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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.