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The arts can survive, but it’s up to arts workers and participants to save and fundamentally change them for the benefit of all. Trade Unions must not allow a ‘new normal’ of devastated culture says John Gillett.

Equity/BECTU/ExcludedUK Panto Parade on 24th Sep protested at inadequate government support for performers and theatre as a whole

Mark Thomas

First, austerity. Now, pandemic. Next, Brexit. None of these inevitably produce cuts, closures and income loss in the arts, but this government, as expected, is making specific choices about ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ industries, jobs and services. 

These reveal and exacerbate the deep endemic problems within our arts and entertainment industry: the inadequacy of the size and distribution of its public funding, centralised and unaccountable funding structures, continuing inequality, and failure to respect and value creativity in society and jobs in the arts. 

The leaking boat

The UK bailout for the arts, £1.57bn – just 3% of Germany’s €50bn cultural bailout - is inadequate to keep organisations going. 

This matches the disparity in European funding levels before Covid. The UK invested 0.3 to 0.6% of GDP in culture while EU countries provided 0.5 to 1%.1 So, France with a similar GDP and economic system to the UK, spent £9b whilst the UK spent around £2.1b in 2018.2

Germany’s culture minister has insisted that the arts are essential, not just ‘a luxury one indulges in during good times’ – very different from the attitude of our government and media reports, where the arts come third behind hospitality and sport.

The arts enlighten, inspire and entertain in every day of our lives. Through them we understand who, why, what and how we are in the world. They also improve mental health, enhance learning ability and confidence, and create £112b of revenue. The government ignores this essential role.

In the UK the Creative Industries Federation predict a ‘devastating and irreversible’ loss of revenue and 400,000 jobs: ‘a cultural catastrophe.’ 

Managements at the Tate, National Theatre and South Bank in London have already made the workforces pay with around 1,500 redundancies, and most low income employed and self-employed workers in the arts fall through the support nets. 

Pandemic policies

Things were bad even before the pandemic. Many areas of the UK have little access to arts, are overlooked and not consulted, and in these challenging times deserve to have the stimulus of culture.

Local Authorities supply most arts funding nationwide, but at least 40% of them have lost arts departments due to government cuts.

91% of creative workers have worked for nothing and unemployment is high.

Trade Unions must not allow a ‘new normal’ of devastated culture. We need to argue urgently for: 

  • Defending the arts workforce through extension of the Job Retention Scheme and Self-Employed Income Support.
  • Safe opening of venues, e.g. through #SeatOutToHelpOut and streaming schemes.
  • Saving venues – more funds to smaller arts organisations, not just the ‘jewels in the crown’.
  • Promoting equality and diversity to ensure that vulnerable older workers and those already discriminated against are fully integrated into the post-Covid workforce. 

It’s vital we also continue to promote our policies for a radical restructuring of the arts sector and its funding, as in Equity’s Performance for All and the TUC’s Making Culture Ours

Radical change

There are four areas where change must happen:

European levels of funding

  • Increase arts spending from 0.3 to 0.5-1.00% of GDP. It’s a small proportion of overall government spending of £874bn for an industry that creates 5.5% of the nation’s wealth.
  • Legal no-cuts local authority budgets, especially in deprived areas
  • Sustained public investment to combat years of austerity 
  • Public ownership of unused spaces for new and accessible arts and community centres and Creative Enterprise Zones.

Equitable redistribution of funding 

  • Within increased overall spending, funding of regions outside London must rise to London levels and smaller arts organisations must get a bigger share.

London has received up to 15 times more funding than other regions, and 82% of Lottery funding16 Portfolio Organisations receive over 35% of total ACE funding,) while the number of organisations receiving less than £100,000 pa has halved.

Democratisation of funding and accountability 

  • An autonomous, devolved, and democratised system of Regional Culture Councils that are representative of local practitioners and communities, connected to local authorities and advised by new bodies including trades unionists. 
  • National bodies to be reconstituted with a facilitating rather than controlling role and more representative of the populations they are meant to serve.
  • Culture funding based on artistically and socially beneficial criteria, including skill, concept, diversity, relevance, rigour and perceived value to the community.

National funding bodies like Arts Council England, struggling for legitimacy, claim now to promote inclusivity, diversity and relevance but have no means to achieve it. They are centralised, unrepresentative and unaccountable, using undefined and elitist notions of ‘excellence’ and a business model of efficiency to allocate funding, which they dispense and remove without transparency, ticking boxes.

Fully inclusive representation and revived arts education 

  • End inequalities and discrimination against those who are feeling most the effects of Covid.
  • Extend diversity monitoring to all industry areas and make inclusive representation a requirement of public funding.
  • Scrap tuition and audition fees, restore student grants.
  • Scrap EBacc, restore arts education to the curriculum.

Trades Unions are pushing these policies now; demonstrations are planned; workers are striking; MPs are lobbied collectively and personally; and petitions and surveys are sent to government.

The arts can survive - but it’s up to arts workers and participants to save and fundamentally change them for the benefit of all.

John Gillett is a freelance director, actor, teacher and author who was also a lead writer for Equity’s Manifesto for Theatre (2012) and Performance for All (2019), and the TUC Creative and Leisure Industries Committee’s Making Culture Ours (2019).

1Creative Industries Federation, 2015, and Eurostats Statistics Explained, 2018.
2Equity surveys of European Trades Unions, 2018.

Link to Author(s): 
John Gillett