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The arts are in crisis

The UK’s arts sector is currently sitting on a knife’s edge. Speaking to those facing the worst and fighting back, Katie Goh investigates.

30 Mar 2023

Naomi Gennery

The UK’s arts sector is currently sitting on a knife’s edge. At the end of 2022, Arts Council England (ACE) announced it was cutting £50 million a year from London-based arts organisations in its 2023-2026 plans, fulfilling government instruction to distribute money away from the capital. This plan to spread arts funding thinner was met with protests and frustration, as well as London-based arts organisations scrambling to move cities. The message was clear: under this Tory government, arts organisations will be forced to fight over crumbs.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, 2023 began with a proposed 10% cut to Creative Scotland, who warned that reduced funding would impact 50% of the national arts funding body’s organisations. Thanks to pressure from campaigners and unions, this proposal was abandoned in February, but throughout the UK, the arts are struggling to survive.

In my own city of Edinburgh, host to the world’s largest arts festival every August, this winter has already brought blow after blow to the cultural landscape. Over a single month, I watched three of Scotland’s landmark arts institutions close or partially close. Edinburgh’s beloved independent cinema, the Filmhouse, and the Edinburgh International Film Festival collapsed when their parent company, Centre for Moving Image, went into administration – also resulting in the closure of Aberdeen’s Belmont Filmhouse. Scotland’s National Centre for Dance announced staff redundancies, “mothballed” half its studio spaces and scaled back its programming. The National Galleries of Scotland shut one of its galleries, Modern Two, for the winter, with the National Galleries’ director-general John Leighton saying, “I have never experienced a crisis like this in my career.”

“Over a single month, I watched three of Scotland’s landmark arts institutions close or partially close”

Each of these physical arts venues in Edinburgh pointed to some combination of rising energy bills, reduced trade, the cost of living crisis and the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic as their reasons for closures and staff redundancies. But this seemingly recent and sudden threat to the arts – not just in Edinburgh, but UK-wide – has been escalating for far longer than since 2020. Adjacent sectors which intersect with the arts, have similarly been decimated. For example, the music industry is a currently a third smaller now than it was pre-pandemic. And at least 1,000 journalism jobs cut in January of 2023 alone. 

There are many factors creating a difficult landscape for creatives. Rising energy bills and the cost of living crisis have been the final, financially devastating, nail in the coffin for the arts – but they’re not the root of the problem. 

The Tory government hates the arts

The Tory government has been on a hell-bent mission to defund, devalue and dismantle the UK’s arts and culture sector since the party came to power in 2010. George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer between 2010 and 2016, and current chairman of the British Museum, oversaw a 30% cut to Arts Council England funding. A 2007-2018 analysis of the health of England’s arts sector recorded that local government funding for the arts has fallen 43% from 2008 and overall funding has fallen more than a third since 2010.

In 2021, the Tories reformed the government’s funding stream to higher education, by cutting arts subjects by 50% and redirecting that money to STEM subjects. Last year, Roehampton University, Wolverhampton University, and Sheffield Hallam University each drastically reduced their humanities courses. In their 2019 manifesto, the Tories proposed £110 million towards an “arts premium” to help secondary schools fund arts programmes. This was then reduced to £90 million to Rishi Sunak’s 2020 budget. As reported in the Guardian, despite a deadline of September 2021, this money has never materialised.

“In six years of working at Arts Emergency, this is the most bleak I’ve seen the arts,” says Korantema Anyimadu, who works as Youth Voice Lead at Arts Emergency, a mentoring charity for young people who are underrepresented in the arts. “Just last week I had a message from a young person who’s decided not to stay in the arts because it seems so unreliable and not well paid. It’s like a leaky pipe. We’re losing people. That young person has decided to go into STEM instead.”

“In six years of working at Arts Emergency, this is the most bleak I’ve seen the arts”

Korantema Anyimadu

Arts Emergency was founded by Neil Griffiths and Josie Long in 2010, in direct response to the Tory government’s cuts to the arts sector. “The idea was that in 10 years time, Arts Emergency wouldn’t be needed anymore,” explains Anyimadu. “Either the Tory government would be voted out or there would be more support for the arts. But it’s just gotten worse. The passion of people in the arts hasn’t changed or the talent, but the reality of working in the arts has gotten less and less welcoming.”  

With funding cuts comes a loss of jobs. The creative sector is a precarious industry to work in at the best of times, either as an artist or as an arts worker. Increasingly, only those with a safety net can afford to pursue a career in the arts. As a result, and unsurprisingly, the industry’s workforce is overwhelmingly white and middle class. A 2018 report found that 2.7% of workers in the museums, galleries and libraries sector are BAME, while that figure is 4.8% for BAME workers in music, performing and visual arts. More recently, a 2022 report by the Office for National Statistics revealed that the numbers of working-class actors, musicians and writers has halved since the 1970s. In journalism, over 92% of the workforce is white.

“Cultural institutions themselves have been very slow and unwilling to change,” says Anyimadu. “A lot of promises were made in 2020 which no one has followed up on. And there has been no relative class mobility in the last 20 years. Nothing’s actually changed.”

Anyimadu doesn’t believe that the arts sector’s elitism and gate-keeping is accidental either. 

In 2020, the UK’s creative industries contributed almost £13 million to the UK economy every hour and yet, as Anyimadu points out, the Tory government is constantly devaluing the arts, removing arts from state schools and encouraging artists to retrain. “A part of me feels like if you have more Black and Brown people, more disabled people making things with their own voices and producing art that goes against the status quo, it’s not going to reflect well on the people in power.”

Organisations are losing their lifelines

When arts organisations’ funding shrinks, so too does experimental, radical and far-reaching art. The independent publisher Tilted Axis Press was founded in 2015 through an Arts Council England grant. Over the last eight years, the team has operated with “a particular consciousness of present and historical imperialism and its impact on publishing, the hierarchisation of languages, fair pay and the distribution of labour,” Managing Director, Kristen Vida Alfaro, tells me. 

Tilted Axis publishes books in translation from across Asia and Africa, many of which have become major success stories in the UK, like Tomb of Sand (written by Geetanjali Shree and translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell) which won the 2022 International Booker Prize – the first South Asian book to do so. 

“I think our publishing aims have always been different from the publishing industry in the UK,” says Vida Alfaro. “We explore alternatives in literature, translation and labour – things that might be more of a ‘risk’ to other publishers. Community and collaboration are also integral to our publishing aims. I don’t see them as separate but rather feeding into each other.”

Although book sales have increasingly financially supported Tilted Axis, the publisher has been consistently supported by ACE grants – a “lifeline for a lot of independent presses,” says Vida Alfaro. The cost of producing books in the UK has increased at an alarming rate, with paper costs rising by 40% in 2022, and a change in post-Brexit VAT rules in 2021 has meant that many independent publishers haven’t been able to sell or ship physical books to the EU for two years. 

During the pandemic, UK publisher sales rose and large publishers are reporting record-breaking profits, yet independent publishers, industry workers and authors are seeing little of this money. At the end of 2022, a new report commissioned by the UK Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS) and carried out by the UK Copyright and Creative Economy Research Centre (CREATe), published a devastating figure: that professional authors, including journalists, are earning a median wage of £7,000 a year in the UK. This statistic marks a fall of 33% since 2018. The report also found that Black, Asian and mixed race authors, as well as women, earn a median wage far below £7,000.

“The current cultural ecosystem that wasn’t created for marginalised communities, particularly immigrants or people of colour”

Kristen Vida Alfaro

A 2022 Bookseller survey reported a similarly grim reality for workers within publishing, with 37% of those surveyed saying that their current salary is not enough to cover their cost of living and 69% saying they are not paid appropriately for their work. 

“Who can afford to live with a low income and/or the precarity of freelance creative work?” says Vida Alfaro. “This not only impacts the type of stories that are published but also the mental health of those that pursue creative work. The current cultural ecosystem doesn’t allow ample time to deal with health issues, grief, family crises. It’s a system that wasn’t created for marginalised communities, particularly immigrants or people of colour.”

‘The culture will lack because diversity is the culture

While publicly funded arts organisations have been hit hard by funding cuts, other independent and privately funded organisations are similarly struggling to survive the UK’s current economic crisis. Ronan Mckenzie founded the London arts space HOME in 2020, to “make more space for Black and artists who are people of colour (POC) to show, share and create work, connect and also to find my own community.”

HOME began life as a physical space – one of very few Black-owned galleries in London – and was predominantly funded by Mckenzie’s own pocket, as well as brand partnerships. After two years of HOME, the physical London space closed its doors at the end of 2022. HOME has now migrated to be online or in hired exhibition spaces, but its mission remains the same: to create more space and more opportunities for Black and POC artists.

“I’m so proud of everything that we did in the space,” says Mckenzie. “But I’m not proud of how much I personally sacrificed and how much of a precarious position I put myself in and how much I had to invest to upkeep it. We were able to achieve some of the goals we had: like making more space and more opportunities through residencies and grant offerings, and shows in spaces in and outside of HOME.”

Mckenzie’s feelings about the current state of the arts are mixed. While she emphasises that support and funding has been taken away, she also points out that there has been an increase in opportunities for artists. “I think there are more opportunities to show and see artwork than there ever have been, in small galleries, cafes and spaces – and even bigger institutions are showing artwork of different types of artists who they weren’t prioritising before. But I think working in the arts and staying in the arts is really difficult because the pay is so little and the money is low.”

HOME is partially funded by commercial partnerships, and Mckenzie says that brands are becoming more risk-averse in the UK’s current economic crisis. “I think, before Covid, brands were more willing to put money into small projects, community projects and arts projects just because it’s good to do. Naturally with the recession, there’s a resurgence of the mindset that everything must have a sales pay off. Even going to Frieze [Art Fair] at the end of last year, the artwork all felt more commercial and less experimental, and fewer galleries are willing to give different artists a try.” 

As Anyimadu and Vida Alfaro emphasised throughout our conversations, Mckenzie also highlights that we all lose when the arts are devalued and shrunk. “Everything is drab! We need diversity and exposure to a mix of cultures, lifestyles, languages, food, faces, textures and stories. I think people are moving out of London and out of the UK which makes complete sense. But it means the culture will lack because diversity is the culture.”

Rallying a national movement to fight back 

As I was finishing writing this story, news broke that the Scottish government had decided to reverse its proposal to reduce more than 10% of Creative Scotland’s budget; a loss of £7 million that would have impacted half of its regularly-funded organisations. This decision came after 15,000 people signed a last-minute petition organised by the charity Campaign for the Arts, as well as the work of Culture Counts, the Scottish Trade Union Congress and the sector unions, including Equity, Society of Authors and the Scottish Artists Union. 

“If [the Scottish government] didn’t change course, the damage would have been irreversible,” says Campaign for the Arts’ Director, Jack Gamble, speaking a few days after the proposal was abandoned. “We would have been looking at devastating consequences to Scotland’s culture.” 

He is also quick to highlight that while the Scottish government’s decision to restore Creative Scotland’s funding should be celebrated, it doesn’t increase an already limited pot of money for the country’s arts sector. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but this only brings Creative Scotland funding to standstill levels with last year during a time of rocketing inflation. They have listened to us and acted and we are thankful for that, but we’re not out of the woods. The campaign goes on.”

Gamble began Campaign for the Arts during the pandemic while he was working at a community theatre in Hackney, London. The aim was to unite sector bodies during times of crisis for the UK’s arts industries, and present accessible information to the public. In just two weeks after the Campaign began, 150,000 people had joined the campaign and then the UK government announced the Culture Recovery Fund. “At that point, we thought this was an amazing groundswell of support for the cultural sector,” says Gamble. “I thought we need to keep going with this and do more.”

Three years on, the organisation has run successful campaigns in Nottingham in 2021, working with workers and cultural organisers to significantly reduce a cut in council funding for the arts, and in Windsor and Maidenhead in 2022, when a 100% cut to arts funding was proposed. “We not only managed to stop the 100% cut, but we actually got a 17% increase in arts funding,” says Gamble. Other campaigns have been around arts and education, responding to cuts to arts courses in higher education and “the fact that over the last decade, access to creative subjects in state schools has been decimated.”  

Now, Campaign for the Arts has 250,000+ supporters across the UK and representation in every one of the country’s 650 parliamentary constituencies. The mission is to create a network, so that when local arts organisations are threatened by funding cuts and closure, Campaign for the Arts can step in to offer their support and spread the news. “We don’t have limitless resources,” says Gamble. “But we are trying to develop a nationwide alliance which means that when there are these crunch moments, like with Creative Scotland, we can let people know about them and support campaigns to protect arts provision and opportunities.”

“Supporting the arts isn’t just about supporting arts industry workers, it’s also about supporting the cultural life of the country and the world”

Jack Gamble

After a bleak winter of closing arts venues, the effort from Campaign for the Arts and Scotland’s arts sector unions to push back against the government’s proposed funding cuts to the industry has offered some necessary hope. While, as Gamble highlights, there is still much work to be done to push for more arts funding, not just less, the public rallying around the arts has also proven that it’s not just artists or industry workers who want and benefit from a sustainable and healthy cultural landscape – it’s everyone. 

“I work in this industry because for all my life I’ve loved arts and culture,” says Gamble. “Supporting the arts isn’t just about supporting arts industry workers, it’s also about supporting the cultural life of the country and the world. This is about the kind of society we want to live in and the kind of lives we want to lead.”
You can find out more about Arts Emergency’s work and support their work by visiting their website. Visit Tilted Axis Press’ website and HOME’s website. Join Campaign for the Arts as a supporter and find out more about their work by visiting their website.