Impacts of Covid-19: a snapshot from the cultural sector

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Impacts of Covid-19: a snapshot from the cultural sector

© Vogue Ball, Contact Theatre. Photo: Drew Forsyth

By Karen Gray
John Wright, Centre for Cultural Value


This article written in January 2021 shares findings from a national research programme that is building a robust and in-depth picture of the impacts of Covid-19 on the UK’s cultural sector.

Our initial case study interviews are offering a number of in-depth insights into cultural workers’ experiences during the pandemic and this article brings together some of the emerging themes from this work, highlighting the complexities of the impact of Covid-19 on cultural sector organisations.

In December 2020, the Centre for Cultural Value and the PEC released analysis demonstrating the scale of the jobs crisis facing the sector. In this article we flesh out the picture, highlighting key themes emerging from ongoing interviews with English theatre organisations, cultural leaders in Northern Ireland, festivals in Scotland, and museum and gallery-based organisations in England’s north-east and north-west.

Interviewees have told us how arts and cultural organisations are rethinking their relationships with employed and contracted workers and with audiences, the roles they play within communities, and their existing business and funding models. Leaders have described the stress of operating under conditions of uncertainty, managing changing and regional differences in restrictions, supporting the wellbeing of staff (while sometimes having to furlough them or even make them redundant), and navigating attitudes to risk.

In the absence of precedent, clear government messaging and reliable data, many organisations have turned to formal and informal support structures and networks to share knowledge, build confidence and enable action. Some report enhanced digital communication as contributing to creating a more connected workforce, including breaking down some traditional silos. However, there are also suggestions that increased remote working, along with the psychological effects of furloughing and continued insecurity, could be leading to a reduced sense of connectedness for some. It is a mixed picture.

The speed and flexibility of funders’ responses has attracted general praise. In England, theatres, museums and galleries uniformly welcomed financial interventions from Arts Council England (ACE) and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Across the four nations, most interviewees highlighted the role of the furlough scheme in enabling business survival.

In Northern Ireland, however, continued uncertainty around funding from Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) is a key concern for many cultural leaders. Public spending on arts and culture in Northern Ireland has traditionally been lower than the other three nations in the UK. Although the emergency funding delivered in the initial stages of the pandemic was welcomed, uncertainty around the ACNI’s future budget is hampering strategic planning and causing real concerns about the sustainability of the sector.

Staff and freelance workers
While their employed workforce is a priority, organisations expressed worries about how to support independent arts and cultural workers and emerging practitioners. There are real fears of a ‘talent drain’ in technical and backstage roles in theatre, curatorial and exhibition specialisms in museums, and creative self-employed workers supporting festivals in Scotland, with freelancers forced to either re-train or transfer their skills to other sectors. Some felt that impacts of this kind could bite particularly hard in areas worst-hit by the pandemic, amongst younger workers and where there are existing higher levels of unemployment, leading to knock-on impacts for the mobility and diversity of the workforce.

Concerns for colleagues and solidarity were widely noted during the early stages of lockdown with many theatres, museums and galleries reporting a ‘sense of campaign’ within the sector itself before the announcement of Cultural Recovery Funding. Many of those interviewed described an enhanced awareness of existing inequalities, including race and employment insecurity. Cultural leaders in Northern Ireland noted a shift in notions of value, with people and relationships taking precedence over individualistic notions of status in organisations. Leaders of museums and galleries report plans to improve inclusion and access within the workforce and within programming, including through a new focus on existing collections.

Digital programming
Almost all organisations have boosted their digital or online presence, with museums and galleries in particular describing this as an ‘acceleration’. However, many remain uncertain about how to monetise digital activity, how to improve its quality in the face of strong existing competition, and how to use digital technologies to interact meaningfully with audiences. Among theatres and festivals, and despite some successful examples, there is a notable resistance to replacing the ‘live experience’ with virtual alternatives.

All interviewees described the challenge of reaching existing audiences throughout the pandemic, particularly those that are vulnerable or who lack digital access. There is a strong belief in the desire of audiences to return to bricks and mortar cultural experiences. But equally there is uncertainty about when they will do so, given ongoing lockdowns and continuing high levels of risk. There is also widespread concern about whether the variety of programming will be there to entice them back when they do.

Social impact 
While unable to open their doors, many organisations have focused on education and community engagement work in their local areas. This is sometimes related to a realignment towards arts and culture for social or health and wellbeing impact, connected by some in England with an accelerated response to Arts Council England’s Let’s Create strategy.

Organisations described developing partnerships that could strengthen future creative connections at local, national and international levels. While the pandemic has exposed issues of skills and capacity in areas such as digital technology and community engagement, interviewees also suggested it may be creating opportunities for nimble organisations to step into these gaps.

The picture we are seeing is complex. Impacts vary according to the type of cultural offering. For example, while many museums and galleries could open under restrictions between July to October, most theatres found it more difficult to navigate social distancing both on and off stage, and provided only limited programming. Impacts also vary according to the extent and nature of an organisation’s material and other resources, structure, funding sources, and depending on its defined vision or mission and audience profile.

Geography matters, with some large urban areas, such as Manchester and Liverpool, affected by severe and extended restrictions. Interviewees highlighted dependencies within their local ecologies, including the effect of large unfinished capital projects, and a reliance on sectors badly impacted by the pandemic including hospitality, retail, tourism, education, and the voluntary or third sector.

Implications for the future
While those we have talked to often describe the UK’s cultural sector as ‘resilient’, it is clear that 2021 will continue to be tough. This is likely to be particularly the case for organisations without secure longer-term funding, with a reliance on commercial income, and for individual freelance workers. Organisations dependent on local authority or education funding fear further cuts. All of the larger theatre or museum and gallery-based organisations interviewed in England in the final quarter of 2020 told us they had already restructured at some level or were planning to do so. And as we saw in these figures from December, the sector has already shrunk by at least 30%. These changes were often focused around hospitality, retail or front of house roles.

One implication is that the worst impacts may have been masked or delayed. Before the release of Cultural Recovery Funding, some organisation leaders described the prospect of hard-won financial reserves being drained within months if restrictions remained in place and further funding was not forthcoming. Many Scottish festivals had been forced to cancel or postpone until 2021 and all those interviewed expressed concern around funding and income generation limited by national restrictions. Organisations are likely to require continued support for business development, financial and strategic planning, to build strong leadership, to maintain and grow networks, and to enable digital innovation.

Unpicking the complexities, nuances and inter-dependencies of this picture, and pulling out further implications for the sector will be the focus of continuing interviews over the next six months.

This research is part of a larger-scale programme led by the Centre for Cultural Value in collaboration with the Policy and Evidence Centre and The Audience Agency. It is building a robust and in-depth picture of the impacts of Covid-19 on the UK’s cultural sector. The research is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Covid-19 rolling call through the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Published: 2021

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Covid 19 Research
Resource type: Research