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/document/d/1KB6UfGflY_kalslrVSW09OzhpYm-ETq0Qn9lqFaiLgA/edit?fbclid=IwAR00POxzm8FnOSLdf9676oX_gHyid9e134cZATAFbR7BLMZEGSeD5ynX3mI
DCMS inquiry submissions, including from Acme, Croydon Culture Network and CVAN, as cited, are at https://committees.parliament.uk/work/250/impact-of-covid19-on-dcms-sectors/publications/written-evidence/
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/thenewbridgeproject/docs/lockdown-gazette-2_web
Manifesto for Cultural Democracy. https://culturaldemocracy.wordpress.com/
Raworth, K (2017) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. London: Random House.
Rewild the Arts https://www.rewildthearts.org
Seaford, C. et al (2020) Achieving Levelling-Up: The Structures and Processes Needed, LIPSIT Report, November 2020 https://lipsit.ac.uk/project-outputs/
Turning Arts and Cultures in West Yorkshire Upside Down, Same Skies Think Tank https://sameskiesthinktank.com/themes-quotes-links-turning-arts-cultures-west-yorkshire-upside-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.