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An inde­pen­dent review demon­strat­ing the severe impacts of the pan­dem­ic on the social and eco­nom­ic cir­cum­stances of visu­al artists reveals the diver­gent per­spec­tives at nation­al and local lev­els in Eng­land about what artists and the arts are for, and on how and where future arts pol­i­cy should be made and implemented.

Launched soon after the March 2020 lock­down, the DCMS inquiry into Covid’s impacts on all its sec­tors iden­ti­fied as an imme­di­ate con­cern the plight of arts free­lancers whose work prospects melt­ed away like snow on a sun­ny day. As Croy­don Cul­ture Net­work com­ment­ed, artists’ per­son­al resilience was knocked not only by loss of access to sup­port net­works but by the over­bear­ing demand to rapid­ly build new sources of income. 

Although they rep­re­sent a size­able sec­tion of human resource with­in the arts, many free­lancers fell straight through gov­ern­ment and arts safe­ty nets, this due to poor knowl­edge of social demo­graph­ics and their eco­nom­ic posi­tion with­in gov­ern­ment and arts fund­ing. Lack of under­stand­ing at pol­i­cy lev­el of art­form par­tic­u­lar­i­ties in income make-up made thou­sands of free­lancers who were wor­thy of sup­port inel­i­gi­ble for the government’s Job Reten­tion Scheme (JRS) and Self-employed Income Sup­port Scheme (SEISS).

Left to sink or swim 

While only a third of musi­cians were inel­i­gi­ble to apply, among visu­al artists three-quar­ters were left to sink or swim because their self-employed earn­ings con­tributed less than half of annu­al earn­ings. Arts Coun­cil England’s (ACE) one-off com­pet­i­tive £2,500 emer­gency grants for indi­vid­u­als which reprised these inap­pro­pri­ate cri­te­ria fur­ther lim­it­ed access to appli­cants with a track record of work­ing in the pub­licly fund­ed cul­ture sec­tor whose loss­es were direct­ly attrib­uted to Covid work cancellations.

To the detri­ment of the very many free­lancers depen­dent on them for short-term and one-off work, arts organ­i­sa­tions’ busi­ness mod­els proved high­ly vul­ner­a­ble to the pandemic’s suc­ces­sive shock­waves. Encour­aged by gov­ern­ment and fund­ing poli­cies, arts insti­tu­tions com­mon­ly aug­ment reg­u­lar rev­enue fund­ing with sig­nif­i­cant strands of com­mer­cial­ly-derived income and phil­an­thropic grants. 

But pan­dem­ic cir­cum­stances colour-illus­trat­ed the base­line flaw in these neo-lib­er­al­ist strate­gies, in that the more suc­cess­ful arts organ­i­sa­tions had been at expand­ing trad­ing and earned income strands and fundrais­ing, the greater their finan­cial prob­lems in extreme conditions. 

As Covid waned dur­ing the sum­mer of 2022, insti­tu­tions may have expect­ed to win more mon­ey’ in the next fund­ing round to micro tune their lead­er­ship teams and beef up their busi­ness acu­men to main­tain their com­pet­i­tive posi­tion. But such aspi­ra­tions are vic­tim to a gov­ern­ment now fac­ing an enor­mous fis­cal black hole with a poor track record for valu­ing pub­lic ser­vices includ­ing the arts. 

Weak­ness of ver­ti­cal­ly framed arts ecologies

Fail­ure of arts organ­i­sa­tions’ mixed income’ busi­ness mod­el has long-term impli­ca­tions for free­lance artists who are at great­est finan­cial risk as their con­tract­ed work and asso­ci­at­ed fees fall out­side organ­i­sa­tions’ core oper­a­tional costs and are depen­dent on run­ning pub­lic programmes.

The weak­ness of the ver­ti­cal­ly framed arts ecolo­gies con­cret­ed in by the last 40 years of arts poli­cies lies in fail­ure to recog­nise, val­ue and cap­i­talise on the assets of social­ly messy, dynam­ic inter­re­la­tion­ships, unortho­dox career paths and rad­i­cal approach­es to con­tent orig­i­na­tion. ACE’s pref­er­ence for top down pol­i­cy and trick­le-down method­olo­gies mar­gin­alis­es gran­u­lar grass­roots activ­i­ties, includ­ing dis­count­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of indi­vid­ual visu­al artists’ nuanced, diverse con­tri­bu­tions to their imme­di­ate com­mu­ni­ties and localities. 

As shown by the fram­ing of pan­dem­ic ame­lio­ra­tion mea­sures and since, the cohort of Nation­al Port­fo­lio Organ­i­sa­tions (NPOs) are the most impor­tant fea­ture in ACE’s pol­i­cy implementation. 

ACE chief Dar­ren Hen­ley believes per­ma­nent insti­tu­tions are best placed to build pros­per­ous places and strong, cohe­sive com­mu­ni­ties … attract­ing vis­i­tors, dri­ving out­side invest­ment to local com­mu­ni­ties and cre­at­ing jobs”. 

Mutu­al flourishing

As direct chal­lenge to ACE’s myopia as far as suit­able infra­struc­tures for the arts are con­cerned, many grass­roots bod­ies and con­sor­tia pro­vid­ed the DCMS inquiry with an alter­na­tive, more expan­sive and inclu­sive vision. Although impacts of hyper-local arts and cul­tur­al ecolo­gies may be less imme­di­ate­ly vis­i­ble and quan­ti­fied, their strength lies in the mutu­al flour­ish­ing that is fos­tered and sus­tained over time. 

As the Paul Ham­lyn Foun­da­tion put it: The arts ecol­o­gy is del­i­cate, and any sup­port … must recog­nise the con­tri­bu­tion of small, com­mu­ni­ty, exper­i­men­tal and emerg­ing prac­tice as much as it does the dri­vers of eco­nom­ic growth – one does not exist with­out the oth­er.” Arts recov­ery and long-term sus­tain­abil­i­ty as a social good beyond the pan­dem­ic is depen­dent on cel­e­brat­ing and pre­serv­ing region­al, sub-region­al and micro-lev­el cul­tur­al nuance and variation. 

This means future poli­cies need to focus on shift­ing pow­er, fund­ing and eco­nom­ic account­abil­i­ty to the grass­roots and small-scale. As sec­tor sup­port organ­i­sa­tion Cre­ative Ker­now argued, it’s a strat­e­gy that, by acknowl­edg­ing the strength of localised arts devel­op­ments that engage with audi­ences and net­works to exper­i­ment in doing things dif­fer­ent­ly …. cre­ates inspi­ra­tional blue­prints for [oth­er] communities”.

Lev­el­ling up

Inquiry respons­es from the cul­tur­al grass­roots echoed calls from else­where — such as by Sleaford (LIP­SIT) and Coop­er (Fabi­an Soci­ety) — for sys­temic over­haul of cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic norms as part of achiev­ing soci­etal lev­el­ling up. Redress­ing cur­rent lev­els of social exclu­sion and inequity rests on redis­trib­ut­ing pow­er, fund­ing and eco­nom­ic account­abil­i­ty for the arts to the gre­gar­i­ous grassroots. 

Broad­en­ing def­i­n­i­tions of arts devel­op­ment and growth gives equal weight to mark­ers for, and mea­sure­ment of, the envi­ron­men­tal, social and eco­nom­ic well-being of all mak­ing the arts, ensur­ing human flour­ish­ing through mutu­al­i­ty in devis­ing and achiev­ing social con­tri­bu­tion and gain. By fos­ter­ing nuanced, sus­tained inter­play across micro and tran­sient struc­tures and larg­er-scale and per­ma­nent organ­i­sa­tions, the bot­tom-up mod­els revealed in these DCMS inquiry sub­mis­sions equate resilience with pro­vi­sion of rec­i­p­ro­cal, car­ing’ con­di­tions that fos­ter good health and well-being amongst citizens. 

Accord­ing to Cen­tre for Cul­tur­al Value’s sub­stan­tial study of Covid’s effects on arts and cul­ture, such con­di­tions vital­ly pro­vide for sus­tain­able devel­op­ment rather than unsus­tain­able growth”. Impor­tant­ly for artists’ futures, mea­sur­ing the soft social ben­e­fits of their con­tri­bu­tions to people’s places and lives over a life cycle coun­ters the con­ve­nient mis­as­sump­tion often found among pol­i­cy­mak­ers and arts man­agers that the artists liveli­hoods prob­lem’ lies in there being too many’ for the work avail­able, as if the cur­rent wastage of artists’ tal­ents through man­u­fac­tured scarci­ty is desir­able and inevitable. 

First pub­lished in Arts Pro­fes­sion­al in Novem­ber 2022, this arti­cle is extract­ed from Crack­ing up: the pan­dem­ic effect on visu­al artists’ liveli­hoods’ which was pub­lished in Cul­tur­al Trends in Sep­tem­ber 2022