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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.

Vul­ner­a­ble self-employed

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.

Mis­placed criteria

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. 

Invis­i­ble burden

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. 

Cul­tur­al recovery

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://​com​mit​tees​.par​lia​ment​.uk/​w​o​r​k​/​250​/​i​m​p​a​c​t​-​o​f​-​c​o​v​i​d​19​-​o​n​-​d​c​m​s​-​s​e​c​t​o​r​s​/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​w​r​i​t​t​e​n​-​e​v​i​d​ence/

Tay­lor, M. (2017) Good work: The Tay­lor Review of Mod­ern Work­ing Prac­tices https://​assets​.pub​lish​ing​.ser​vice​.gov​.uk/​g​o​v​e​r​n​m​e​n​t​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​s​y​s​t​e​m​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​a​t​t​a​c​h​m​e​n​t​_​d​a​t​a​/​f​i​l​e​/​627671​/​g​o​o​d​-​w​o​r​k​-​t​a​y​l​o​r​-​r​e​v​i​e​w​-​m​o​d​e​r​n​-​w​o​r​k​i​n​g​-​p​r​a​c​t​i​c​e​s​-​r​g.pdf

Com­mis­sioned and first pub­lished as Fund us like art depends on it by Arts Pro­fes­sion­al in Novem­ber 2020.