The former Southbank Centre Director, founder and chair of Metal and one of the most powerful voices in British arts questions our transactional use of artists and freelancers – now forcibly drawn into focus by the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is the biggest challenge we have faced.” JUDE KELLY isn’t coy when asked about the impact of Covid-19 on the cultural sector here in the UK. With a career spanning over four decades – including a 16-year stint as director of the UK’s largest arts centre, London’s Southbank – the Liverpudlian, now director of Women Of The World festival, will have witnessed her fair share of upheaval from organisations both big and small. But nothing, she says, picking up the phone inside of her home on the South Coast, has compared to this.
By 21st March the entirety of the UK’s cultural sector was ground to a halt. Many, including those here in Liverpool, opted to close their doors earlier that week. The majority of which chose to do so on their own accord for fears over public safety following a slew of mixed messages from central government before the nationwide closure was ordered on 20th March.
The initial pictures show the shutters going down on venues, galleries, theatres and cinemas. Beyond this, the chain of those affected is far greater. Artists, lighting designers, cloakroom attendants, security, bar staff, food distributors, PR companies, graphic designers, magazines and taxi services are just some of those who will have felt the force of the immediate closures as the nation veers ever closer to total lockdown.
“The level of shut down is unprecedented,” Jude tells me over the phone while sat at home – likely the backdrop for the coming months. “Obviously we didn’t live through the war, but there are accounts of the things you could do to keep everyone’s spirits up. Places largely stayed open. People were devoted to community entertainment, troop entertainment, Blitz entertainment. It was a completely different scale of things.”
Even before the lockdown came into effect, social media was awash with statements from organisations and festivals outlining postponement of their programme or outright cancelation. Africa Oyé has been postponed indefinitely, with PZYK 2020 moving to summer 2021. Sound City and Focus Wales have both rescheduled for autumn. A rush of support has followed for many of the artists whose tour dates have all but disappeared until the summer, with Bandcamp waiving artist fees on purchases of music for three days last week.
In Liverpool, venues Phase One and the Kazimier Garden have shared crowd funders in a bid to outlast the disruption. Many artists have also taken to streaming to plug the gap of live music in a city that boast musical offerings seven nights a week. Undoubtedly, it is those musicians and other self-employed figures in the industry who are being hit hardest. The offer of £94 a week from the government had done little for reassurance. A full support package has now been announced and will look to cover 80 per cent of self-employed worker’s wages, but it’s expected that payments will not be processed until as late as June. As a result, there have been almost 500,000 new applications for Universal Credit payments in the last 10 days.
“Being self-employed, which is the basis for a lot of artists’ and creatives’ lives, that’s the thing that people are most scared of at the moment,” says Kelly when assessing the ripple effect of damage the pandemic has caused. “The worry is whether individual livelihoods just shatter to the extent [that] people cannot repair them. I think culture has to ask questions of itself when we spring back from this, such as, ‘Are we going to give a greater commitment to establishing community, greater egalitarianism?’ We’ve got to think about that.”
In line with the growing threat to public life caused by the pandemic, Arts Council England has been quick to buttress support for its range of organisations awarded grants. A further £20m has been set aside for “individuals working in the cultural sector, including artists, creative practitioners and freelancers”, of which £2,500 grants can be applied for. Elsewhere, The Musicians’ Union has opened a hardship fund offering £200 grants to its members, with further support schemes opened up by Help For Musicians UK and PRS For Music.
This initial action has been an encouraging first push to ensure as many intuitions, arts groups and artists survive the lockdown and remain part of the rebuilding process later in the year when measures are lifted – something which will not be possible if many lives shatter “beyond repair”. “I don’t think it’s a cliché to say that we need culture more than ever,” Kelly replies when I ask her whether culture and the arts is secondary amidst a health crisis. “There are things that people need as basic; they have to have health, they have to have livelihood, they have to have food, and shelter. You can’t put those above anything. But you do need culture to build emotional sustenance, resilience, community sentiment.”
The proprietors of UK-wide culture will be held in a state of paralysis while the lockdown continues. Beyond self-serving attempts to grow personal brands of “saviourism”, writing toe-curling songs about the pandemic or ridding John Lennon’s most famous piano ballad of any sincere sentiment, the reduction in widespread artistic output is a sign of normality in relation to the situation. Those attempting to produce Corona-culture show the greatest signs of hysteria. Culture and artists are not commentators removed from the realities of the health crisis, as Kelly points out. “When Glasnost happened, when the Berlin Wall fell, when the genocide in Rwanda happened, when artists feel life has become so extreme, they can feel there is nothing more that they can add. Not that art is trivial, but there is a moment where art cannot comment.”
However, in Kelly’s view, this period where art cannot comment is generally a short window. “Artists have their own parents, their own children to be anxious about. Artists aren’t just all in an attic, making work oblivious to everything around them. They’re more than likely to be delivering food parcels for those in need than practising art. I don’t want to think of artists as separate from the society they live. I want to make sure that when the relevance of art returns, that this community isn’t severed.”
These community ties are crucial to any recovery once the curve of the pandemic begins to recede. But the ensuing developments have brazenly shown a complete absence of support systems in place for artists and the cultural venues they draw visitors to. While arts organisations and their employees have the assurance of government backing, freelancers were left treading water with the sole flotation aide of £94 a week prior to the chancellors latest announcements, a sum they would likely become submerged with if the measures don’t come into effect for some months.
“It’s up to all institutions that have had ties with freelance artists to throw a lasso around them,” says Kelly. “Essentially they need to take action to show they’re associated and find a way of supporting them financially. The greatest problem is people feeling like they’ve been dropped off a ledge and they no longer exist.” For Kelly, lack of support in place for freelancers stems from a laissez faire approach to society that has reinforced inequality. But this dichotomy of casualisation has proliferated in much of the UK’s workforce since the turn of the 20th Century. The establishment of free market economics as the perceived norm, essentially a capitalist realism with no alternative, these practices have rubbed away any sedimentary support networks in a bid to enhance the individual’s flexibility to work on demand and when required. The producers of culture are no less entrapped in this system as employees handed hollow zero hours contracts.
“The gig economy includes freelance artists. We don’t tend to talk about it in this way. But all freelance artists are on zero hours contracts until somebody rings them up and commissions them for something,” Kelly replies. They have no safety net. The pandemic will question how society asks freelancers to produce work on demand. But also, even when they’re not being demanded to create, they should still have access to protective rights.
“We use artists in a transactional way, mainly to provide the spectator with a good time,” Kelly continues. “All of a sudden, they have to be dispensable, with no support. People who aren’t in the arts are probably not thinking about this. But we need to think about it. We will be thinking about shop workers, about taxi drivers; we will be thinking about lots of people who we use as services regularly. But I think most people don’t think about artists as part of their lives or concerns,” she adds. “We have to impress on people that everyone uses artists all of the time. And this is more apparent now that we’ve switched off the supply chain. It has to be more than the concern of the creative industries.”
One of the ideas Kelly mentions is the establishing a universal basic wage. The emergency budget measures announced last week show there is potential to establish a system of centralised support for the businesses across the country. Therefore, once the pandemic subsides, there must be convincing action to see these measures amended to cover basic wage needs for the population. The evidence for establishing such a system, one that would support culture, artists and workers in precarious employment, is there to see in the huge numbers of those now applying for Universal Credit. Government should not take its decisions on a reactionary basis and wait for the next set of challenges to arise. In doing so it would find itself in a similar position to the continuing health crisis.
The bigger picture for the world of arts and culture is one that it yet to come into focus. Right now, protection and recovery are the essential steps that need to be taken. But the arts hiatus does not need to prove lost time. Now is when conversations should begin for how we establish a more protective cultural environment for producers of culture, and how institutions need to be a part of that conversation and framework, both big and small. If there is one positive for culture to emerge from the pandemic, it may be dispelling the notion that the freelancer and artist is dispensable.