• Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Facebook
  • Share on Linkedin
  • Share by email

ArtsProfessional’s Freedom of Expression survey reveals gagging orders, bullying and a culture of fear are causing arts and cultural workers to stay silent.

"I have felt like a traitor to my own self-expression"

A culture of self-censorship and fear of backlash from funders, colleagues and the public is convincing arts and cultural workers to stay silent on important issues, according to new research from ArtsProfessional.

AP’s Freedom of Expression survey has uncovered pressures on arts workers’ ability to speak out ranging from the fear of harassment and humiliation to more overt measures like non-disclosure agreements. More than 500 artists and arts workers contributed some 60,000 words on questions about their experiences navigating controversy and coercion.

The research indicates the openness, risk and rebellion that many believe characterises the sector is being eroded. While about 90% of respondents agreed that “the arts and cultural sector has a responsibility to use its unique talents to speak out about things that matter, regardless of the potential consequences”, more than 80% thought that “workers in the arts and cultural sector who share controversial opinions risk being professionally ostracised”.


While much of the sector’s censorship is self-imposed, one in six respondents said they had been offered a financial settlement in exchange for their silence on circumstances an organisation wanted to keep private.
ArtsProfessional Editor Amanda Parker said the research reveals “a deep division between public perception and the reality of working in the arts and cultural sector”.

“Our survey shines a damning light on the coercion, bullying, intimidation and intolerance that is active among a community that thinks of itself as liberal, open minded and equitable.

“We are very aware that this research doesn’t reflect all views, but it’s a sad and timely indication of the suppressed hurt and anger felt by many, despite the loud and growing conversations about collaboration and inclusiveness”. 

‘Don’t bite the hand’

The sector is biting its tongue for fear of biting the hand that feeds, the survey shows.

Nearly 70% of respondents said they would not criticise a funder for fear of jeopardising future investment and 40% said they had been subject to pressure from funders for speaking out.

There was a sense that funders are immune from scrutiny, with respondents citing times they kept quiet about waste and cronyism, among other issues. One described the relationships with funders as being like a parent and child: “It’s hard to challenge or open up a dialogue with them even if there are genuine concerns.”

Criticising a funder’s decision to award or turn down a grant or their continued support of  “elitist” organisations would be a problem for many. Responses on this issue largely fell into two camps: those who felt the sector was only paying lip service to diversity and those who thought it attracted too much attention – but neither group felt able to speak their minds. 

Pressure to keep quiet was most likely to come from colleagues, according to two-thirds of respondents. However, the survey also revealed examples of retribution from organisations against arts workers who spoke their minds, from marginalisation and isolation to lost commissions, cancelled contracts and being “screamed, shouted at [and] bullied by my ex-boss”.

Some workplaces censor their employees’ online activity while others actively gag them: One in six respondents said they had been offered money if they signed a non-disclosure agreement. 

One person said they had been “offered money to keep quiet about corrupt practices in arts funding at the EU level”; a whistleblower who told top management about mostly male bosses bullying their female subordinates was paid off and invited to leave the organisation. Another respondent accepted a redundancy package “when the redundancy wasn't wholly legal”; and one person reported “a gagging order regarding a colleague’s sexual harassment case and a board’s illegal processes”.

Taboo topics

The research indicates the arts and cultural sector is intolerant of viewpoints outside of the dominant norms. Anything that might be considered “politically incorrect” to the liberal-leaning sector – including expressing support or sympathy for Brexit, the Conservatives or other right-wing political parties – was felt to be risky territory.

Religion, gender and sexuality were also considered a “minefield” and no-go areas for many: “Anything to do with gender issues, especially trans issues, will get a lot of flak for either not being on message enough, or being off message, or too on message,” one person said.

More than three-quarters of respondents said workers who share controversial opinions risk being professionally ostracised. One person commented that people working in the sector are “nowhere near as open as they pretend to be, there is a lot of hiding and backstabbing”.

Only 40% of respondents agreed that “personal views and opinions are met with respect by others working in the arts & cultural sector”, and 42% said they feel free to speak publicly – whether in person or online – about their personal views on issues affecting the arts sector.

One person commented that “it wouldn’t be advisable to point out that the arts tend to do well under the Tories”.

The dangers of this culture of self-censorship was summarised by another respondent:

“Our arts, culture, and indeed education sectors are supposed to be fearlessly free-thinking and open to a wide range of challenging views. However, they are now dominated by a monolithic politically correct class (mostly of privileged white middle class people, by the way), who impose their intolerant views across those sectors. 

“This is driving people who disagree away, risks increasing support for the very things this culturally dominant class professes to stand against, and is slowly destroying our society and culture from the inside.”

Affecting the art

This culture of censorship is also affecting artistic expression and programming decisions. While four in five respondents agreed that “organisations that won’t risk controversy won’t deliver the most exciting creative work”, they also recognised the pressure on organisations. Only a third felt their boards were being unduly cautious about potentially controversial work.

But 45% had been “pressurised, intimidated, ostracised, coerced, trolled, harassed or bullied, either in person or on digital media” over their artistic and creative activities. Of that group, 44% had changed their product, programming or plans due to this pressure.

Negative public reaction can shut down free speech – “there is a culture of inviting and then overreacting to complaints when in fact they represent a tiny proportion of views,” one person commented – and cause artists to self-censor, the survey shows. Artists fear damaging their reputations or those of their organisations.

One person explained it as “a matter of picking battles”.

“I sometimes have to weigh whether what I really need to say requires the element that will turn others away. If it is important to me, I will stick to my plan, but sometimes, it is not the most important thing and I choose to tame my ideas. I have felt like a traitor to my own self-expression, but I have to ask if anyone needs to hear from me at all.”

Read the Freedom of Expression report, including over 1,000 comments and personal testimonies relating to freedom of expression in the arts and cultural sector.

Next week AP will launch an anonymous platform where you will be able to:

  • Tell us about things you suspect are going on that should be made public
  • Talk about themes and areas that need more investigation by our journalists
  • Suggest ideas for new Pulse surveys
  • Write a blog about anything causing you concern or making you rage.

We won't share your identity anywhere.