Saturday 31 July 2021 10:00 am

A cultural mea culpa: a fragile over-reliance on freelancers and insecurity in the creative arts cannot continue

Professor Christopher Smith is Executive Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

In March 2020, I was midway through lecturing at the Sorbonne on plagues and portents in ancient Rome, Meanwhile, it was becoming increasingly clear that something alarming was happening in our own world.  The night before I left Paris, I took an evening trip through the Louvre.  It was practically empty – no queues by the Mona Lisa, empty echoing halls.  Neither I nor anyone else could have predicted that it would be over a year before the cultural sector would tentatively reopen.

Fast forward to last month, I was one of four people who entered a small room in the Royal Opera House which has reopened with an innovative new, socially distanced performance. It was an incredible, immersive experience. The last line of the performance stayed with me: “what new future shall we build for ourselves?”

In the creative arts, hardship has always spurred own deeper and more thoughtful creations. But, beyond that, a light has also been shone on structural features of the cultural economy which we can no longer ignore. It is inherently fragile. It has an overreliance on freelancers and there are too many with insecure incomes. It is because, not in spite of this, it has an immense capacity for reinvention. 

The obvious conclusion is that we must do everything we can to support this resilience and to keep the massively expanded markets which have opened up through the turn to the digital. The potential is enormous. For example, the National Theatre released 17 productions over 16 weeks. It was a showcase of the diversity of programming from the National and a host of other leading theatre companies such as the Donmar Warehouse, Nottingham Playhouse, the Bridge Theatre and the Young Vic. These productions received 15 million views and reached nine million households across 173 countries.

The UK has a world leading cultural sector; the pandemic has shown how it can continue as such on an even greater scale. The initial response to the crisis was a rapid and large scale, but unsustainable, emergency funding. Ensuring a prosperous future for the cultural and creative economy must now rest in research, development and innovation. This has been the focus of a new report, Boundless Creativity, a joint effort between the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

We need new research on the barriers to entry into the digital market faced by freelance artists and smaller creative organisations, and to frame new policy interventions that level up commercial opportunities for streaming beyond larger institutions and beyond London.  Equally we need to increase our understanding of how innovative digital content can reduce barriers to audience participation, and address the digital skills gaps in the UK cultural and creative sector, with a particular focus on regional growth and interconnectivity, and in specific sectors of the population.

There is no substitute for live performance, but this rests on the capacity of the sector to reverse the labour market scarring and bring back talent which has recently been lost.  The best way of doing this is to ensure that the flow of income generation is released and shared more equitably; helping freelancers to monetise their creativity and looking again at R&D tax credits for the creative industries are two key areas.

This isn’t just about expanding a critical sector of the economy. It has a wide social impact. Whether it be arthouse films and blockbuster exhibitions, or popular music festivals and stand-up comedy, metropolitan attractions or local theatre companies and amateur performances in nursing homes, the cultural sector has immense range and huge reach. That value needs now to be captured, and its consequences understood right across government.

And when we answer that poignant question, “What new future shall we build for ourselves?” this pandemic has surely shown us that it can and must be different, that if we have the vision we can make it prosperous, but it must be rooted in the cultural experiences which join us together and make us fully human.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.