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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://​committees​.parliament​.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​.publishing​.service​.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.