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Weariness, adaptability and challenging ‘viability’
Creative freelancers and pandemic resilience in South Yorkshire

From the early days of COVID restrictions in the UK, freelancers were highlighted in the media as being particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. As financial support such as furlough and self-employment income support schemes were announced, it quickly became apparent that many freelancers would fall through the cracks and not receive any financial assistance as their work ground to a halt overnight. This has been particularly true of arts and cultural freelancers, whose portfolio careers often rendered them ineligible for either support scheme, and whose work was legally prohibited in England for long periods of 2020 and 2021. This chapter reports on the experiences of freelance arts and cultural workers in South Yorkshire, as part of a larger AHRC-funded COVID-19 response project documenting the impact of the pandemic on the arts and cultural ecology of the region. We show that the emotional and mental wellbeing of the freelancers in our study deteriorated as a result of being unable to work during this period. We look at the negative impact of rhetoric around ‘viability’ and the poorly -timed campaign around retraining as a source of anguish for struggling freelancers. We highlight the creativity and innovation that freelancers showed in making their business or artistic practice possible in a pandemic context, and suggest how freelancers may be better supported in the future.

From the early days of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, freelancers in the UK were particularly vulnerable to the financial impact of coronavirus restrictions (Hutchison and Yordanova, 2020). As financial rescue packages were announced to support workers, it quickly became apparent that many freelancers would fall through the cracks and not receive any financial assistance as their work ground to a halt (House of Commons Treasury Committee, 2020). People working in the arts, culture and heritage sector were badly affected, owing to the high proportion of freelancers (70% of the workforce in music, performing, and visual arts; Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, 2020), lengthy coronavirus restrictions on arts activities and the fact that many arts workers were ineligible for support as a result of moving between employment and self-employment (Woronkowicz and Noonan, 2019: 660).

Studies on the effects of coronavirus restrictions, including our own interim report (Price, 2021), have shown the extent to which freelancers lost work during lockdowns, faced financial instability and experienced a worsening sense of wellbeing (May et al., 2021; Spiro et al., 2021). These have demonstrated how coronavirus restrictions exacerbated existing problems, such as freelancers’ ‘forced dependency’ on arts organisations, the precarity and financial risk of freelance work and the systemic inequalities in the sector (Freelancers Make Theatre Work, 2021: 15–16; see also Pratt, 2017: 136; Comunian and England, 2020). It is therefore hardly surprising that the number of freelancers in creative occupations declined by around 38,000 from the start of 2020 to the end of 2020, with music, performing and visual arts found to be the ‘epicentre’ of the crisis (Florisson et al., 2021).

This chapter contributes to the critique of the UK government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic by exploring the mental health and wellbeing impact of UK coronavirus restrictions on freelance arts, culture and heritage workers in South Yorkshire, a region in the North of England. We argue that one of the most destructive elements of the lockdown period for this population was the ‘viability’ rhetoric that surrounded debates about governmental financial assistance (discussed below), leaving freelancers feeling as though they were not valued and not deemed worthy of support.

Coronavirus restrictions in England in relation to arts and culture

Prior to the pandemic, the creative industries in the UK were growing faster than the wider economy (DCMS, 2022). According to a report by the non-profit Creative UK Group (2021), the Creative Industries contributed £116 billion per year to the UK economy in 2019, in addition to the immeasurable cultural, social, health and wellbeing value that they bring to their local areas and populations (e.g. see Mowlah et al., 2014; Perkins et al., 2021). Furthermore, the Creative Industries play an important role in the UK’s global exports and soft power (Arthurs, 2019). Much of this growth has been produced by freelancers, who comprise one-third of workers in the creative industries, accounting for one-seventh of all self-employed workers in the UK (Creative UK Group, 2021: 15). These workers are often freelance by necessity (Easton and Caldwell-French, 2017: 10) and have been found to move frequently between different forms of employment, taking on commissioned projects, sourcing funding for their own ideas, as well as carrying out work on temporary contracts (p. 15). Because creative organisations regularly rely on freelancers for specialist skills or to increase their capacity to deliver specific projects (p. 28), the sector is structured on a large proportion of its workforce having precarious employment. While many arts workers had successfully sustained careers in freelance employment prior to the pandemic, the feast-and-famine nature of freelance employment has led to inequalities in who is able to access paid opportunities and often made it so that only those with financial safety nets are able to pursue this type of work (Brook et al., 2020). Freelancers disproportionately shoulder the risk of staging arts events, and the precarious nature of freelance employment left them exposed when the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Lockdowns put a stop to many activities in the cultural and creative sectors. The gathering of audiences indoors for large-scale events such as gigs and theatre performances was prohibited in England during national lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. Activities were also often not permitted or practicable outside of these dates owing to further social distancing measures and additional local lockdowns and restrictions. The government financial assistance schemes designed to alleviate the burden of the pandemic on affected industries were welcomed but were not enough to prevent insolvencies. The Self Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) was designed to help freelancers survive this period, but large numbers of freelancers were ineligible for the support. New freelancers, those who were earning over £50,000 a year and those who were directors of limited companies were excluded from support across numerous business sectors. The scheme was particularly detrimental for arts freelancers as they had often moved between fixed term employed and self-employment: many did not meet the threshold of 50% self-employment to be eligible for SEISS (House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2020: 27–28). Studies into the experiences of freelancers across the UK have found that this disproportionately impacted those with protected characteristics and caring responsibilities (Donnelly and Komorowski, 2022: 24–25), as well as those who experience racism, disabled individuals and those without higher education qualifications (Walmsley et al., 2022: 41). Despite high-profile campaigns calling on the government to address these deficiencies, the government was described as showing ‘no inclination to expand or provide alternatives to SEISS’ (House of Commons Treasury Committee, 2021: 23). The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme paid the wages of furloughed employees who were not able to continue with their usual work in order to avoid redundancies. This alone was not sufficient to address the financial difficulties of arts and cultural organisations, leading to the announcement of a £1.57 billion Cultural Recovery Fund (CRF) on 5 July 2020. While these schemes have saved many organisations from going under, criticism has been rife (see Hill, 2020; Musicians’ Union, 2020). This is especially the case around the government’s desire to save institutions over individuals (see House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts, 2021: 12–13).

In the autumn of 2020, a series of government announcements led to the emergence of the ‘viability rhetoric’, in which the legitimacy of a career in arts, culture and heritage was challenged on a public stage. This began with the launch of the Winter Economy Plan on 24 September 2020 (HM Treasury, 2020),1 where furlough was replaced with the new Job Support Scheme, narrowing the remit of support to only ‘viable jobs’ (Gov.uk, 2020). Jobs were deemed ‘viable’ if employees had returned to at least a third of their normal working hours, thereby excluding most of the cultural sector where activities were still subject to many coronavirus restrictions. Immediately, the cultural sector rejected this definition of their work as ‘unviable’ (Roberts, 2020; Wiegand, 2020). This was compounded by a controversial interview with then Chancellor Rishi Sunak (ITV, 2020) in which he was interpreted as saying that arts and cultural workers would need to move sectors following the coronavirus pandemic (Allen-Kinross, 2020).

Anger amongst arts freelancers was further fuelled on 12 October 2020 by the emergence on social media of the now-infamous ‘Fatima’ advert (Parkinson, 2020; see also Chapter 5 in this volume). The advert consisted of a photo of a ballet dancer lacing up her pointe shoes, with the tagline ‘Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (she just doesn’t know it yet). Rethink. Reskill. Reboot.’ with logos for CyberFirst and the UK government. The outcry from the creative community was swift and damning. While the government was at pains to distance itself from this campaign (Jordan, 2020), stating that it predated the coronavirus pandemic and was one image in a series of posters showing people in a range of occupations, the damage was done: the government was seen by many to have entirely dismissed arts careers as lacking substance and being inconsequential and unworthy of support. This is despite their well-documented contribution to the UK economy, society, health and wellbeing (see Creative approaches to wellbeing in this series).

The research conducted with freelancers in this project was carried out from autumn 2020 onwards, after the emergence of the viability rhetoric and amongst ongoing debates about the support for arts and culture through the coronavirus pandemic. Following an overview of our data collection methods below, we share how these debates around viability and legitimacy of arts careers impacted the health and wellbeing of our participants. We end by suggesting ways in which the government could rebuild trust amongst the cultural sector through more informed policymaking and ongoing funding of arts workers.

Methods

The data explored in this chapter were collected as part of a larger project, ‘Responding to and Modelling the Impact of COVID-19 for Sheffield’s Cultural Ecology – a Case Study of Impact and Recovery’.2 Taking place from July 2020 to November 2021, this project investigated how the coronavirus pandemic affected various stakeholders in the arts, culture and heritage sectors in the Sheffield City Region (synonymous with the ‘South Yorkshire’ region) comprising Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield. We collected information from: (1) cultural organisations and businesses, (2) audiences and arts participants, (3) freelance arts workers, (4) key decision-makers in the city, as well as (5) commissioning an analysis of national economic data (Chamberlain and Morris, 2021). Ongoing discussions with stakeholders from the region ensured that their experiences of the pandemic fed into our research design, and findings were communicated back to local decision-makers throughout the project.

This chapter reports on our longitudinal study of arts, culture and heritage freelancers in South Yorkshire. This strand saw 98 freelancers complete three online surveys during the period October 2020 to August 2021, with nine participants taking part in follow-up semi-structured interviews between 18 February 2021 and 17 March 2021.3

Reports from each strand of the project and a breakdown of socio-demographics of respondents are available via the project website, containing detailed analysis of survey and interview data. Here, we focus on data pertaining to the themes of wellbeing amongst freelancers, deriving from quantitative and qualitative data from all three surveys and from the semi-structured interviews. Qualitative data has been analysed using thematic analysis to identify key topics, which were often then investigated further in later phases of the study; particularly relevant to this chapter is the identification of an interview theme around feeling unvalued as an artist.

Findings and discussion

 Deterioration of wellbeing

For the vast majority of freelancers in our study, coronavirus restrictions had led to them losing most of their work and experiencing a deterioration of their mental health and wellbeing. The availability of work had decreased ‘dramatically’ for 72% of respondents, consistent with findings from freelancers in Wales who experienced an average 76% reduction in income in 2020 and with little improvement in 2021 (Donnelly and Komorowski, 2022: 2). Almost half (47%) of the respondents to Survey 1 reported feeling stressed about personal finances to the point where financial pressures were constantly on their mind or keeping them awake at night (question adapted from the COVID-19 Social Study: Bu et al., 2020). Respondents who self-identified as being from a disadvantaged background experienced major stress about their personal finances at greater levels. Those who described their work as ‘event crew, lighting or sound engineer’ were particularly badly affected, with larger reductions in income (Price, 2021).

Unsurprisingly, given these high levels of stress, 77% of the freelancers reported in Survey 1 that their mental wellbeing was worse since the start of lockdown in March 2020. This worsening of mental health was reported at greater levels from male freelancers, those with diagnosed mental health conditions, those who were under 30, and event crew, lighting and sound engineers. We used the standardised ONS4 questions (Office of National Statistics, 2018) to provide comparable data on wellbeing between our respondents and the UK population. Freelancers in our study rated lower levels of life satisfaction than the UK population, felt life was less worthwhile and reported lower levels of happiness, when compared with the UK population statistics recorded through weekly surveys by the Office of National Statistics during the same period. These findings are consistent with the decline in mental health reported by freelancers in other areas of the UK (May et al., 2021; Spiro et al., 2021; Donnelly and Komorowski, 2022).

The uncertainty around the future meant that many respondents were calculating how long they could withstand the financial insecurity of working in the arts during the coronavirus pandemic, while being at pains to say that working in arts, culture and heritage was an intrinsic part of who they were, that they were loath to give up. When asked whether they were likely to leave the sector, 22 respondents to Survey 2 (29%) indicated it was unlikely that they would ever change careers because their work in arts and culture was their passion, part of their identity and fulfilled them in a way that other jobs did not: ‘I am by definition a Musician and will not be happy in any other role’ (Survey Respondent 51). This survey question was designed in consultation with our advisory board in order to investigate arts freelancers’ intention to leave the sector, insight that was not possible to ascertain through official statistics like the Labour Force Survey (Walmsley and Feder, 2022). Our study suggests that participants had every intention of staying in the sector if they were able to. However, there was a sense of inner conflict running through many of the responses, as respondents reflected on the possibility of having to leave the sector in order to stay financially afloat:

The main issues that I’ve had to deal with have been … a loss of self. … You’ve found the one career that you think you’re going to be particularly really good at and you’ve worked really hard to build that up and then it’s taken away … and then you have to find something else but then you’re not really trained in anything else, you have a loss of self, you have like, ‘Have I wasted years of my life?’ (Interview 04)

Probably too old to retrain to do anything else – and all my skills lie in music. However, if work dries up completely I’ll be forced to look elsewhere. To an extent it has always been a precarious way of making a living, but COVID has completely rocked the arts scene, and made life far more precarious than before. (Survey Respondent 15)

Interview Participant 04 described the sense of ‘loss’ that came with not only having to stop working at their chosen career, but also having to look for work in a field where they are not skilled, feeling a loss of identity as a result. This was echoed by the theatre freelancers study in which people felt a ‘loss of personal identity and a place within society’ as a result of not being able to work (Maples et al., 2022: 10). Survey Respondent 15 also acknowledged the likelihood of having to look for work elsewhere, again recognising that they lacked the skills to work in other sectors, but with a wry comment that they were ‘too old’ to make retraining in a new career a real possibility. The two responses show varying levels of determination to remain in the industry or resignation to the thought of having to leave, as well as a concern from some that they may not have the skills or confidence to get back to their pre-coronavirus work. Some worried that the long break in their work forced by the coronavirus pandemic would make it hard to return to it, having to rebuild their client base, regain confidence in performing to audiences and potentially start again from scratch. Three respondents gave themselves timelines of one-to-two years to see if they could regain lost ground, otherwise they were planning to find a new career. This shows that the full impact of coronavirus on freelancer careers will take some time to be fully evident, as some decisions are postponed until the recovery – or otherwise – of the sector has stabilised.

What is striking about these and other responses is the sense that building a career in the arts has always been difficult and precarious, a perception that is very much confirmed by existing literature (Comunian and England, 2020). Indeed, 18 respondents (23%) reflected on the pros and cons of forging a career in the arts, namely the sense of fulfilment versus precarity, a dilemma that many had been experiencing since long before the pandemic: ‘I’m always thinking of leaving the sector. It’s hard. There’s less money. But it’s also fulfilling’ (Survey Respondent 13). The balance between doing a career you love and finding enough work to be able to pay the bills was nothing new to the freelancers in our survey: ‘the desire for stability and a salary has certainly been playing on my mind, but ultimately, I love what I do and so I’ll threaten to leave all I want, but I just won’t!’ (Survey Respondent 26). Indeed, the sector is reliant on there being an oversupply of people who are desperate to work in this sector and hence will tolerate poor working conditions and a lack of job security. The poor mental health reported above points to a workforce that was already vulnerable to fluctuating work availability, and who were fully aware that forging a career in the arts has always needed a sense of determination, tenacity or even obstinance to be successful. Nonetheless, as we discuss below, the public undermining of the validity of arts careers threatened the emotional resilience that had driven these freelancers in their careers to date, leaving more of them with doubts about their capacity to return to ‘normal’.

 The viability question

The first indication that the viability rhetoric was compounding the doubts and fears of freelancers in our study came in an interview following Survey 1. When asked to reflect on whether there had been any gaps in support, one respondent commented:

There has been a bit of a focus around, ‘Is this … are you viable?’ … The discussions that have been had around whether or not being an artist is an actual career or an actual job, that’s been devastating to hear. … it’s just like the worst thing that you ever think in your head is, ‘Am I a job’s worth, am I just doing absolutely nothing, am I a louse and a sponge or whatever?’ and then to hear people say that they think you are, that’s been probably the toughest thing. (Interview 04)

This interviewee vividly described the way in which the viability rhetoric had a direct negative impact on their emotional wellbeing. Significantly, for this participant, hearing people question the validity of their work was particularly devastating because it compounded their own long-standing insecurities about not having enough work. This is not a new sentiment, with, for example, Cooper and Wills finding that a key stressor for popular musicians was ‘ignorance’ from the public and the ‘low esteem’ in which society held popular music as work, with musicians regularly being told to ‘get a real job’ (1989: 26–27). While not every freelancer had these doubts about their own work, the power of the viability rhetoric resulted from ongoing misgivings amongst the British public about the legitimacy of careers in the arts. Furthermore, this participant questions whether, in choosing to pursue a career in the arts, they are being a parasite on society, describing themselves as potentially being a ‘louse’ and a ‘sponge’, but then justifying the value of what they do both in terms of the economic contribution, as well as providing ‘people, everyday people with a release in their life’. As described above, the creative industries are built on a largely freelance workforce and are a big contributor to the UK economy and to people’s wellbeing, so their conclusion that their work is valuable is rooted in strong evidence. However, the emergence of the viability rhetoric meant that many artists, researchers and public figures felt the need to proclaim the value of the arts publicly in a way that had not really been seen before the pandemic (see Roberts, 2020; Savage, 2020).

Having noticed the impact of the viability rhetoric in freelancer interviews, we interrogated this idea further in the second survey by asking respondents to reflect on the extent to which they felt valued as artists. When asked ‘do you feel more or less valued as an arts worker than before the pandemic?’, 49% of respondents felt less valued, with only seven (9%) feeling more valued than before the coronavirus pandemic. Similarly, a study with theatre freelancers from around the UK found that the overwhelming majority of respondents were dissatisfied and angry at the way in which they had been ‘unvalued’, ‘ignored’ or rendered ‘invisible’ by the government (Maples et al., 2022: 93). We asked participants to describe in their own words how this had affected them. The treatment of the arts by the UK government was felt by many to not recognise the economic, social and cultural value that the arts bring to the UK, ‘massively punch[ing] above our weight on the global market’ (Survey Respondent 61). Instead, the arts were felt to be treated as a luxury, with little consequence if they were to fail:

Being told by the government to retrain made me feel my career wasn’t worthwhile. (Survey Respondent 49)

I often feel as though what I do for a living isn’t considered ‘real’. A few people have said ‘what business?’ when I mention how difficult it’s been to keep my business afloat. As though business and the arts don’t go together?! (Survey Respondent 26)

Survey Respondent 49 explicitly linked the viability rhetoric to negative feelings about their own work, stating that the publicity which suggested that artists retrain into new careers made them feel like their career was not ‘worthwhile’. In a nationwide study of freelancers during the same period, the ‘Fatima’ advert and government advice to ‘retrain’ were also cited as making participants feel demoralised in their career (Maples et al., 2022: 94–95). For Survey Respondent 26, it was not government campaigns but public opinion that they were having to contend with, having had to explain to people that they were running businesses as a freelance arts worker. Their comment (‘as though business and the arts don’t go together’) points to a perceived conflict between the two amongst people outside the sector. The impact of this discursive devaluation of their career choices on respondents’ emotional wellbeing was strongly evident, summarised by one as being ‘demoralising to see our sector not only ignored but dismissed and devalued’ (Survey Respondent 21). Participants reported that it had been hard to maintain any resilience when they were not able to do what they have trained to do, were isolated from other artists and were regularly being told that their artistic practice and business was unimportant.

Over this period, the question of whether or not arts workers were worthy of support became inextricably linked to whether or not working in the arts was a ‘real job’, which in turn connects to, we would argue, long-standing distrust amongst the public towards people who pursue artistic careers (see Cooper and Wills, 1989; this sentiment is under-explored in academic literature, but testimonies abound in the media, e.g. Benson, 2020). Furthermore, it shows the way in which public opinion is both filtered through and shaped by media and government policy, having a tangible impact on freelancers’ livelihoods and wellbeing. The financial difficulties faced by creative workers as a direct result of the coronavirus restrictions were depicted as essentially an inevitable consequence of choosing an arts career, which here is presented as synonymous with precarity as a result of the widespread use of freelancers to sustain the sector. The responsibility is put on the individual worker to be able to withstand a global pandemic, rather than critiquing the insecure employment structures in which they operate. Furthermore, any financial successes prior to coronavirus were not recognised as evidence of a viable business. The responses above showed that freelancers, in addition to coping with the disruption of lockdown and the stress of not having work, were also having to withstand a kind of crisis of legitimacy within the media and public opinion. While many people were outspokenly supportive of arts and culture, this rhetoric brought to the surface a sense that those in power did not understand or value the contribution that freelance arts workers make to the cultural life and economy of the UK.

Looking to the future

Despite the many difficulties facing freelancers through the coronavirus pandemic, participants in our study showed enormous aptitude for adaptation and innovation. Twenty-six respondents (34%) spoke of managing through the coronavirus pandemic, as a result of successful funding applications or through the support of long-term collaborating organisations, 14 respondents (18%) had adapted their work and business in creative ways to cope, 9 respondents (12%) saw this period as a time for reflection and a chance to evaluate their existing work, and 21 respondents (27%) described their experience of the coronavirus pandemic as a struggle to stay financially stable and to generate any work. Despite the resilience shown by freelancers, there is a real risk that the pandemic will continue to impact their careers for years to come. In the first survey, we asked people to report on what barriers they faced in returning to work, and they highlighted a loss of momentum (48%) and loss of visibility (37%) as concerns, with under-30s and respondents from disadvantaged backgrounds feeling these even more keenly. Some respondents worried that the long break in their work forced by the pandemic would make it hard to begin again, having to rebuild their client base, regain confidence in performing to audiences and potentially start again from scratch. Amongst our participants, these challenges were experienced differently according to career stage, being hardest for those who had just begun to build networks and would have to start again. As one interviewee succinctly stated: ‘the idea of [work] just being on pause is not realistic. It’s not that we could pick this up this May … the recording fees, the contracts, it’s gone’ (Interview 03). The focus on momentum is indicative of how the freelance world works, which is that one gig often leads to the next booking in a way that gradually accumulates over time. The prospect of having an ‘empty diary’ was therefore alarming for respondents not just in terms of a lack of income, but also their diminished visibility and the chances of getting work in the future.

Conclusion

The effects of coronavirus on the careers of our participants will be long-lasting. Our study showed a burgeoning crisis in mental health amongst arts and cultural freelancers, not only as a result of lockdown restriction and lack of work, but also the damaging viability rhetoric which made freelancers feel unvalued by the government, media, and in public opinion. As noted above, our respondents demonstrated the way in which poor public opinion of arts careers both influenced and was influenced by media reporting and government policy. This also demonstrates the way in which precarity is assumed to be an inevitability in pursuing a career in the arts and cultural sector, with freelancers shouldering the risk – but rarely seeing the benefit – of booming creative industries in the UK.

In order to create a better environment for freelancers, change is needed across arts policy, cultural organisations and public opinion of arts workers. This begins in childhood, by ensuring that the arts are taken seriously as legitimate and worthwhile school subjects that are properly resourced, reversing the trend towards the arts being seen as disposable school subjects in England (Welch, 2012). Public opinion could also be shifted through publicity campaigns by bodies such as Arts Council England and Department of Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) which emphasise the economic and social contribution of arts and culture, with a strong focus on the entrepreneurial nature of arts careers and the business acumen of cultural freelancers. Cultural organisations must do more to support the freelancers they hire, through efforts to create longer term employment opportunities, commitments to following through on paid work even if events are cancelled and offering wellbeing support and guidance for staff on all forms of employment. Finally, the apparent lack of understanding amongst policymakers about the nature of freelance arts work demonstrates the desperate need both for more accurate data collection on freelancers (also noted by Walmsley et al., 2022: 65) and for people with arts backgrounds to be in the room when policy decisions are taking place. Given that before the pandemic, the creative industries contributed £166 billion to the UK economy with 2.1 million workers, representatives from this sector should be properly consulted on policy matters relating to employment.

Coronavirus restrictions are likely to have put freelancers’ careers back by many years, plunging many into debt and neutralising the momentum and visibility that they had worked hard to attain. Freelancers are therefore in need of ongoing support from DCMS and Arts Council England to provide work opportunities to get their names back into the sector. More recent analyses from the Centre for Cultural Value has shown that the performing arts sector is experiencing a particularly slow recovery (Walmsley and Feder, 2022). Funding to enable freelancers to make new work, have periods of research and development, and improve their skills or make new contacts would help to mitigate some of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic; our research provided the basis for such funding within the Sheffield City Region (University of Sheffield, 2021). Funding opportunities like this should be aimed at those who are most severely affected by the pandemic restrictions, namely: under-30s who did not have an established reputation and extensive contacts to rely on; those from disadvantaged backgrounds and low economic status who had to quickly find alternative employment and were not able to continue with their career development during the pandemic; and event crew, lighting and sound engineers who often reported being the hardest hit in our study. Systemic inequalities in the arts sector have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, so funding should be targeted towards under-represented groups within the arts sector, especially disabled workers, people from low-income backgrounds and freelancers from global majority communities.

Whereas the UK government’s and hence the English approach to supporting the arts and cultural workers through the coronavirus pandemic focused on the survival of institutions (as noted by Wright, 2020: 16), the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each structured their policies around helping individual arts workers. Indeed, the Scottish government quickly recognised that many freelancers would fall through the cracks of the UK-wide support schemes and devised their own fund to help (Wright, 2020: 15), in contrast to central government who, as noted in House of Commons Treasury Committee (2021), were unwilling to alter their existing schemes despite the flaws repeatedly being pointed out. Many European countries offered far more in the way of tailored financial aid for creative freelancers. Denmark, notably, designed a fund for artists who move between paid employment and self-employment and thereby fell through the gaps of their other schemes (Eurofound, 2020).

The fact that many freelancers immediately felt the impact of lockdown is indicative of the difficulties of working freelance where income is generated week-to-week. Arguably, coronavirus restrictions only exacerbated this existing precarity, noted in previous research as having class and accessibility biases that are likely to have become worse as people struggle to return to the sector (Brook et al., 2020; Perry et al., 2015). While many of our participants were committed to staying in the sector, local cultural organisations who participated in the research have reported that it is harder to find freelancers to fill roles such as sound and lighting technicians since reopening. It may be that those workers have found better job security, work-life balance and working conditions in other sectors, in which case improvements would need to be made in how the cultural sector looks after freelancers in order for this type of work to be attractive and competitive. Models for how the UK government could reduce precarity amongst arts freelancers in the long term can be found across Europe, with Austria, France and Germany having artist social insurance schemes, and Ireland trialling regular payments for artists beyond the coronavirus pandemic by embarking on a Basic Income for the Arts pilot scheme (citizensinformation.ie, 2022). As the country enters another turbulent period of post-Brexit changes, cost of living crisis and an unsettled political landscape, support for arts sector jobs will be essential to maintain strong creative and cultural industries and avoid a future skills gap as potential new entrants seek out more secure and institutionally supported work.

More optimistically, many respondents demonstrated how they had established sustainable creative businesses prior to coronavirus that would have continued to succeed had it not been for the pandemic. We should be mindful as to how emphasising the vulnerabilities in this sector might reinforce the viability rhetoric and leave the arts sector open to future criticism. As researchers, we have a responsibility to highlight the strength of the freelance arts sector workforce and its contribution to the economic and cultural fabric of society, while also identifying the ways in which its inequities limit the pool of people who are able to work, and its precarious conditions negatively impact those who elect to work in this sector. Change is needed to both arts policy and working practices to ensure that risk is not shouldered by ‘resilient’ freelance workers, but instead absorbed by the industry as a whole through better job security and financial support for freelancers.

Notes

1 While the introduction of a second lockdown in November led to this policy being withdrawn, the term ‘viable jobs’ which peppered the Winter Economy Plan had entered circulation and did not disappear with the policy.
3 The topics included in each phase of the longitudinal study as well as the full questionnaires can be found on the project website. Ethical approval for this research was granted by the University of Sheffield Research Ethics Committee.

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