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.
Analysis of the plight of visual artists during Covid-19 illuminates the working conditions of a chronically under-examined sub-section of cultural labour. It demonstrates the severity of pandemic impacts on visual artists’ social and economic circumstances, including from inappropriate criteria for accessing government and Arts Council England emergency measures. A central concern is consideration of how arts policies might better acknowledge and account in future arts infrastructures for the distinctive, diverse social contributions of this workforce element. The commentary reveals a stark contrast between ambitions at national and local levels about what artists and the arts are for, and where and how arts policy should be made and implemented. It evidences an emerging grassroots appetite for a dramatic shift from current hierarchical patterns driven by national imperatives to nuanced, localised infrastructures that can ensure artists’ multiple talents and assets contribute fully to social and economic change for the better within communities.
The term artist-led organisation encompasses a diverse and complex range of artists’ activities and philosophical stances, including studio groups of all sizes, gallery spaces, groups concerned with community action, others focused on creating networks or increasing markets for their work, campaigning associations and practice-led artists’ collectives that generate collaborative art in public places.
A new qualitative, longitudinal study surprisingly demonstrates how the lives and artistic prospects of many visual artists improved in pandemic conditions and by doing so, provides clues to the infrastructural shifts needed to honour and sustain the talents and vibrancy of this diverse constituency in future.
In the pandemic, government and Arts Council England built a defensive hedge around the most visible aspects of the arts infrastructure. Staffers in institutions got time, space and money to address fragile business models and secure their futures. However, the emergency arts funding schemes for freelance artists failed to address their artistic, emotional and livelihood needs.
A public conversation in November 2021 commissioned by Proforma for Desire Lines and facilitated by Chris Bailkoski brought together Jack Ky Tan and Susan Jones. Read extracts from this discussion that explored how misconceptions and imbalances in the arts ecology limit artists’ status, pay and livelihood chances and what needs to happen to ensure artists can live a flourishing life through art practices over a life cycle.
The exclusive and short-term emergency arts funding schemes from government and Arts Council England to freelance artists failed to address their livelihood needs, with the majority allowed to fall through the cracks. Early evidence from a longitudinal study surprisingly demonstrates that the lives and artistic prospects of many artists positively improved in pandemic conditions. This offers clues to the substantial shifts in arts infrastructures necessary to honour and sustain the talents and vibrancy of the diverse artists’ constituency in future.
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.
This submission was made in June 2020 to the DCMS Committee considering the impact of Covid-19 on any sectors under the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s remit. It contextualises artists’ livelihood frameworks and sectoral artistic and economic opportunity, highlighting key challenges and barriers faced by this particular sub-section of the creative industries. It evidences the distinctive limitations of short-term emergency measures from Government and the Arts Council to alleviate immediate Covid19 circumstances. Although arts policy marginalised support for artists’ livelihoods after the 2008 recession, the examples of artists’ individualised resilience strategies illustrate the scope and value of supportive interventions by policy relevant to forecasting new strategies for ameliorating the medium and longer-term effects of the pandemic on this vital, distinctive creative industries sub-section. The rationale for structural changes in implementation of arts policy and funding is to remove known barriers and better in future capture and amplify the assets that artists create for their own resilience and bring to social well-being over a life-cycle.
“We cannot be content to go back to what was before, as if all is normal… there needs to be a resurrection of our common life.” Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury.
The Easter sermon – opined from the Archbishop’s kitchen and disseminated via social media to some 18,000 people – provided the cue for a discussion on how to ensure artists’ survival in an arts and cultural environment poleaxed by Covid-19.