The £1.57bn ‘rescue package’ (as it was described by Chancellor Rishi Sunak) announced by the government clearly offers some hope to arts organisations, venues and institutions, including those in Hull, who were facing a rapid descent into oblivion, closing their doors and winding up their operations. Thousands of people in the arts are facing the threat of redundancy and I don’t want to see any organisation going out of business and their staff thrown on the scrapheap so let’s hope they all get the urgent help they require so that the show goes on.
As a freelance, I’m used to living a perilous, hand-to-mouth existence and never knowing where my next source of income is coming from, so it’s clearly important that those that might provide this stay in business. Yet, looking at the amount on the table and the battle ahead, £1.57bn, which on the surface looks like a tremendous amount of cash, won’t go too far for too long once it’s divvied up. It will clearly enable many organisations to stay operational but, with so much uncertainty regarding what ‘normal’ might be when we return to it, I’ve got serious concerns about how much of that money may, or may not, trickle down to those of us that bounce idiotically from project to project.
For context, in the couple of decades that I’ve worked in the arts, it’s been a game of diminishing returns. While commissioning fees have generally moved upwards, there’ve been less and less commissions, and a declining amount of scraps thrown our way. Despite guidance on fees and payments to artists, often artist’s fees are palpably laughable when you consider how much time it might take to, in my case, write a piece of work. So, in real terms, income was already getting smaller and I know, because I talk to lots of other artists, that this was already the case for lots of us way before Covid-19. So, with the dramatic changes to life, and the arts only just hanging in there, the real concern is that things will get worse and it will be decades before everything recovers and we can get back to the business of being underpaid at the same levels as previously.
Like many artists, I have some revenue streams that I’d have the audacity to regard as ‘regular income’ – projects and work that are stable enough to allow me to plan long-term, pay some bills and buy food to eat. Yet even that work is under-threat right now and is serious cause for concern. If other industries are fighting for survival (which they are) and employees in other sectors are facing redundancy (which they are), then this amount of support for the arts sector is nowhere near big enough because, if the choice is between putting food on the table for kids and paying the rent or mortgage or buying a ticket for a gig, or an armful of books, or getting lost for two hours in an immersive performance, or going to see a play, we know where that’s going.
Naturally, I’d be looking at the big arts organisations in Hull to take a lead once they’ve steadied their own ships but they also need to consider this changing landscape, rather than pick up where they left off. It’s time for them to reset and reimagine their purpose and role in the community. If the many freelance and self-employed artists that this city has, who do so many wonderful creative things, are to survive, then this resetting and reimagining also needs to factor their talent in and conversations going forward need to include them. We need to smash some of the old hierarchies apart in order that we’re strong together and to ensure that we’re all doing something that’s relevant to the city that we serve. Hull Truck, Artlink, Absolutely Cultured, Freedom Festival, Hull Jazz, Back To Ours, all good organisations who do good work, need to continually consider, and reconsider, how they work with freelance talent and grass roots artists as we all battle to get out of the other side of this mess.
I’d encourage freelancers to share their homework right now. I’ve spoken to a few other writers about their many concerns and fears for the future, what they’re doing for work, how they’re generating income, if at all. Lots of us have fallen through the gaps, that’s the nature of freelance work and life, and many have not been eligible for the Government’s Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, or found applying for the Arts Council’s Emergency Response Fund too difficult, and welcome the re-opening of Arts Council’s project grants but are already in fear of form-filling and rejection. We have to face the sad fact that some freelance artists, and other freelancers who make arts and cultural events happen, will turn elsewhere in order to survive and leave this industry which, even at the best of times, offers little in the way of security and stability.
I’ve spent time in the last decade reminding influential people whenever I can of the importance of investment in the arts sector, through the What Next? movement and during other conversations, so reminding politicians of the need for ongoing investment and support in the arts is nothing new, even in these unprecedented times of emergency. The argument for investment in the arts is an easy one to make and win but, sadly, the case has to be made with infuriating regularity. It’s always worth reminding ourselves of the numbers – the arts contribute £10.8billion a year to the UK economy and the sector contributes £2.8billion a year to the Treasury via taxation, and generates a further £23billion a year and 363,700 jobs. For every £1 of funding in the arts, the government recoups £5. Not my figures, those of the most recent report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research based on ONS stats. More broadly, the wider creative industries contributed more than £111bn to the UK economy in 2018, which is almost £13mn every hour of the day. Suddenly, £1.57bn looks like small change, doesn’t it? There’s no further case to be made here, no sob story, it’s a proven model of success.
Personally, I’m worried about what a future working in the arts might look like. But I’m not going anywhere. I’m a working class Hull kid who was encouraged to find his voice, battled hard to get it heard and wants to help others to do the same. I’m not in it for the riches – there aren’t any to be had, most of us just get by – but because creativity is the only way to make sense of an increasingly confusing world. The arts have never been more important than right now.