Skip to main content

Text exploring the impacts of Covid-19 on artists’ liveli­hoods and the divergent perspec­tives on creating a healthier, more productive and inclusive arts ecology in future. 

Pandemic condi­tions which have shaken the founda­tions and functions of the arts infra­structure to the core illus­trate the baked-in flaws while exposing the polar perspec­tives on condi­tions for a healthy, productive arts ecology in future. 

Reset and recovery tactics by government and Arts Council England priori­tised the arts bricks and mortar’ painstak­ingly created over the last three decades through a combi­nation of substantial National Lottery capital investment in the arts, consol­i­dated by regular funding to a hierarchy of permanent arts organ­i­sa­tions. This response in March 2020 by Darren Henley, Arts Council England CEO, to an appeal for financial support made by 550 UK arts freelancers explains their stance. While it may seem … that large NPOs may be in less need of sympathy or support, the reality is that they … employ thousands of people …. [and] their collapse triggers the collapse of entire ecosystems of human talent on which everyone in the sector depends’. 

Little emergency funding and practical support went to acknowledge the dire situation of individual freelance artists hit by a dual economic and emotional tsunami. Although ensuring equality in the workforce is a beacon principle for the funded arts, and arts staffers in insti­tu­tions were able to benefit from furlough, compounding the precarity of freelance artists was somehow socially acceptable to funders and most arts funded insti­tu­tions. A conver­sation with David Byrne from New Diorama Theatre, October 2020 points to the actions that are really needed. If the current arts system is to have any chance of getting through the challenges in the long term, the people at the helm of arts insti­tu­tions have to get far better at sharing out the resources. They can’t keep saying it’s that other thing over there that’s the solution’ [and] absolving themselves of any respon­si­bility for doing the hard thinking and decision-making.’ 

ACE’s supply-chain’ policy expla­nation above illus­trates Alexander and Peterson Gilbert’s assertion that the UK model is by far the most extreme market-orien­tated arts economy in Europe. In the trickle down’ processes of a neo-liber­alist arts infra­structure it’s inevitable that artists are treated trans­ac­tionally, their main value to provide services’ to bolster the status and trading balances of hiring organ­i­sa­tions. Work outsourced’ to artists by arts organ­i­sa­tions is slated by artists for being too tightly-defined, temporary by nature, offered highly-compet­i­tively and at short notice: Awful briefs written like it’s a contract for a CEO position and speci­fying pre-appli­cation, unpaid site visits and other set dates and outcomes and the size of your final piece and what the piece will tell the audience to think and the budget is £2,000’.

As amplified by this comment , artists’ self-employment status and their family circum­stances are effec­tively disre­garded when work on minimum rates comes with fixed budgets. Artists who are also parents often work in an art world environment where it is expected that private life does not enter. Exhibition previews are scheduled at bedtime, residencies offered without pay or childcare, and a general feeling that if you’re a working parent, you’re not exactly taken into account.’ 

As illus­tration of Covid-19’s harsh impact on the liveli­hoods of freelance artists, CVAN’s survey found that two-fifths immedi­ately lost work at the point of the 2020 lockdown and Acme’s that three-fifths antic­i­pated an annual income drop of 80 – 100%. Signif­i­cantly, the Government’s Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SIESS) and Arts Council’s Emergency fund for individuals were inacces­sible to three-quarters of visual artists due to inappro­priate appli­cation criteria. 

In equal measure in a sector whose long-term resilience is driven by expression of intrin­si­cally-held beliefs and values, the pandemic escalated artists’ emotional fragility. Forced to be socially distant from the highly-individ­u­alised frame­works supportive of well-being, artists lacked – and continue to lack — essential encour­agement and emotional comfort from families and close friends. As Croydon Culture Network concluded, individuals were isolated and overwhelmed when faced with loss of access to their partic­u­larised support networks. Their personal resilience was impacted not only by the immediate income loss, but the overbearing demand to build new sources of income rapidly’. As Alistair Cameron observed in The Lockdown Gazette 2 The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted something we all knew: top-down, centralised, one-size-fits-all approaches, heavy on remote bureau­cracy and diktat, do not work well. Local responses have been far more effective, drawing on inherent skills and resources’. 

As polar opposite to the top-downers’ preference to maintain the discrim­i­natory food chains of the status quo at all costs, place-specific activists and interest groups in arts and culture spheres perceive the pandemic’s excep­tional circum­stances as oppor­tunity to imagine a radically different, fairer, inclusive arts ecology. A comment by Kerry Harker at Turning Arts and Cultures in West Yorkshire Upside Down, October 2020 illus­trates this. Power — including in the arts — must be distributed and not consol­i­dated centrally. We’ve really got to get past culture’s economic impact’ too, [and] if the model of the large insti­tution doesn’t work anymore, what’s next has to be about distributed infrastructure’. 

Routes to deliv­ering human thriving’ and sustainable arts recovery not on cosmetic tweaks to what has proved to be an arts funding system that has failed much of its constituency but lie instead in struc­tural upheaval. Also favoured by the Campaign for Cultural Democracy, Cooper and Sleaford, deliv­ering productive, healthy, inclusive frame­works for social good in the world ahead is premised on redis­trib­uting power, funding and economic account­ability away from top tier arts management to the gregarious grass­roots. YVAN Director Sue Ball commented in this respect at Turning Arts and Cultures in West Yorkshire Upside Down, October 2020. In the face of Covid there is a lot more local networking and support, it’s gone back to the local, which is really important to consider now [in] making a case for west Yorkshire, and the role of those, partic­u­larly artists and visual art spaces that are [at] local level, [and] are pretty much vital to cultural life.’ 

Aligned with Raworth’s doughnut economics’, such an approach forges an inclusive, productive and differ­ently measured arts ecology that is people-centred and local first’. Broad­ening defin­i­tions of what consti­tutes arts devel­opment and growth, gives equal weight to markers for and measurement of environ­mental and social well-being for individuals as to economic factors. Ben Cooper concurs in Cultured Commu­nities: The crisis in local funding for arts and culture. The arts and culture ecosystem must be supported from the grass­roots up, rather than only funding the larger, higher profile theatres and organ­i­sa­tions, and expecting the benefits to trickle down. Only then can we see a levelling up’ of arts and culture provision across England’. 

Achieving the nuanced artistic and economic condi­tions for artists and their commu­nities deserve rests on three power shifts. It’s the diver­si­fi­cation of arts policy through consistent engagement with arts policy devel­opment and identi­fi­cation of appro­priate delivery frame­works that will sustain divergent, localised commu­nities of interest, including independent visual artists, over the longer-term. Rather than the gatekeeping’ which under­mines artists’ ability to get ahead on their terms, it’s democ­ra­tising arts devel­opment processes and creating contexts for co-validation that will ensure a fairer, more inclusive arts ecology for the future. 

The final shift acknowl­edges the subsidiarity principle, in which a central authority performs only those tasks which can’t be performed at a local level. Creation of a common wealth’ in both economic and well-being terms in all the divergent local­ities, commu­nities and regions of England will only arise through devolution of substantial levels of national’ funding away from a London-centric arts body and giving artistic and economic respon­si­bility to accountable localised arts struc­tures. These could include strategic re-alignment of arts devel­opment with local author­ities and mayoral constituencies and its integration into the remit and work of citizens’ assemblies.

Common adoption of a just in time’ delivery expec­tation of artists across current arts systems coupled with a meagre artists’ R&D resource allocated highly-compet­i­tively not only exacer­bates economic and emotional precarity, but is wasteful of most artists’ talents and contri­bu­tions to society. Releasing such thwarted potential’ for wider social benefit is the ambition of Rewild the arts, that seeks to create fairer and more sustainable arts devel­opment in future. As Andrew Pinnock says, National arts portfolio devel­opment is a lot like gardening: make a plan, take care of plants/​arts organ­i­sa­tions that feature in the plan and weed out competitors when they threaten to grow and flower without permission. Weeding thwarts potential. Growth that could have happened no longer does. Seeds whose moment might have come in a future season never get that far. It’s wrong to let past planning decisions define the whole of the future if those decisions were bad or unimag­i­native in the first place.’ 

Scoping and deliv­ering such new frame­works are far, far more complex than keeping on with the trickle down’ arts economy pursued for decades by government, arm’s length agencies and the arts organ­i­sa­tions enjoying regular funding. However, it’s in the products of these granular infra­struc­tures that the future arts crown jewels’ will be scoped and realised, and where the biodi­versity will be created that the arts needs to navigate through the rocky, uncharted territory of the new normal’ ahead.


Alexander, V. & Peterson Gilbert, O. (2020) Analysis of the influence of neo-liber­alism in the config­u­ration of the values of culture. London: Goldsmiths University.

Arts Council England: CEO Darren Henley’s response to a letter of concern in March 2020 signed by 550 UK art freelancers https://​docs​.google​.com/​d​o​c​u​m​e​n​t​/​d​/​1​K​B​6​U​f​G​f​l​Y​_​k​a​l​s​l​r​V​S​W​09​O​z​h​p​Y​m​-​E​T​q​0​Q​n​9​l​q​F​a​i​L​g​A​/​e​d​i​t​?​f​b​c​l​i​d​=​I​w​A​R​00​P​O​x​z​m​8​F​n​O​S​L​d​f​9676​o​X​_​g​H​y​i​d​9​e​134​c​Z​A​T​A​F​b​R​7​B​L​M​Z​E​G​S​e​D​5​y​nX3mI

DCMS inquiry submis­sions, including from Acme, Croydon Culture Network and CVAN, as cited, 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/

Cooper, B. (2020) Cultured Commu­nities: The crisis in local funding for arts and culture. London: Fabian Society.

The Lockdown Gazette 2, For Solidarity network and New Bridge Project https://​issuu​.com/​t​h​e​n​e​w​b​r​i​d​g​e​p​r​o​j​e​c​t​/​d​o​c​s​/​l​o​c​k​d​o​w​n​-​g​a​z​e​t​t​e​-​2_web

Manifesto for Cultural Democracy. https://​cultur​aldemocracy​.wordpress​.com/

Raworth, K (2017) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. London: Random House.

Rewild the Arts https://​www​.rewil​dt​hearts​.org

Seaford, C. et al (2020) Achieving Levelling-Up: The Struc­tures and Processes Needed, LIPSIT Report, November 2020 https://​lipsit​.ac​.uk/​p​r​o​j​e​c​t​-​o​u​t​puts/

Turning Arts and Cultures in West Yorkshire Upside Down, Same Skies Think Tank https://​sameski​es​thinktank​.com/​t​h​e​m​e​s​-​q​u​o​t​e​s​-​l​i​n​k​s​-​t​u​r​n​i​n​g​-​a​r​t​s​-​c​u​l​t​u​r​e​s​-​w​e​s​t​-​y​o​r​k​s​h​i​r​e​-​u​p​s​i​d​e​-​down/

Text commis­sioned and first published by Corridor 8

Thanks to David Byrne (Artistic and Executive Director, New Diorama Theatre), Andrew Wilson (Same Skies Think Tank), Sheridan Rawlings (Brewtime Collective, Preston) and artists for conver­sa­tions informing this text and to Lauren Velvick at Corridor 8 for consistent encour­agement and patience.