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A report from King’s College London looks at potential policy solutions to combat precarity in freelance cultural work. Sana Kim, one of the researchers, shares its key findings. 

Graphic of individual artists at work


Covid has severely exacerbated existing structural problems and inequalities in cultural work, opening a ‘critical juncture’ in cultural policy - a period when existing policy discourse and structures are challenged and new policy ideas emerge. 

Since 2020, many policy measures have been discussed to address the issue of precarity in cultural work, including freelance work. But despite the renewed concern, there has been little progress in pinpointing and implementing concrete policy solutions. 

So, King’s College London researchers working on the Sustainable Cultural Futures project sought to bridge this gap in the context of UK cultural policy. 

Our research investigated policy solutions to the issue of precarity as prioritised by four stakeholder groups: campaigners; trade unions; policymakers; and researchers in cultural labour and the creative industries. 

The findings are published in this report but can be succinctly summarised under five headings.  

Lack of consensus on policy solutions

After interviewing 17 cultural sector stakeholders about measures to tackle freelancer precarity, we were surprised by the lack of consensus when it comes to pinpointing concrete policy solutions. This is significant in itself, highlighting an urgent need for further research into the conditions under which such consensus would emerge. 

Contributory factors to freelancer precarity 

We also identified a range of pervasive challenges  – societal, labour market and sectoral conditions – that contribute to and perpetuate precarity (see Figure 1). Consequently, we think it is impossible to tackle precarity successfully without acknowledging, understanding and addressing these issues. 

Figure 1: Factors contributing to the precarity of cultural freelancers. Image: Jamie Stein

For example, a fundamental (societal) condition contributing to precarity is the lack of value society attributes to culture and the arts as well as artists and cultural workers. Given their undervaluation, which prevails despite the cultural value debate that has been unfolding in the UK over the past 20 years, this spotlights the need to revisit discussions around cultural values and find ways to reinvigorate them.

Freelancers need to participate in policymaking

Thirdly, there is an urgent need to involve cultural freelancers in policy and decision-making. As one of our interviewees puts it: “The voice of freelancers has to be heard.” However, given the difficulties, barriers and sacrifices freelancers must face engaging in policymaking, the reports calls for developing new, more sustainable ways of such involvement. 

Considering the issues we witnessed conducting this research, institutionalised mechanisms of involving freelancers in policymaking appear most desirable, less dependent on the volunteer input of freelancers. 

Complex ecological approach 

Fourth, in the report we identify a need for a complex ecological approach to precarity, one that is both deeply collaborative and comprehensive. Given the complexity of the issue, it can only be resolved with the help and involvement of - and collaboration among - all stakeholders, namely: freelance artists and cultural workers, employers, trade unions, groups and associations, universities, researchers and policymakers (see Figure 2). 

 Figure 2: Collaborative approach against precarity: Key stakeholder groups and their functions. Image: Jamie Stein

Also, given the diversity of challenges in the precarity issue, it is too complex to be resolved through cultural policy alone. It requires a comprehensive approach converging multiple policy domains at different levels of government: cultural, labour, social and economic policy (see Figure 3). Within this complex ecological approach, we argue that cultural policy could act as a mediator, facilitating conversations with other policy domains and catalysing the latter’s responses.

 Figure 3: The holistic policy framework. Image: Jamie Stein

Potential policy directions

Finally, despite the lack of a clear consensus on policy solutions, the report identifies several potential policy directions to investigate, including innovative funding frameworks, fiscal policy interventions, income support schemes, mechanisms for involving freelancers in decision-making and more. 

Although research participants frequently highlighted the need for an increase in public funding for culture and the arts, many remained sceptical about the prospects of more funding, at least in the near future. One policymaker commented: “More public funding, great idea. As I say, good luck with that.” 

Considering this scepticism, experimenting with alternative ways of distributing the currently available funding seems promising including experimenting with long-term funding models for individual artists, as opposed to the currently widespread short-term, project-based funding model. 

When it comes to freelancers having a voice in the policymaking arena, the idea of a Freelancer Commissioner – an independent public body/role within government representing freelancers – received a generally positive response interviewees. 

Dr Sana Kim is a Research Associate in the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London. 

See the full report for more policy directions that emerged from this research project.  

Link to Author(s): 
Headshot of Sana Kim