Coping with the crisis: the impact of coronavirus on arts workers

The freelance proportion of the arts sector totals a third of all its workers. COVID-19 has hit creatives including actors, musicians, practitioners and technicians particularly hard. Many have lost all work for the foreseeable future, and with it their entire income. Not only is this individually devastating, but it threatens the future of many arts organisations, and their project workers.

Without scheduled work, many creatives are attempting to generate work for themselves. These jobs are often piecemeal and even offered for free, for the greater good, and to maintain profile and stay creative. Some musicians are offering online lessons, or piano recordings of music accompaniments. Actors are delivering monologues online, whilst theatre in education companies offer interactive ‘in role’ experiences over Zoom. There is a huge amount of solidarity and mutual promotion within the community, and a real movement to keep art alive during this difficult time. In some ways, it is an opportunity to diversify and to find new ways of reaching audiences. Still, while this is hugely important to both artists and audiences, it does not pay rent.

Some smaller arts organisations have already closed. Jenny Lynn, Acting Director of Square Chapel Arts Centre in Halifax, stated that “coronavirus has made our financial challenges impossible to overcome”. This closure alone brings 50 redundancies. It is unclear when the live arts scene will be functioning again, but inevitably there will be further closures, as the lack of capacity to make or deliver work makes paying staff impossible.

There is a huge amount of solidarity and mutual promotion within the community.

So what can self-employed workers do? Many are eligible for the government’s Self Employment Income Support Scheme, granting 80% of a worker’s average income up to £2,500 per month, although newer freelancers without a tax return will be unable to claim. However, funds are not available until June. According to interviews in the Guardian, the overwhelming majority of freelancers need money immediately to afford necessities including rent and food. Cash flow challenges are the pressing issue, and one that the government has acknowledged but failed to answer.

The government has directed self-employed workers in this predicament to Universal Credit. However, the volume of new claimants has left the system struggling. Usually, it can take 5-6 weeks to process a new claim. However, the BBC reports that applications spiked to almost a million in the final fortnight in March, against a usual 100,000. Whilst 10,000 additional workers are now processing claims, recipients may not receive support for many weeks. Loaned advances are also available but, again, it will take longer to access them.

Alongside emergency funds for organisations, Arts Council England has created a £20 million fund for individual artists, making available grants of up to £2500. Others, such as the Incorporated Society for Musicians, will also be offering small grants. However, these applications need to be processed, so the money will likely not reach successful applicants for additional weeks.

The mainstream arts will survive this crisis.

Many major arts funders are ploughing money into emergency funds. This includes the Garfield Weston Foundation, who have donated £1m to the National Emergencies Trust, prioritising vulnerable communities experiencing hardship stemming from COVID-19. This means there will be less money available later for arts projects, and thus less work available for artists. Likewise, the cancellation of the Edinburgh Fringe, and all festivals this summer, affects thousands of creatives. Some will lose paid work, but more universally this means loss of exposure, potential transfers to larger stages, and the opportunity to build connections that could spawn future projects.

In reality, the mainstream arts will survive this crisis. The National Theatre streamed their 2011 premiere of One Man, Two Guvnors on Thursday. It not only reached 200,000 households, but also gathered £50,000 in donations. It is self-employed workers and smaller organisations that could be devastated by this. Only time will tell, but the incoming economic downturn will hit the cultural industry, which struggles with funding issues at the best of times, particularly hard. Demand will re-stimulate and the industry will recover, although a significant work shortage in the future seems likely. However, the concerns of arts workers are more rooted in the present – in affording rent and food – to which the government has provided few answers.

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