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An ArtsProfessional feature in partnership with Creative and Cultural Skills

Ben Walmsley reports on the key findings from a 15-month research project into the effects of the pandemic on the cultural sector.

visitors to a museum during the pandemic wearing facemasks
The cultural sector has faced new challenges during the pandemic.

Phil Roeder

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, the Centre for Cultural Value had been up and running for just over five months. It quickly became apparent that if we were to realise our aim of developing a shared understanding of the differences that culture makes to people’s lives and to society, we would need to carefully track and evaluate the rapidly evolving impacts of the pandemic on the cultural sector. 

The Centre for Cultural Value was initially funded to undertake secondary research – to synthesise existing studies on the impacts of arts and culture. The pandemic highlighted the need for us to also undertake urgent, empirical research and cemented our role as a broker of national research networks in the cultural sector. 

It also underlined the need to engage regularly with policymakers in an iterative way to ensure that emerging findings from academic research are communicated as quickly and accurately as possible. 

The project

Our study took place between September 2020 and November 2021 in collaboration with The Audience Agency and the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre. It was delivered by an interdisciplinary project team of 25 people from across the UK and involved a combination of methods. 

Overall, the team conducted 238 interviews with cultural sector professionals and analysed the data to highlight the most significant impacts and implications. Our interview data was supplemented by quantitative analysis of Labour Force Survey data, by a population survey of cultural engagement (led by The Audience Agency), by social media analysis and by an ecosystem analysis of Greater Manchester. 

Policy engagement activity included regular workshops with DCMS, six policy placements and interviews with regional and national policymakers. 

From precarity to regeneration 

In the first phase of the pandemic our research captured the seismic shock experienced by the sector. In the initial days, cultural venues scrambled to shut down quickly and safely in the absence of any clear national guidance. Many cultural venues lost their earned income overnight and cash reserves dwindled in months. 

The visibility and urgency of the Black Lives Matter movements in 2020 also prompted many institutions to analyse and address the poor diversity of their workforces, programming, audiences and boards. Closed to the public, festivals explored digital modes of engagement and some found new international audiences. 

Many creative freelancers found themselves without any income as emergency relief often excluded those with portfolio careers; many existing contracts were not honoured, and some freelancers took work in other sectors to survive. The most dramatic decline was observed in music, performing and visual arts, where the professional workforce fell by around a quarter between March and June 2020, with no signs of significant recovery by the end of 2020. 

However, established freelancers who were well-networked or had strong digital skills sometimes found themselves more in demand than before the pandemic, especially in the screen sector.

When we started our research, like everyone else at the time we were unsure what kind of cultural sector would emerge at the end of the crisis. Although the picture is becoming clearer in 2022, the future direction of the sector remains very much in the balance. 

So despite the fact that the Cultural Recovery Fund was critical in assuring the immediate survival of the cultural sector, our first key finding relates to the ongoing precariousness of the UK’s cultural sector and the ever more urgent need for a more equitable and sustainable funding model. 

An inequitable workforce

Our analysis of the cultural workforce once again highlighted the sector’s pre-existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. The pandemic exposed a deeply unequal cultural sector in which losses of jobs and working hours were not experienced evenly. 

It was clear before the pandemic that the cultural workforce had major issues associated with recruitment and progression and these existing inequalities predetermined the uneven impacts of the pandemic. The pandemic has thus demonstrated the need for revolutionary changes in how the cultural sector views work and the workforce. 

With freelancers and the self-employed constituting a significant part of the cultural sector, targeted financial support was vital. The pandemic had a greater impact on freelance workers, who constituted 62% of the core-creative workforce before the pandemic and only 52% at the end of 2020. 

Perhaps the most significant finding from our study is therefore that we need to better understand the vital role that freelancers play in the cultural industries.


Although the frenzied shift to digital made some content cheaper and more accessible for existing audiences, it has so far failed to diversify the audience base. We ultimately witnessed more cultural engagement from roughly the same number and type of audiences. 

Equally worrying is that despite the rapid take-up of vaccines, the population’s confidence in returning to cultural venues has remained stubbornly low. However, most (80%) survey respondents said that taking part in arts and culture was important to their wellbeing, positively affecting their mood and helping them to manage anxiety. 

The vital role of networks

Networks played a key role in supporting the cultural sector through the crisis and our research demonstrated how networks can foster collegiality, resilience and solidarity. 

Our research on Manchester city-region’s cultural ecosystem identified key attributes which served to mediate the immediate impacts of the pandemic at the regional level. These included: the close cooperation of local authorities; long-standing political engagement regarding the contribution of arts and culture to place-shaping; the strength of network ties, sector-led cultural partnerships and governance; and an established infrastructure of publicly funded cultural organisations.

The rise of the local

The pandemic heralded a re-appraisal of ‘the local’ with lockdown restrictions on travel and behaviour forcing cultural participation into the private, domestic and community spheres. 

The ability of cultural activity to animate and stimulate night-time economies and high streets was manifest and cultural investment was made a key priority for the first round of ‘Levelling Up’ Funds and in many locally led recovery plans.

What next?

The UK’s cultural sector is undoubtedly at an inflection point and facing imminent burnout alongside significant skills and workforce gaps. It therefore urgently needs to adopt more equitable and regenerative modes of working. 

A regenerative approach would carve out time for all the positive initiatives that we witnessed across the cultural sector during the pandemic. These include re-visioning and re-strategising, 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. 

Based on our research we will be sharing a series of recommendations over the next few months. If we are to realise the revolutionary change the cultural sector clearly needs, everyone working in and around the sector will need to play their part in implementing these and become an active agent of positive and regenerative change. 

Ben Walmsley is Professor of Cultural Engagement at the University of Leeds and Director of the Centre for Cultural Value.

 @BenWalmsley | @valuingculture

The executive summary and full report of ‘Culture in Crisis: impacts of Covid-19 on the UK cultural sector and where we go from here’ can be accessed here

All our Covid research resources are available on here

This research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through UK Research and Innovation’s Covid-19 rapid rolling call. It was led by the Centre for Cultural Value in collaboration with The Audience Agency and the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre.

This article, sponsored and contributed by the Centre for Cultural Value, is part of a series supporting an evidence-based approach to examining the impacts of arts, culture and heritage on people and society.

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Photo of Ben Walmsley