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

Abstract

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.

Publications

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Description Early responses highlight the financial impact on freelancers and the potential long-term effects as individuals gain new skills and seek income outside of theatre. Our survey is still live until March 19th, 2021 and we have conducted 80 interviews so far on our project. Research ongoing, so these findings are part of a larger research project.

61.5% of respondents have developed new skills since March 2020.

Before March 2020, 61.8% of survey respondents earned 100% of their income from their theatre freelance work. Since, this has dropped to 15.3%.

Dr Holly Maples, from East 15 Acting School, is leading the study. She said: "Many theatre freelancers have fallen through the cracks of the system - the ways we work have left us excluded from government support.

"The pandemic is exacting a powerful toll on the mental health of freelance theatre-makers. Many are also worried that when this is over, the financial impact of the pandemic will leave producers and companies more risk averse, and the industry even less equitable."

Early responses to the project's survey* show over 70% of the respondents feel pessimistic about their future as a theatre freelancer.

Freelancers have reported feeling 'angry', 'forgotten' and 'disregarded.' Many are questioning their futures.

Dr Joshua Edelman, from Manchester Metropolitan University, a co-investigator on the project, said: "Many say they are worried they will not work in theatre again after the pandemic, and are thus developing skills in digital production, film, television, or outside the arts entirely. In the long term, this could mean a substantial reduction in the talent pool that theatres depend on for their work. As this pressure is being felt most strongly by the least financially-secure members of our community, including those from working class and minority backgrounds, it could also mean a sharp rollback in the gains in diversity that the field has worked so hard to achieve."

Dr Maples: "A fear now is the permanent loss of many working class and particularly Black British Women in the industry. That should be a huge cause for concern. There are also many working class artists who fear less representation in the wake of COVID-19 due to the need for venues to work with fewer resources and large box office revenue."

The project has found Government support to be inconsistent across the United Kingdom.

Dr Ali FitzGibbon, a Lecturer in Creative and Cultural Industries Management from Queen's University Belfast, and a co-investigator on the project, said: "While Northern Ireland was the first to introduce emergency funds for freelance artists, it has also been the last to distribute emergency cultural recovery funds, increasing hardship and uncertainty.

"Freelancers in Northern Ireland faced a double exclusion from SEISS due to application problems with the scheme. While these were resolved eventually, it was a signal of some of the wider issues of central and devolved governments not being aligned in support of freelancers."

Anger at Government is palpable.

Dr Laura Harris, from Manchester Metropolitan University, said: "By far the most answered question in our survey so far is around how freelancers feel about the Government's rhetoric towards the Arts since March 2020. The word that keeps cropping up is 'unvalued' and we are seeing a lot of anger."

The team has also observed a steady increase in activism among freelancers, with groups focusing on how to address existing inequalities, established power structures and the need for greater support. Concern in this area has been heightened by recent events.

Dr Ali FitzGibbon said: "The question of union representation and activity, heightened in its significance in this current moment, has become more charged in Northern Ireland. The interests of Northern Ireland members of Equity and the Musician's Union have long operated through the respective offices in Scotland. Now however, the controversial decision by Equity Head Office to close the Glasgow operation raises significant concerns about how unions are adequately representing freelancers in Northern Ireland."

Recent attempts to shine a light on these issues have brought some progress. The team have observed greater collaboration and communication between freelancers and the organisations they work with. Some organisations have recognised the need for freelance representation at board level and in leadership positions. A push for greater representation for BAME, trans, working class, female and disabled artists has gained momentum.

However, the serious challenges facing freelancers leave a mixed picture for the future of theatre in the UK.

Dr Maples said: "Small grassroots companies and theatre makers are thinking outside the box, looking to create outdoor and site-specific work, and to bring more theatre to communities, to widen access. I see the next ten years as an exciting time for the theatre industry, but the worry is for now, and the next four years - will artists stay in the industry?"
Exploitation Route We are collaborating at present with policy focused organizations such as Culture Commons and Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre. We are currently in discussions with the Arts Council and other arts organisations to feed back our research and assist in the recovery of the industry after COVID-19. Our project's focus on grassroots, qualitative research, tells individual stories in the midst of mass surveys, and uses mixed-methods to reveal the complexities of COVID-19s impact on individuals working within the industry. There has been a widespread movement of advocacy and activism for transformations to the precarity and inequality in the theatre industry during COVID-19, but there is concern this momentum will be lost in the wake of the pandemic. Our study can reveal robust data on the issues to assist in a more equitable, and sustainable recovery that safeguards freelance theatre workers to be more resilient in the future, through government arts policy and industry-led change.
Sectors Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://freelancersinthedark.com/
 
Description This project is still in the midst of its findings, however partnerships are developing which will facilitate our research directly feeding back to both industry-specific organisations and arts policy organisations. We are currently creating reports for an arts lobbying organisation, Culture Commons which will influence a Metro Mayor Pledge to support the Creative Industries in May 2021. Our research team will be on panels with Metro Mayors from London, Manchester, Liverpool, the Midlands, and West Yorkshire in April, and reports from our March focus group data will be used to help shape these panels. We are in meetings with the Arts Council, and other cultural policy organisations to provide feedback on their policies through our research findings. We also are feeding back to our research participants, and their support and dialogue is also being facilitated to impact the day to day experiences of grassroots freelance theatre workers from the ground up. Our project is ongoing, so further information will materialise over the next 10 months.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services

 
Description Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre 
Organisation Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We are mutually sharing our research findings through a sharing of published reports. PEC is publishing an article by our Research Team members from the survey findings in Spring 2021. We are particularly useful for PEC because of our focus on qualitative research and grassroots organizations and individuals. Also our narrow focus on the theatre industry is something of value to their larger, more general creative industries, and quantitative based study.
Collaborator Contribution PEC are sharing their reports with us and promoting or research findings on their study. For us, they are able to provide us a larger context to position our qualitative findings within. As a policy focused research project on the creative industries, PEC will also enable our study to impact cultural policy more directly with Parliament arts policy reports and panels.
Impact Outputs still active. We are publishing an article on our findings with them in Spring 2021 from the Survey findings and will continue with future shared publications.
Start Year 2021
 
Description "COVID-19 threatening diversity in theatre, research suggests" article in Manchester Metropolitan University Research News 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Article on our findings to date from Dr Josh Edelman on MMU's contributions to the study, particularly in regards to Survey development and arts policy research in relation to COVID-19.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.mmu.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/story/13653/
 
Description "COVID-19 threatening diversity in theatre, research suggests" press release on ABTT website 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact ABTT are a technical theatre arts membership organization. This press release on our study was particularly used to recruit for the Survey, using findings from our interviews to help recruit ABTT members to become research participants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.abtt.org.uk/new-survey-addresses-the-pandemic-experiences-of-theatre-freelancers/
 
Description "Nearly a year on, UK Freelancers are still in the dark" -article for Exuent Magazine 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Article for Exeunt Magazine reporting on our study to date, also promoting our survey for a wider audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/nearly-year-uk-theatre-freelancers-still-dark/
 
Description A press release "COVID threatening diversity in theatre, forcing diversification, research suggests" -published in a number of regional and national press sources and the Stage (UK) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact An article, "COVID threatening diversity in theatre, forcing diversification, research suggests" releasing our early findings and promoting our Survey and focus group recruitment. Published in a wide number of regional and national press sources for the theatre industry.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://northwestend.com/?p=2171
 
Description Engagement focused Website with Monthly released newsletters and blog posts 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Our project website, Freelancers in the Dark, updates our research participants, creative industries workers, and general public on our study. We release a monthly newsletter at the end of each month, on our study findings to date and other information, and blog posts. We have used this to engage research participants, recruiter future participants for our survey and focus groups, and share our findings. We have had interesting feedback and reflection via email from those engaging with our website and newsletters.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://freelancersinthedark.com/
 
Description Roundtable on our project for a Cultura Industries Masters Class with students at Queens Belfast & National University of Ireland Galway 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Members of our team, including Dr Kurt Taroff, Dr Ali Fitzgibbon, Dr Holly Maples and our two postdoctoral researchers, Dr Laura Harris and Dr James Rowson shared information on our project findings to date, particularly from the data from 80 interviews conducted in the autumn and our current survey findings, to creative industry postgraduate students from Queens University Belfast and NUI Galway -invited by Dr Patrick Lonergan (NUI Galway) and Dr Kurt Taroff (Queens Belfast)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description twitter and facebook page 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact We have actively been posting on our facebook page, Instagram, and twitter feed (@freelancersITD) to share other studies work on COVID-19s impact on UK freelance theatre workers and to share our current findings. We currently are particularly using these sites to promote our survey and focus group participants, and also to further publicize our study. This has been useful for engaging both industry interest and research participants. I have recently recruited a number of working class artists to our study through social media, a demographic group we have found difficult to reach by other methods.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.facebook.com/FreelancersITD