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The impact of Covid-19 on the performing arts: lessons and challenges for cultural policy and freelance workers

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated the precarity of working in the cultural and creative sector, presenting various challenges for cultural policy. Freelancers were among the worst hit and most fell through the cracks of governmental rescue schemes. This is a critical situation as more than 70% of work in the performing arts is freelance. How can rapid and effective policy responses be provided in times of crisis? What opportunities and problems do digital technologies present for artistic creation and dissemination? How can freelance artists be supported faster and more adequately?

These are some of the questions that were discussed at the interactive policy workshop organised by Dr Cecilia Dinardi, Senior Lecturer in ICCE, on 25th May 2022 at Goldsmiths, as part of the British Academy-funded project, Cultural policy during and after the pandemic: international insights into the performing arts (September 2020-June 2022). The research was conducted together with Prof Ana Wortman, University of Buenos Aires, and the assistance of Dr Matias Munoz Hernandez.

The event brought together cultural policymakers, industry representatives, academic staff, early career researchers, students and artists to discuss the role of cultural policy in the post-pandemic recovery of the sector. Cecilia and Ana discussed the impact of the pandemic on the livelihoods of 73 self-employed artists from London and Buenos Aires who took part in the study – musicians, actors, singers, circus artists, dancers and comedians –, their coping strategies and the policy support received. They also presented a list of policy recommendations based on the data gathered through interviews and focus groups with the selected artists and discussed new trends emerging in the performing arts.

Gerald Lidstone, Director of ICCE, opened the workshop by praising the interdisciplinary and interactive nature of the event and its importance for the Department’s research ethos. He stated that the research presented is about change. Change that has occurred and change that is going to happen. In other words, what have we learnt from this extraordinary period of time? It was also interesting how governments reacted in different parts of the world and what is now left as a legacy from those actions.

Workshop participants, such as Anne Torregiani from The Audience Agency, Jamie Pullman from the Musicians Union and Ruth Brooks from the GLA, discussed in small groups priority areas for policy intervention – from financial support and training, to creating work opportunities and helping venues. They identified issues and obstacles for their implementation, such as financial conservatism, existing sector divides and a lack of understanding of the value of the performing arts. They also formulated specific suggestions for policy support in the performing arts, including: creating freelancers’ networks, providing subsidies to return to the pre-austerity levels, offering pastoral care to artists, launching a scheme such as eat out to help out to encourage audiences to return to theatres and other venues, and making funding more accessible to independent workers, among others.

Martin Smith, Special Adviser at Ingenious Group and ICCE, opened the last part of the workshop reminding participants of the heterogeneity of the creative industries and the need to differentiate impacts. He stated that ‘to talk about the pandemic and the cultural sector and the cultural and creative industries as if the impact was the same… It was not. There have been extreme differences of experience… The experience has been very, very different from one subsector to another subsector’.

Eliza Easton, Head of Policy Unit, Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and Nesta, explained that a lot of the challenges the sector faces are systemic and pre-date the pandemic, for example the skills gaps. She also spoke of the lack of knowledge about freelancers despite they account for a third or sometimes even 80% of the sector: ‘I think we often get it wrong because freelancers across the economy are poorly understood and actually every single government department does not have the data they need on freelancers’. She called for the need to fundamentally change how we understand the economy and focus on resilience in the arts beyond having diverse income streams.

Anne Torregiani put forward the idea of supporting a freelance Czar or freelance champion to advocate for the needs of the cultural sector and beyond, and stressed the need to better know who the freelancers are.

Other issues that came up in the discussion were:

  • The difficulties of navigating the funding system for freelance artists
  • Who is a freelancer?
  • Where should the money go, to buildings or to individual workers?
  • The impact of London cuts in arts budgets on arts institutions
  • The need to pay more attention to audiences’ practices
  • A shift from broad conceptions of culture to the creative industries as the fastest growing economy
  • Public understandings of ‘culture’ are complex and varied, for some it means opera, for others, East Enders. Though society was heavily relying on cultural consumption during the pandemic, the value of the sector wasn’t recognised
  • Is Universal Basic Income the solution?
  • How public perceptions of culture are changing and are higher now after the pandemic
  • The existing fragmentation of research in the area and the need to share resources rather than compete or replicate data.

A similar interactive workshop took place in Buenos Aires on 30th May 2022 in Centro Cultural Recoleta as part of the same British Academy-funded research. Participants included academic experts, independent artists, arts managers, representatives of grassroots cultural venues and collectives. They discussed the future of the cultural sector in view of existing inequalities, particularly concerning class and the social exclusion of underprivileged artists. Producing relevant cultural data and providing adequate financial support were key challenges for cultural policy. Finally, the key role of resistance in the sector – apart from resilience – was seen as an important feature of how grassroots cultural organisations responded to the pandemic, organising themselves to demand further support and public recognition.

A video of the event can be seen on Youtube.


By Dr Cecilia Dinardi

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