Somewhere over the rainbow... What's next for the arts?

Somewhere over the rainbow... What's next for the arts?

What’s next for the arts? A conversation on the aftermath of COVID-19 for arts sector

by Niloufar Abhari

Somewhere over the rainbow… what’s next for the arts? was an intriguing and highly informative webinar held by the National Campaign for the Arts. The event was the result of the latest Arts Index, which charted a steep decline in public and private investment in the arts over the last decade, in addition to the bleak aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis.

Sam West (NCA chair, actor and director) kicked off the webinar by providing an overview of the difficulties the sector has faced over the past few months and those to come. Freelance artists constitute 70% of the arts sector’s employees and it has been freelancers who have experienced the worst of COVID- 19. An Oxford Economics report predicts 400,000 job losses and £74bn of lost earnings across the arts sector for the coming year[1].

However, Sam also acknowledged that at times like this, hope and optimism are obligatory. The recovery of the arts must not focus on reproducing the status quo but creating a new space by learning from past mistakes and bringing together key thinkers in the arts. In this Webinar, Sam made it clear that the new arts agenda must be inclusive, green and dangerous.

Cultural producer Tobi Kyeremateng made a special guest appearance. Tobi said that while the sector has been described as “at risk” and “precarious”, ethnic minority and low-income background artists have had an even more precarious status within the sector. Tobi expressed her exhaustion from caring about a sector which regularly dismisses non-white artists and assumes complacency in face of wide social issues of class and race. Tobi hoped that the sector’s recovery from COVID-19 will constitute a radical reimagining of the sector.

After addresses by the two main speakers; moderators took down discussion topics from the attendees and sorted the participants into virtual discussion rooms of their choice. Moved by Tobi’s speech, multiple discussion topics revolved around inclusivity in the recovery of the sector. The discussion group I joined was entitled “How can we achieve recovery with BAME people at the center and not the edges of the sector”

The group included artists and artistic directors as well as arts teachers. We discussed the need for systematic change at length. Elaine, a leading figure in black theatre, warned against the dangers of superficial representation. “Being at the table and being heard and considered at the table are two very different things” she said.

The discussion lead to several key action points; There needs to be a better inclusivity structure in place at Arts Council; this should include more full-time staff and plans to incentivise National Portfolio Organisations to spend more of their funding on BAME-led projects. Additionally, there is a deeply felt need for an infrastructure of support for artists of colour joining the sector, especially since they rarely see themselves represented within it. There needs to be more diverse “gate keepers” in the industry, such as writers, producers and directors who will organically increase representation in other parts of the sector as well. This support needs to begin at schools, but it is not easy. Lack of funding was at the forefront of discussion; Lucy, an arts teacher, in London revealed that most disadvantaged schools in the city can only afford to spend 1 pound per student per term for arts related activities. Access to theatre and music is expensive for most students and needs to be heavily subsidised.

Contributors in the second session reflected on “what arts workers/arts ''leaders''/the ''unfurloughed'' should be doing to be REAL allies to artists, freelancers and to everyone who 'doesn't look like us'?” (This was in reference to Tobi’s opening speech on the struggles of marginalised communities in the arts sector). The following conclusions were drawn; leaders and decision makers in the sector need to be trained on potential biases in the sector, it is often more difficult for artists to play this role as they are struggling to make a living for themselves, so the responsibility of redressing prejudices falls to sector leaders. Organisations who provide support to various sub-groups in the sector already exist; they need to be identified and better funded. The sector needs to think critically and creatively about the impact of COVID on artists and be prepared to provide various types of support including elderly and childcare.

In short, the sector can take the following measures to ensure positive recovery;

  • Develop an effective strategy for distributing funds which prioritises local artists, community studios and theatres.
  • The Arts Council needs to devise a practical safety net for freelancers, who makeup over 70% of the sector. Stable salaries cannot be reserved for “leadership” positions within the sector, the council must lead the efforts to provide vocational security for the freelance sector. 
  • The Arts Council must meaningfully expand its diversity department and actively incentivise National Portfolio Organisations to support people of colour and lower-income background artists.
  • Leaders and producers in the arts must be prepared to carry on the sector’s new agenda, as they possess more financial and vocational security then local artists.

The Covid crisis has presented the sector with both unprecedented challenges and opportunities. Sector leaders like Tobi and Sam are urging other members to address discrimination and underrepresentation in the sector to build a better, more inclusive sector.

How do you think arts organisations can pursue a green, inclusive and dangerous agenda? Let us know on @artsfundraising