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How can cultural policy support freelance performing artists? It's a question Cecilia Dinardi has been asking in her latest research into the impact of Covid. 

Man performance circus act on trapeze
Dario Ayala, Circus performance, Buenos Aires

Jocelyn Mandrik

“Who am I if I am not able to sing?” a self-employed soprano based in London wondered in angst a few months ago. When our sense of self is tied to what we do, crises like Covid have profound consequences for our subjectivities, personal identities and social lives. 

The pandemic has shaken up the cultural sector in unprecedented ways, with catastrophic consequences for artists and organisations. But what have we learnt? What specific actions can cultural policy take to support the self-employed in the sector?

In a collaborative research project* between Goldsmiths, University of London and the Universidad de Buenos Aires, we looked at how self-employed performing artists experienced the pandemic, what coping strategies they adopted to weather it, and what support they would have liked from cultural policies. 

We engaged 73 self-employed performing artists (opera singers, musicians, actors, circus artists and dancers) from London and Buenos Aires, selected using an intentional purposeful sample. Our fieldwork was virtual, as it took place throughout the lockdowns, and involved in-depth interviews and focus groups. We discussed findings and policy suggestions in two face-to-face policy workshops with artists, policymakers, industry representatives and researchers. 

A catastrophic impact

We heard how the pandemic shattered an already deteriorated cultural sector, especially for those working in conditions of low pay, job insecurity and informality. The restrictions imposed to control the pandemic affected artists’ personal and professional lives: from worsening their mental health (increased anxiety, frustration and depression), to a loss of income and job sources, complete uncertainty about their future and an inability to plan their careers. 

Most did not receive adequate – or sometimes any - government support as they were ineligible for different reasons. The cancellation of work meant, in most cases, little or no compensation for freelancers. As a London-based actor put it: “Why coronavirus is a perfect storm is because everyone has a different second or third job... all is freelance. All of it is zero hours and so they all collapsed, and everyone had a bad time.” 

Some artists managed to diversify their practices and interests by learning new skills and investing in equipment. Staying at home was seen primarily as an opportunity for personal and professional development. However, none of the participants were willing to train in another discipline or change careers, indicating a strong sense of vocation. 

The pandemic made visible the precariousness, instability and vulnerability of freelancers in the performing arts. They felt abandoned, forgotten and under-supported. Our research also found that resistance, together with resilience, was important in voicing artists’ concerns, making sector demands and acting together through collectives and networks.

Diverse coping strategies and digital challenges

Artists adopted various strategies for facing the crisis, including finding new temporary jobs unrelated to the performing arts, learning new skills that helped them move online, teaching classes online, doing livestreams, taking up new outdoor activities and helping others. Some moved back to their parents or left the city so they could afford the rent. The sudden interruption was generally received positively at first but later became a great weight for most. 

The use of digital technology is changing cultural production and consumption, but livestreaming practices are linked to digital literacy and resources. The opening generated by digitalisation brought greater opportunities in Argentina, since it allowed expanding the horizons of audiences, collaborations and students towards an international audience. 

In the UK, however, this opening already existed and the gain was not felt. Although there was an increase in the use of streaming platforms such as Patreon, Tidal and Bandcamp to generate income, the need to learn digital skills for creation, production and distribution became apparent. 

Livestreaming didn’t work for everyone, and many found it exhausting, difficult to do and not financially worthwhile if they did not have a large number of followers on social media. With the exception of music, there was a sense that technology didn’t get along well with disciplines such as theatre, opera, dance and circus. As an actress from Buenos Aires put it: “Theatre must be face-to-face and with an audience or not at all.”

Implications for policy

So, what should cultural policymakers do to support freelance artists? Financial help is obviously essential, but support needs to go beyond this, such as in overcoming the digital divide and providing pastoral care. It was also surprising that the policies related to the pandemic were not always the foremost thing in performers’ minds. In the UK the impact on mobility (tours, exchanges and residences) due to Brexit rather than Covid were of more concern to some participants. Here are just some of the suggestions the performing artists put forward:

1.    Carry out a census of cultural workers (“How are you going to help us if you don’t know what we do, how many we are and where we work?”). 
2.    Provide mental health support (“We helped so many people cope with the pandemic with our work, don’t forget us”). The way freelancers were treated during the pandemic negatively affected their well-being. 
3.    Show empathy and appreciation for cultural work (“Don’t tell us to re-train! It’s patronising”). In practice this could mean having a public debate about the future of the sector considering the lessons of the pandemic.
4.    Offer tax relief for cultural venues. Culture was not a priority rescue area for the government and artists felt the help was little and late.
5.    Impose new taxes on big corporate platforms (Amazon, Spotify, Apple, YouTube) and use funds to support freelance cultural workers. 
6.    Establish a better furlough scheme for the self-employed with more inclusive eligibility criteria. 
7.    Implement a universal basic income.
8.    Support artists with work visas (especially those not eligible for universal credit) after Brexit.
9.    Generate work opportunities (use existing cultural infrastructure, guarantee monthly performances, commission them for media shows and public events). 
10.     Create networks of support, promotion and training.
11.     Help artists organise themselves by centralising to tackle existing dispersion and divides in the cultural sector.
12.     Offer artistic and digital skills training to help artists build new virtual audiences. 
13.     Improve access to internet and digital equipment (by providing subsidies, loans or incentives to buy microphones, computers, cameras, and editing software).

At a time when rising living costs and enduring inequalities challenge the fragile recovery of freelancers, cultural policymakers could learn from the pandemic and put plans in action before the next crisis hits.

Cecilia Dinardi is Senior Lecturer in Cultural Policy and Arts Administration at Goldsmiths, University of London.
@Cecidinardi | @ICCEUoL

Video of policy workshop in Buenos Aires

* The project was funded by the British Academy and conducted by sociologists Dr Cecilia Dinardi, Prof Ana Wortman and economist Dr Matias Muñoz Hernández.

Link to Author(s): 
Cecilia Dinardi
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