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Arts Council England’s call for freelancers to participate in yet another survey has been met with anger and dismay by the freelance workforce, for reasons Chrissie Tiller explains.

Royal Shakespeare Company's Dream, February 2021 set-up shots.
Royal Shakespeare Company's Dream, February 2021

Stuart Martin © RSC

Last week, Arts Council England (ACE) put out a tweet that read: "Freelancers: We want to get to know you better." It went on to suggest this was a first time attempt to build up a picture of the freelance cultural workforce: a chance to make our voice heard. 

As frustrated freelancers responded, after forty years of surveys and data gathering, it was more than disheartening to be told the national body for arts and culture understood so little of their lives. Especially, as CEO Darren Henley himself noted, freelancers make up 49% of the total workforce in the cultural sector and an even greater percentage of those making the creative work on which the sector depends. 

Covid -19, Brexit and growing austerity uncovered the fragility of a cultural sector whose success remains predicated on neoliberal market-focused values. They also exposed the alarming precarity and vulnerability of its freelance workforce. The resultant upsurge in research into the impact of a funding system that created and has long tolerated these inequities has already been captured in Susan Jones's excellent article for Arts Professional. 

A good deal of that research, from Sheffield University's report on its local cultural ecology to the Centre for Cultural Value's more national and global analysis has, understandably, been undertaken by universities. Universities have the remunerated staff and the capacity often required to embark on tasks of this scale.  

Defiance and anger

Unfortunately, these research findings have yet to lead to meaningful changes in policy. Even a recent House of Lords committee admitted this has left freelance workers disillusioned with a sector that continues to render them invisible. As I note in Care as a Radical Act it is difficult to place one's trust in a system which has continually de-valued freelance skills, neglected freelancers’ well-being and discounted the support they might need in order to flourish.   

So, when ACE blithely announced another survey to be undertaken by yet another group of salaried staff at yet another university, it was not surprising the response of most freelance workers was one of defiance and anger. Asked once more to offer their time, their labour and their valuable insights for free they refused vociferously. As one artist retorted: “I'm too busy working on precarious, low paid jobs.”

I did take the survey. It took me the twenty minutes suggested, and there was promise of a £50 payment if selected for further interview. The irony of asking respondees a number of questions about unpaid labour was clearly unintended. Although it probably influenced my rejoinder to the question: “What is your main reason for working as a freelancer?” 

As far as I know, ever since the glory days of the Greater London Council in the 1980s, artists and other creative workers have never had an alternative. Being asked how much money I had paid into a pension pot caused a similarly wry response. Perhaps they had already anticipated this, as the list of suggestions for additional support focused on financial, contractual and management skills. 

Extraordinarily inept

It was more than a little depressing to see there was no reference to class. In a sector whose structural inequalities have meant the number of working-class people engaged in the sector has actually shrunk by half since the 1970s, this felt like an unfortunate omission. 

This is not intended, however, as a critique of an individual survey or those conducting it. What originally incensed me was the extraordinarily inept call from ACE. Firstly, its seemingly cheery admission that it had learned nothing from the findings of research already commissioned. Secondly, the proposition, from a salaried ACE team, that freelancers should undertake even more unpaid labour by responding to such a survey.

Finally, its disingenuous declaration that completing such a survey would offer freelance workers a voice. A voice that has gone unheard since the Arts Council of Great Britain decided over 70 years ago to create a funding structure that has always preferenced buildings and institutions. 

Putting workers first

A younger artist friend, feeling growing desperation about ever finding somewhere for her and her partner to live and work, recently wrote that she felt “freelance artists are not allowed a home in London”. As existing research has shown, it is not only London that has placed something as basic as housing out of the reach of many freelance workers. 

Without independent means, family support or partners who work in well-salaried posts, more and more are being forced to leave the sector. If ACE truly believes being freelance is a viable alternative career choice in the sector, it has to be prepared to undertake change at a systemic level. 

A first step might be to fund cultural freelancers to imagine what the sector might look like if, instead of focusing on large institutions and high-profile buildings, we put workers first? No more surveys. No more unpaid labour. No more empty promises. 

Committing instead to working together to build a sector that puts inclusion, diversity and cultural democracy at its very heart. A sector where freelance cultural workers would finally feel listened to, recognised and valued.

Chrissie Tiller is a freelance cultural worker.  

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As far as I am aware, the only source of ACE funding for creative artists and independent companies outside the NPO system is National Project Grants. Whatever its reasoning, ACE has chosen to deplete the NPG funds available to bid into, and this has immeasurably affected freelance artists. As this article points out, they do not enjoy the comfortable salaries of managers, academics, NPO employees or ACE officers, and yet they are the lifeblood of the arts. Restoring at least previous levels of funding, and better still increasing them, would improve both freelance artists' livelihoods and the quality and quantity of art available to the general public at a stroke. Of course they accept the inevitability of competition, but the rules of engagement need to be clear, the battlefield level, creative ambition rewarded and the prize worth competing for! Tony Haynes, Grand Union Orchestra

It's not new news to state that our arts ecology runs on a trickle-down model. Artists’ livelihood and development prospects are inextricably intertwined with the ambitions and fortunes of the subsidised arts sector. As any artist can tell you, the financial terms and artistic conditions in artists’ opportunities including R&D grants have worsened considerably over a decade. In that latter respect, direct funding to artists from the Arts Council has dropped off steeply. As Anthony Padgett discovered but only through an FoI request, just 1.5% (or £7m) of Arts Council England funding went directly to visual artists in 2019. This far less in real terms than in pre-Tory times - to retain the value of 2008 it should be more like £12.2-£14.6m. It's ironical though that in 2021 – maybe due to Covid impacts - the Arts Council seemed to recognised a policy gap and brought back an ‘Individuals’ strand to its work. Clearly though the resulting programme - including the scope of this (expensive) research study hasn't been informed by the nuances of art forms nor the demographics and characteristics of individuals who are all lumped by this survey into the term 'freelance' for ACE's managerial convenience. It's worrying too that the survey heads off by saying that ACE owns the data and thus any publication of it is in their hands. If the 2019 Livelihoods of Visual Artists study is anything to go by, there's no guarantee than anything remotely 'difficult' for ACE to stomach will ever see the light of day.

Well, firstly, I didn't intend to post a blank comment! I've just completed the survey, and I'm appalled at the limited questions asked, and the lack of opportuinty to post unstructured comments. I felt I had to write to the University of Essex to express my concerns (there's one contact email hidden away at the end of the survey). For what it's worth, here's part of what I sent: ACE states it is building a picture of the freelance workforce ‘for the first time’. That in itself is a stunning admission. But if true, and its implication that ACE is ignoring the wealth of research that has been done by others, including academics, surely maximum effort should be put into getting the full picture? This survey won’t provide that. I have to assume ACE has signed off on the structure of the survey - and so the chances of meaningful change resulting from it, if these are the questions asked, must be miniscule. Several of the questions are phrased from the perspective of salaried employment e.g. how has the work you are expected to do ‘during your paid work hours’ [changed]? But much freelance work is contracted on a fee basis for project outputs or outcomes, not hours at all. Were any freelancers invited to help design the survey (& be paid for their time)? The irony of perpetuating the institutional / freelancer imbalance by asking freelancers to provide this survey information by giving their time for free, to employed staff on salaries is not lost on me. This structural imbalance is one freelancers have suffered from, and been exploited by, for decades. The survey gives this ‘business model’ no consideration at all. I would hope that you are already aware of the sense of frustration, anger and even despair amongst the freelance community at this latest initiative. Kind regards