Theresa Easton is a political activist and an artist with a socially engaged practice.
Theresa Easton, Northern Organiser for Artists' Union England, shows how the Covid crisis should be tackled by applying the principles of cultural democracy. The image above is by David Shrigley
The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the cracks in the arts sector, which is supported by a freelance workforce that has few employment rights and protections. Many supplement their poorly paid freelance art practice with part-time jobs, zero-hour contract work and precarious, casual employment. Artists’ average annual income from their art is only around £6,000.
The lockdown resulted in all work being halted. Members of Artists’ Union England have reported that all exhibitions, projects, and commissions were abandoned, delayed indefinitely or cancelled. Government support packages excluded many artists – because so many artists are forced to seek other kinds of paid work, they fall outside the government’s categories for self-employment. So many artists have been forced to sign on to the pitifully inadequate Universal Credit scheme.
Arts Council England’s emergency financial support of £20 million for creatives turned into a lottery. Keep it Complex, an artist-run group of cultural workers described the response from ACE as ‘business as usual’, creating competition between cash-strapped freelancers in a time of crisis. Keep it Complex kicked back against ACE’s proposal, organising artists into syndicates, working collaboratively to share any winnings. AUE recently launched its Solidarity Fund to support those in financial hardship, supported by artists contributing some of the proceeds from sales of their work.
Overall support from government for freelance and self-employed artists has been inadequate, with many falling into debt, struggling to pay bills and worrying about the future.
The announcement of a ‘rescue package’ for arts, culture and heritage has been launched to much fanfare. Typically, comments from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden about preserving the ‘crown jewels’ of the arts sector, along with similar statements from Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, have revealed the limits of ministers’ understanding of the arts, and their inability to look beyond buildings and institutions.
There is only 7% grant support for freelancers to apply for, after larger institutions take their cut of the pie from an allocated grants budget of £880 million. Some of these institutions are currently making staff redundant while receiving handouts from government.
Tackling precarious employment in the arts
So what are the answers to this crisis? One suggestion from one of our members to tackle a long-standing problem was for more equity in spending between London and the rest of the country. The arts and culture are not funded adequately or fairly, and so have become irrelevant to many people’s lives – particularly outside London and in less well-off communities everywhere.
Trade unionists from Yorkshire and Humberside TUC have highlighted “the disparity of DCMS and Arts Council England funding, at £69 per head for Londoners and £4.58 per head for the rest of England”. Investment in the arts, they argue, should not be driven by economic considerations, but by its social benefits, and it should be accountable to local communities, not imposed on them.
We need to tackle precarious employment in the arts sector. A group of Northern based AUE members have been working on a charter of minimum standards of employment for visual arts freelancers working in the sector, which needs to be widely promoted and adopted by employers.
Work in the creative and cultural industries should be accessible and feasible for everyone. But there is plenty of evidence that the precarity of contract work, the informal networks of institutional gatekeepers, and discrimination on the basis of class and race make it harder for people from working-class and BAME communities to access and progress equally in the arts and culture sector.
Working-class voices and experiences are increasingly absent from the professional arts sector. The most recent official analysis of employment in the cultural sector finds only 13% working in the sector to be from working-class backgrounds. Social mobility in the arts, as in many other areas of British life, has stalled.
The fundamental problem is that years of cuts to local authorities, austerity, and ongoing privatisation have created a sector with an unsustainable, capitalist business model. It relies far too heavily on commercialisation, corporate sponsorship and market forces to fund people’s cultural experiences. But the arts and culture, like health and education, are just too important to be left to the market.
The pandemic has meant that institutions are struggling to cover building costs and management roles, while cutting the jobs of creative workers. And the reality is that apart from TV and cinemas, most people have limited access to the arts, both as consumers and as creative workers.
Shared ownership and control
So Covid-19 is also a chance for us all to rethink what kind of culture we want.
It's time to radically change the way that cultural provision is planned, managed and delivered. Democratic principles of shared ownership and control need to be applied.
We need a radical rebalancing of provision towards less well-off communities. Local authorities and communities need the funding and power to develop culture hubs which can stimulate and encourage local cultural production. We need democratic accountability of cultural institutions.
Finally, there needs to be close involvement of trade unions in the strategic planning and delivery of cultural experiences, so that working people, both as producers and consumers of culture, have fair access to all the benefits that the arts and culture can deliver.
Artists’ Union England is a relatively new trade union representing visual artists which emerged from the 2012 anti-austerity and anti-cuts movement. The trade union is a grassroots, members-led organisation campaigning for better working conditions, pay and equality in the arts sector. This article is the latest in the series of articles on Covid-19 and culture, jointly published with the Morning Star.