Art Does Not Have to Matter in the Debate Over the Arts Crisis

Isaac Castella McDonald 24 October 2020

‘It’s the worst thing that the theatre industry has ever faced together. The theatres were not closed all the way through the second world war. Before that we go back to the plague at the end of the 16th century when they were closed for 14 months, we’re not going to be so far off that.’

These are the words of theatre owner Nica Burns [1], and they put the current predicament in the entire Cultural and Creative Industry (CCI) in perspective. Due to Covid 19, the whole sector has seen a disruption in income streams unseen since at least the Second World War and at best the 16th century.

Due to Covid 19, the whole sector has seen a disruption in income streams unseen since at least the Second World War and at best the 16th century.

With an 87% drop in advertised roles this year [2], ‘faster than any other sector in the UK’, it is easy to see why the industry has been vocal in it’s calls for support from the government. That there should be a degree of indignance towards the treatment of the sector is down to this extraordinary circumstance, but also down to the fact the arts sector is a very vocal industry, skilled in language, and proud in the face of a zeitgeist that, sometimes rightly, sometimes not, sees a career in the Arts as a sort of glorified hobby. It’s something that’s inadvisable to attempt, and, even if you’re met with success, treated differently to other jobs; a career with an asterisk added above it suggesting that, after all is said and done, it might not be real work.

It is true that the ‘Cultural and Creative Industry’ is often elitist, pretentious, insular, and a lot of other things besides. And it does seem too good to be true, in a world thinned by capitalist discipline, that a job doing something you really want to do, something so materially useless, producing a product that does not necessarily catalyse further material gain, could earn people a living and support a large industry, but, in fact, it does:

According to a UNESCO study published in December 2015 [3], ‘the Cultural and Creative Industry’s global revenues ($3,250b) surpass India’s GDP ($1,900b).’ The UK is privileged to have one of the largest CCI sectors in Europe, directly producing 10.8 billion in Gross Value Added annually and supporting 137,250 jobs. When you consider the positive impact the CCI has on ancillary industries such as hospitality, construction, tourism etc., the sector helps produce an additional £23 billion annual GVA and 363,713 jobs, according to a 2019 study from the Centre for Economics and Business Research [4]. This means the CCI sector supports over 500,000 British jobs.

To put this in perspective, the BBC wrote in January [5] that in the UK ‘some 457,000 people now work in pubs and bars’. Imagine 87% of pub jobs suddenly disappearing and you’ll get a sense of the size and significance of this crisis.

So, however you feel about the culture industry, whether or not art is something you enjoy, or personally benefit from, it is unavoidably true that it produces wealth, supports jobs, and is a positive force in the UK’s economy. This fact ought to make our government want to save it from the devastating impact of COVID 19.

It is unavoidably true that the culture industry produces wealth, supports jobs, and is a positive force in the UK’s economy.

And, on paper, Sunak’s £1.57 billion care-package should be enough for this to happen. It is a considerable amount, roughly equivalent in bulk to the German package. Unlike the German package, however, it does not sufficiently support individual, self-employed artists, focussing instead on institutions and museums.

Charlotte Higgins writes [6] for The Guardian, ‘The government rhetoric around the arts-support package is centred on institutions, while … the makers of art will be cut loose from the support scheme for the self-employed in August.’ This is especially true for the music industry. Ed Barker points out [7] that three quarters of people in the music industry are self- employed, and as such, ‘The new measures will require them to survive on just 20% of their usual salary until they are allowed to return to work.’ This is simply not enough given that Musicians earn an average of ‘£23,000’ a year.

When government assistance is contingent on workers working and being paid for a third of their normal hours, and musician’s places of work will be some of the last places to be opened again, there is clearly a disaster on the horizon. We are seeing support for the infrastructure of the Cultural and Creative Industry, but not the artists who inhabit it. The government is providing support for the hardware of the sector, but not the software that produces the show.

To start tackling this problem, we should follow Germany’s example. In August, their government increased their art acquisition budget [8] from 500,000 Euros to 3 million Euros. The panel selecting pieces for acquisition must keep their purchases below 20,000 Euros, allowing as many artists as possible to receive what in many cases will be a critical windfall in their careers. This kind of measure helps artists specifically, and is much needed in the UK, as it is in Germany.

Beyond this, our government must review their new employment support scheme, due to take effect this month, to accomodate for the industries that it does not adequately protect. In the words of Ed Barker [9], ‘We must stop looking at the arts as some sort of light-hearted add-on to the government’s priorities.’ We can see that this is important just by looking at the numbers, without even starting to discuss the virtue or vice of the Cultural and Creative Industry’s less measurable effects.