamina through the exper­iment and risks that charac­terises the progressive arts. It’s no accident that there are 40% more visual arts workers than there were 20 years ago, while the number of artists has remained static. 

Bust flush

Virus impacts aren’t a short-term blimp for the funded arts to be amelio­rated by nifty footwork, strate­gised centrally and top down’ in the coteries of arts power. Short-term arts bail-outs such as ACE’s £90m emergency’ bailout to NPOs are insuf­fi­cient for the enormity of the task. No amount of skilled fundraising and better marketing techniques will save the plethora of slow-moving, risk-averse arts organ­i­sa­tions in the reces­sionary world ahead. The current defin­ition of what gives the funded arts staying power – a highly-profes­sion­alised arts workforce with excep­tional’ leaders, rigorous pursuit of multiple income strands and less reliance on arts funding, and implicit inter-NPO compe­tition – has had its day. 

New narra­tives

The aftermath of Covid-19 will be lengthy and far-reaching for the current funded arts infra­structure. We’re in what US cultural commen­tator Arlene Goldbard describes as a hinge moment’ when bust models can – if there’s the will — be super­seded by timely, new fluid struc­tures premised not on chasing market and audience share but on the social principles of equity, love, and justice”. Like rebooting after a computer crash when a whole host of material missed from back-up routines is lost for ever, now’s the time to abandon last century arts assump­tions and clear the decks so divergent, more productive systems can find space and grow. A radical imple­men­tation of ACE’s Let’s Create ten-year policy could see mothballing of many now surplus-to-require­ments arts buildings. Merger of organ­i­sa­tions and shared CEO and opera­tional posts would substan­tially cut overheads and put more resources into grass-roots, partic­i­patory programming. 

Decen­tral­i­sation

If there is to be adequate funding for artists and performers in the years ahead, de-insti­tu­tion­al­i­sation along with decen­tral­i­sation of arts funding must surely be a priority for arts funding bodies. Stark, Powell and Gordon were early advocates for substan­tially increasing levels public funding to artists and highly-localised activ­ities. Arguing on inclu­sivity grounds, the more recent Movement for Cultural Democracy amplified the decen­tral­i­sation of arts funding case. By enabling artists to better exploit their rights and manage changing external trends and shocks, policy measures directly related to and supportive of hetero­geneity amongst artists directly help to sustain liveli­hoods over a life-cycle. Without them, vast amounts of artists’ drive, creativity and potential go to waste. 

New strategies

a‑n’s most recent membership survey identified the massive negative impact of the lockdown on artists’ and arts managers’ incomes and advocated for immediate measures such as secure studio space for artists and easy-access, socially-distanced profes­sional networking oppor­tunity. In Germany, where 75% of artists recognise virus impacts irrev­o­cably threaten practices and livelihood patterns, the strategic push is for more radical solutions such as a new state-sponsored UBI (Universal Basic Income). Tsioulakis and FitzGibbon make a similar argument, confirming that in the performing arts, like visual arts, the precarity of individuals is both financial and emotional. 

Struc­tural flaws 

But in my opinion a UBI type benefit is not without downsides for practi­tioners. Perhaps it’s inevitable when arts employers don’t see the wisdom of doing the right thing’ for the individuals on whom the quality of public programmes rely that the state has to step in, as a last resort. However, a diffi­culty arises when state benefits absolve arts policy­makers and deliv­erers from taking respon­si­bility for the liveli­hoods of practi­tioners over a life-cycle. My own research demon­strates that direct grants to individual artists from the arts funding system increases their power by fostering and equal­ising working relation­ships. Such an income from outwith arts coffers could have the negative effect of letting arts funders and organ­i­sa­tions off the hook in terms of ensuring equality of oppor­tunity by funding artists’ R&D – the essential no-strings’ work that precedes finished arts products and services that arts insti­tu­tions rely on for their own resilience. 

Thanks to Arlene Goldbard, Cathy Skene, Simon Poulter, Emily Speed, Ali FitzGibbon, a‑n The Artists Infor­mation Company, North East Cultural Partnership, Sarah Filmer, Toby Phips-Lloyd and Jon Adams and to artists and others who contributed data anonymously.

This text which draws on analysis and commentary from my doctoral thesis Artists’ liveli­hoods: the artists in arts policy conundrum 2019, available at http://e‑space.mmu.ac.uk/62635, and related evidence was commis­sioned and first published by Arts Profes­sional in June 2020 and also appeared in Arts Journal (USA).