Inequalities in the UK arts and cultural sector have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and lessons must be urgently learnt, a new report has claimed.
In what is described as one of the world’s largest investigations into the impact of COVID-19 on the cultural industries, the Centre for Cultural Value said “the impact of the pandemic has aggravated and accelerated existing inequalities and longer term trends across the arts and cultural sector”.
The report found that the impact on the sector’s workforce was not experienced evenly with individuals already under-represented more likely to leave cultural jobs in 2020. Younger workers, women and people from ethnically diverse backgrounds were among the hardest hit in terms of lost work and income.
Freelancers also suffered significantly, the report found. They constituted 62% of the core-creative workforce before the pandemic and only 52% by the end of 2020.
Researchers acknowledged that the Cultural Recovery Fund was crucial for ensuring the survival of cultural organisations, but they were critical of the funding for not reaching all affected freelancers, despite them making up the majority of the arts and cultural workforce.
“Perhaps the most significant finding from our study is…that we need to better understand the vital role that freelancers play in the cultural industries,” the report said.
“Our research has highlighted the need to identify freelance cultural workers in a much more robust and nuanced way so that we can map the sector more accurately and appreciate its complex infrastructure.”
Such an approach, it said, would ensure freelancers do not fall between the gaps in emergency support during any future crisis.
The pandemic saw a huge increase in digital content as cultural organisations that were forced to close turned to the internet to share performances and art collections.
This made content cheaper and more accessible but the report found it failed to significantly diversify audiences with roughly the same type of people engaging with cultural content as before the pandemic.
A digital approach did transform the experiences of many people with an established interest in the arts though, especially disabled audiences and older people living away from major urban centres.
The pandemic also made organisations rethink the way they engage with local communities by communicating through social media when closed and continuing a hybrid approach after reopening. It paid off for some with increased footfall from the immediate area and more spending per head at certain venues.
The crisis also highlighted the key role culture plays in the UK economy. “The importance of the cultural and creative sectors to animate and stimulate night-time economies and town and city centre high streets was keenly felt, and cultural investment was made a key priority for the first round of ‘Levelling Up’ funds and in many locally led recovery plans,” the report said.
In addition, schools and community groups benefitted from the shift by museums, galleries and theatres to local engagement and social media initiatives such as the #CultureInQuarantine and #MuseumAtHome campaigns attracted thousands of people. “In general, audiences were most drawn to content that privileged empathy, intimacy, community, locality and nature,” the study found.
Another positive was the value of culture for wellbeing. The majority of audiences believed digital culture had a positive effect on their mood and managing anxiety, while most people who increased their digital engagement during lockdown intend to continue doing so.
The report said these developments show that digital is worth investing in for cultural organisations. However, to have a positive impact and reach diverse audiences, it advised that online content must be “embedded in a long-term strategy of audience and school engagement”.
The research said networks played a key role in supporting the cultural sector through the crisis. Organisations came together to find solidarity, co-discover new ways of working, find new business models and lobby policymakers for additional support.
Networks can build long-term resilience, the study added, but it warned “there is a real risk that this effective mode of working, which briefly united what is traditionally a fragmented sector, might disappear post-pandemic without targeted support”.
The report warned that the UK’s cultural sector is “at an inflection point and facing imminent burnout alongside significant skills and workforce gaps”. As a result, “regenerative modes of working” need to be “urgently” adopted, it said.
“This approach would carve out time for all of the positive initiatives that we witnessed across the cultural sector during the pandemic: revisioning and restrategising, professional and network development, reflection and evaluation, play and innovation.
“But regenerative models involve sacrifices: less producing and production, less product and income, less hidden labour and overworking, less solipsism and introspection. This vision can only be realised if the cultural sector keeps working together as a joined-up ecosystem and doesn’t rupture at the seams.”
Bristol Creative Industries is the membership network that supports the region's creative sector to learn, grow and connect, driven by the common belief that we can achieve more collectively than alone.