Clara Paillard is the co-president of PCS Culture Group representing 4,000 museums & heritage workers across the UK. In this addition to our joint series with the Morning Star, she reflects on the bleak prospects for the future of the arts and culture after the pandemic, and argues for emergency funding, the end of privatisation, and the application of cultural democracy to the sector.
A year ago, cleaners and porters at the British Museum were all transferred to a new private company following the collapse of giant Carillion. After 4 months of limbo during which the museum refused to speak to them or to PCS, their trade union, workers were all transferred to 3 month contracts pending a restructure. Some of them had been working at the Museum for over 20 years before falling victims to this privatisation.
Fast forward one year to today, and most of them have been put on furlough and are waiting anxiously to see what the future holds for them, in a country scarred by the Covid-19 pandemic. They are not alone, as millions of workers are holding their breath as the lockdown is easing, and cultural institutions are talking about reopening their doors in July.
Tens of thousands of museum workers were sent home when they closed, followed shortly by theatres, music halls, cinemas and the rest of the country. Thousands of artists and freelancers saw their contracts and commissions paused or dropped. Self-employed educators, tour guides, and technicians were left without an income. Many of them do not qualify for furlough, small business grants or self-employment support as they often combine two or more precarious jobs with their freelance work. Countless workers were left with sick pay or no pay for self-isolation and sickness.
Local cultural production
Despite this, grassroots and locally organised artistic and cultural activities have been flourishing online. Museums and galleries have been pouring out free online content, with virtual tours, exhibitions and activities. Orchestras and choirs have been playing on Facebook, artists sharing and selling their art on Twitter or Instagram, art lessons provided on Zoom, DJs playing live on social media, and lots more similar digital cultural production.
At home, people have rediscovered their creative potential, with many spending more time painting, playing music, watching films, modelling, drawing, and other cultural activities, showing how important they are for our mental health and wellbeing. Bread is not enough, we want roses too!
The key question now is this: how will the arts and cultural activities, already damaged by ten years of Tory austerity policies, survive the Covid pandemic? Most museums now rely on commercial income to balance their books. During closure, that income is not available, potentially leaving huge funding gaps in their budget and stopping them from reopening. Southbank arts venues have warned they may not be able to reopen until 2021 unless emergency funding is provided by the government. Historic Royal Palaces have cut their staff pensions, blaming the pandemic for financial uncertainty. Casual workers at the Tate are worried about their future after the 31st July, while freelance educators are unlikely to be re-employed for a long time.
The PCS Union Culture Group is very clear: no venue should reopen until it is safe for workers and visitors. We are battling to ensure employers adhere to key health and safety principles, and the unions are involved in negotiations and risk assessments for reopening.
But that is not enough. The sector is facing a battle for survival, and the government should agree an immediate emergency fund to ensure it wins that battle. Museums, galleries and the arts are central to our health, happiness and sense of community and togetherness. They also play a significant role in the economy. Re-opening the sector will be important in signalling that it is safe for people to enjoy culture and travel again. Financial guarantees would also remove the pressure to reopen before it is safe to do so.
Our concern is that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport may instead plan to cut funding for arts organisations, and blame the pandemic for further austerity policies. We believe that would be a huge mistake. It would threaten the access and availability of culture for everyone, and it would threaten the livelihoods of the often low-paid staff who have continued working during the lockdown to ensure the safety of the nation’s treasures. The government should instead look to the aftermath of the Second World War, when the UK and many other countries invested in the arts as part of their plans to widen access and rebuild society.
A number of groups, including the PCS Culture Group, various regional TUC Culture Committees, and the Movement for Cultural Democracy have worked in the past few years to develop an alternative programme and funding model for culture.
Arts funding as a whole should be reviewed and increased, and we need to ditch the discredited austerity, privatisation and private funding model. Museums are not money-making machines, but a public service dedicated to education and the art. Proper funding would ensure that workers in those institutions are paid decently with secure terms and conditions, rather than zero hours contracts and bogus self-employment arrangements that are endemic in this sector. It would allow proper artists’ commissions and residencies and help deliver a proper status for artists, as in my home country of France. And it could fund popular arts and cultural education on a large scale, benefiting public health and the economy.
Beyond emergency help, further debates are needed to explore using corporate taxation to expand arts funding and to replace corporate and private ownership, control and sponsorship with state ownership and control, which could be exercised at community, municipal and national levels. This would help the many DIY grassroots activities developed during the Covid crisis to continue.
Provision of arts and culture also needs to be rebalanced, so that people living outside the London area, and in working-class communities, have greater access to cultural facilities.
Currently, arts and cultural institutions are often governed by boards of trustees, mostly from a privileged and corporate background. Democratising cultural institutions would allow community groups, local councils, trade unions and workers to have a say about management and decision-making.
Trade unions are particularly keen to establish minimum standards and terms and conditions for cultural workers, whether employed or self-employed, and to eliminate precarious work. There also needs to be action on equal opportunities in the creative and cultural industry so that people from all socio-economic groups have equal access to jobs and careers, as there is widespread evidence of class-based discrimination.
Finally, art education and production must also be more accessible and meaningful to all. We need to encourage more grassroots, locally situated cultural production, as well as developing more outreach and educational work in schools and working- class communities. The inclusion of disabled people, BAME communities, women, young people and LGBT people is paramount to diversify cultural production and access. Many institutions grew from imperial conquest and colonialism, and are still displaying institutional racism and discrimination.
The PCS Culture Group has now launched a campaign and an online petition calling for no re-opening of cultural institutions before it is safe; emergency funding for instituions, to help society recover from the crisis; and a reversal of privatisation in the culture sector. The Group is also holding a public online event on Thursday 11th June at 6pm with speakers from across the sector.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights spells it out in Article 27: “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits”. We will honour those principles and continue our struggle for culture for the many, not the few.
Clara is co-President of the PCS Union Culture Group, Branch Secretary at National Museums Liverpool, and has led on the campaign against privatisation at National Gallery. She is a disability and climate activist and member of the Labour Party.