The Economic, Social, and Cultural impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Independent Arts Workers in the United Kingdom

Lead Research Organisation: University of Essex
Department Name: East 15 Acting School


COVID-19 threatens the performing arts; closures of theatres and outlawing of public gatherings have proven financially devastating to the industry across the United Kingdom and, indeed, the world. The pandemic has sparked a wide range of industry-led strategies designed to alleviate financial consequences and improve audience capture amidst social distancing. COVID-19 has affected all levels of the sector but poses an existential threat to freelancers--Independent Arts Workers (IAWs)--who make up 60% of industry workforce in the UK (EU Labour Force Survey 2017). The crisis has put a spotlight on the vulnerable working conditions, economic sustainability, mental wellbeing, and community support networks of IAWs. IAWs are often overlooked by the industry and researchers, however it is their very precarity that makes them pioneers of adaptability responsible for key innovation within the sector. IAWs may prove essential for the industry's regrowth post-COVID-19. An investigation is necessary into the impact of COVID-19 on IAWs and the wide-ranging creative solutions developing within the industry to overcome them.

There has been increasing pressure to gather 'robust, real-time data' to investigate the financial, cultural, and social potential long-term consequences of COVID-19 on the UK theatre industry. The impact of the pandemic on IAWs is particularly complex and wide-ranging. A TRG Arts survey stated that 60% of IAWs predict their income will 'more than halve in 2020' while 50% have had 100% of their work cancelled. Industry researchers from TRG Arts and Theatres Trust have launched investigations examining the financial impact of COVID-19 on commercial venues and National Portfolio Organisations, but there has been insufficient research into the consequences for IAWs (eg. actors, directors, producers, writers, theatre makers, technicians) and the smaller SMEs beyond income loss and project cancellation data. In May 2020, Vicky Featherstone of the Royal Court Theatre, stated the importance of support for the 'massive freelance and self-employed workforce' she believed has been 'taken for granted' by the industry. Our study fills this gap by capturing and analysing not only the economic impact, but the social and cultural transformations caused by COVID-19 by and for IAWs. We will compare regional responses across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as variations across racial and socio-economic groups. Our aims are to document and investigate the impact of COVID-19 on IAWs, identify inequalities in the sector, investigate changes in the type of work produced post-COVID-19, and help develop strategies for how the sector can move forward from this crisis. We will investigate connections between the financial consequences of COVID-19 and creative strategies for industry survival including social support networks, communication initiatives between arts venues and IAWs, and the development of mixed-media work in the wake of the pandemic. Our study scrutinizes the economic, cultural, and social impact of COVID-19 on IAWs and the organisations that serve them with the aim of informing strategies for sector recovery.


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