Analysis of the plight of visual artists during Covid-19 illuminates the working conditions of a chronically under-examined sub-section of cultural labour. It demonstrates the severity of pandemic impacts on visual artists’ social and economic circumstances, including from inappropriate criteria for accessing government and Arts Council England emergency measures. A central concern is consideration of how arts policies might better acknowledge and account in future arts infrastructures for the distinctive, diverse social contributions of this workforce element. The commentary reveals a stark contrast between ambitions at national and local levels about what artists and the arts are for, and where and how arts policy should be made and implemented. It evidences an emerging grassroots appetite for a dramatic shift from current hierarchical patterns driven by national imperatives to nuanced, localised infrastructures that can ensure artists’ multiple talents and assets contribute fully to social and economic change for the better within communities.
Launched April 2020, the DCMS Select Committee inquiry sought evidence on Covid-19’s immediate and likely long-term impacts on the workings of sectors under the department’s remit. By collecting ideas and propositions for evolving these beyond the pandemic, the inquiry intended to evidence the effectiveness of government and arms-length bodies’ emergency responses and inform future policy. The inquiry’s first report in July 2020 considered some 660 written submissions and oral evidence provided March – July 2020. The committee in sitting was ‘struck by the ‘dire situations … of so many who feel they … have fallen through the cracks of the Government’s response to Covid-19’ (House of Commons, 2020:8). The plight of performing arts freelancers immediately affected when theatres and venues closed in the first lockdown was well-documented within the inquiry itself, on social media and in the national press including The Guardian (2020). This analysis responds to a gap in knowledge about the pandemic’s social and economic impacts on the practices and livelihoods of visual artists, a distinctive section of the creative freelance workforce.
The weight and appeal of evidence on Covid-19’s impact on performing arts livelihoods are apparent in the committee’s first report which stated: ‘[T]he performing arts need a sector-specific recovery deal that includes continued workforce support measures, including enhanced measures for freelancers and small companies’. However, traditional enabling frameworks for performing arts, including professional and economic exchanges between actors and theatres and musicians and concert halls, aren’t mirrored in the visual arts. In the former, Equity and the Musicians Union attract substantial memberships and provide collective bargaining and guidance for members and employers including around payment levels and contractual terms relevant to the variety of performing arts work. These bodies have authority to advocate to employers, arts and cultural sectors and policymakers for improvements to members’ social and economic status. In contrast, visual arts representative bodies and unions have consistently lacked membership levels and clout to speak for artists and protect their rights by influencing employers’ behaviour, including on payment terms. Moreover, the working environment for this distinctive sub-section of cultural labour is chronically under-examined. The breadth of visual artists’ practices is inadequately accounted for in the statistical frameworks for capturing and characterising sectoral workforce development and career needs (Jackson and Jordan, 2005; CAMEO, 2019). Definitions of visual artist are broadly-based and self-defined (TBR, 2018a) and artists take a variety of approaches to pursuit of art practices (CAMEO, 2019), this demonstrated by the range of social, cultural and economic values attached to them (Henry et al, 2021). Artists’ practices encompass creating paintings, sculptures, drawings and photography for exhibition and sale in gallery and alternative settings, visually based live art performance and digital and multi-media installations, and participatory, socially engaged and collectively realised art practices in community settings. Gallery or dealer representation provides a small percentage of the artist constituency with career development and economic security. Charitable and publicly funded arts organisations predominantly offer artists one-off, short-term commissions and opportunities intended to deliver audience engagement and other social and community-based impacts (Jones, 2019).
The commentary that forms the body of paper acknowledges the peculiar nature of the visual arts working environment. It starts by characterising artists’ working lives and goes on to identify core tensions in working relationships between artists and visual arts infrastructures. It continues by drawing out approaches to, and methods for, evolving an inclusive, productive arts ecology for the future. The conclusion demonstrates a polarity in arts industry perspectives for achieving this and with cross-reference to related literatures at that time and since, indicates where systemic infrastructural change might provide a more supportive visual arts ecology for artists’ practices, social status and livelihoods in future.
The full paper is published by Cultural Trends in September 2022 and accessible to subscribers including academic institutions. Contact Susan Jones susanjonesarts [at] gmail.com to arrange a presentation, briefing or seminar informed by this material and related analyses.