Covid And The Arts Economy - Practical Things UK Artists Can Do Right Now to Feel Better
Today the scenario seems something like this: As of mid-October 2020, the UK is still in the grip of a Covid crisis and with the government furlough scheme coming to an end, many in the creative industries are feeling panicked about having to retrain as McAfee call centre employees.
I have a huge list of economics related things to write about in this blog, which annoyingly gets shunted off the top of the to-do list frequently but writing an article about the current Covid situation wasn’t one of them. This is because the whole subject is much bigger than my flippant sentence above, and I feel that disastrous as Covid has been on many levels, now is the time for stock-taking and reflection more than knee-jerk reactions and panic.
Why I am writing this post today, however, is that I think there are some practical things those of us in creative jobs can do to feel a little better. The reason we aren’t getting the time for that stock-taking and reflection is due to the financially precarious nature of our jobs over years, and it is affecting people’s mental and physical health as well as hope for the future.
So this post is just focusing on a few practical thoughts I’ve had, rather than a full synopsis of what needs to be fixed in the UK creative industries. That was part of the original reason I started this blog and will come later, possibly over about 200 articles.
This is not designed as a ‘how to get a job’ article, because we are in a pickle and I’m not sure who has any answers to that right now. One thing we need to focus on though is getting through this with as little damage to our physical and mental health as possible, as well as realistically preserving our creative ambitions for the future.
Before I get to my practical ideas I will put a caveat on the whole article in the form of a statement about what I believe is the backdrop to our current scenario:
My personal belief is that no UK government since I have been able to vote (I was born in 1975) has really supported the creative industries as well as such a national resource deserves. Our creative sector has consistently been one of the culturally exciting things about the UK and this has been taken advantage of by business and governments alike, but nothing has ever been put back in.
Funding, job opportunities and security have been almost non-existent throughout my adult life, and it has been frustrating at times to look just across the English Channel to other countries in Europe who support their creative industries much better. That said, I’m not a fan of full, luxury totalitarian style 100% government support for artists. In practice this only allows a small minority of uncritical lickspittles, or people forced by starvation and torture in to towing the state line, to succeed as artists. I believe we have always needed something in between, and as we’re not somewhere like Sweden or France we haven’t really had it. The fact that despite this we still have an amazing creative sector only shows how deeply fabulous it could be with proper support.
I actually don’t feel that this has been a party political issue in the UK as we have had several changes of administration over the years and yet the sustainability of creative jobs has been on an even downward trajectory since I first started work.
Until sometime at the end of the 1990s, the dwindling welfare system picked up a lot of slack in supporting creatives. When dole money actually existed, it gave many people a little bit of breathing space with the start of their careers to gain experience, time, contacts, a practice etc. Ditto for cheap/free education, student grants, affordable accommodation, affordable market stalls, non-freelance (in-house) creative-industry jobs, apprenticeships, achievable arts grants, affordable art studios, permanent teaching jobs etc.
We haven’t had any of this for most of my adult life. So while the industry is one of the biggest money-earners for our national economic output, the 99% of individual creatives who don’t make it huge quickly have been on their knees for decades. It’s not surprising that when an unusual crisis suddenly hits every sector of the economy, those already in highly precarious positions are mown down.
At the start of 2020 the sector contributed over £110 billion to the UK economy per year, which puts it up there with industries like construction and manufacturing, way ahead of agriculture, tourism, fishing etc (www.gov.uk). In practical terms this means we provide more jobs for people and more tax revenue for our country.
It’s an unpalatable truth that while a lack of support for the creative industries during Covid has been another in a long line of incompetent episodes and malignant actions by our current administration, as a multi-billion pound industry we should have been in much better shape to weather this storm from the start. Yet with the majority of organisations and creatives living hand to mouth, there has never been a time when it was possible to plan for contingency. Exacerbated by a standard business model that relies heavily on ever decreasing public funding and grants, the whole industry has not been nourishing most of those working in it for decades now. Whether you like the current government or not, they just aren’t to blame for this part of the equation.
With this in mind there are no quick fixes but there are some things that individual creatives can do at the moment to help ourselves feel better. Then after the immediate crisis is over, how about trying to re-build this lucrative and distinctive national asset we have to make it a bit healthier?
1. Ignore that ballet dancer ‘cyber’ advert as it dates back to 2019 – you might have been unlucky enough to have seen the miserable advert floating around social media of a dancer who is about to find out that her future involves retraining ‘in cyber’ rather than being a swan maybe? Rest assured, it’s actually not a government pandemic response but was part of a campaign to encourage retraining that has been running for over a year. Yes, it’s a rubbish advert but this week it has been seized upon by celebrities and politicians as a way to visually vent their disgust and anger at the government’s handling of the pandemic. Maybe it is for solidarity but circulating an old advert on social media is mainly just spreading misery, rather than helping with anything practical.
2. It might be disappointing but don’t feel bad about doing something else for a while – I always talk about how I started out selling lipstick and shampoo for a very, very long time. I actually really liked it and was good at it too. I had left college with a practical BTEC having previously dropped out of my BA course, but needed a job. Working in cosmetics was the best way to do something with okay pay that wasn’t emotionally draining, while experimenting with artwork, discovering what I wanted to do and building up my portfolio. I learned a lot of skills that still prove useful and am so grateful I made friends for life with people I would never have met otherwise. If you’d asked me before I was polishing a sales counter, this scenario wouldn’t have been my first choice but it actually ended up being something fun and useful. A few years ago when I was having a lot of stress with a ‘sessional’ (aka 0 hours) college teaching job, I supplemented my freelance income by working in an art shop again for the summer and found it a relaxing way to avoid college politics for a few months. The pay was terrible but it contributed to the roof over my head for 6 months while I sorted out my other work. None of this means that you’re giving up on your dreams of being a swan for good. Due to long-term economic situation mentioned before, the best way to get ahead in the arts since I left school has been for someone to buy you a flat in central London while you do several years of free internships, graduating to a curator’s job so low paid it keeps anyone who actually needs a job from applying. Those of us outside of that scenario sometimes do work in other jobs and absolutely does not mean we’re giving up on any ambitions, dreams or skills.
3. Research all the uses for your transferable skills within the industry – in the creative industries we are the kings and queens of transferable skills, and you can use these to get other jobs within the creative sector. As above, this isn’t giving up on your dreams but rather temporarily adapting to the current circumstances. Adapting within our own industry means there is still some fun and creativity to be had, as well as solid experience. For example, live performance might be extremely unsupported at the moment but graphic design, UX, games design, illustration, UI design, content writing, project planning, online teaching and broadcasting are examples of areas that are muddling through this crisis okay. I’m not suggesting you’re likely to go from being a clown to suddenly being a hot shot UX designer but you might be able to do a small amount of retraining that doesn’t involve giving up everything and working in a soul destroying job you hate forever. For example, if you’re experienced in your field, many community colleges will take you on to teach at the same time as completing a teaching certificate. This means you don’t have to retrain before starting paid work. Arts organisations and studios are other places who often employ teachers and workshop leaders, and many of these are moving content online during the pandemic so still have work available.
4. Apply for funding as an individual – Arts funding may be hugely competitive at the best of times but since the start of the pandemic funding organisations have turned their focus to helping individuals rather than projects. This isn’t so great for those of us that run projects but it is brilliant news for individual freelancers who might be able to access some funds fairly quickly. If you have seen something with an organisation that isn’t directly connected to what you do, look outside your area of expertise to put together an exciting interdisciplinary project with someone else in a similar situation. Grants are coming through quickly and can be from a few hundred to a few thousand pounds. The Arts Council UK is a good starting point for research but there are currently a lot of smaller organisations releasing grants and bursaries, and generally trying to do all they can to keep individuals afloat.
5. Community work is always worth looking at because it goes hand in hand with creative roles – As an illustrator I have worked on funded community projects over the years, and discovered how much fun this could be, and how nourishing to my art practice working with a bunch of non-artists in community settings is. I say funded because the importance of this is that it enabled me to do these things as my actual job. I started this by volunteering for a short while after I did my fine art degree and soon realised that a co-collaborative environment was personally fulfilling, plus had the potential to make my creative practice much better. Since then I have worked with NHS charities, children’s charities and with mental health programmes throughout the UK. It was this experience of group work that made me realise I wanted to do teacher training, and it also helped me develop a collaborative side to my illustration practice. The other thing I love about this is that it goes against the notion that the arts are just entertainment. Not that there is anything wrong with entertainment – lets face it we all need it, especially now. Yet community projects often have direct benefits only creatives can provide that feed into other areas of research and development. For example, some of the projects above helped with employability skills, solving problems of community segregation and communicating patient experience within clinical training environments. My first volunteer experience was really just about mentoring children in my field but it quickly blossomed in to much more. If you think you might like working with people, this is a great sector to look at doing some training in that will compliment your creative practice rather than draw a line under it. As it involves working with people, safeguarding etc, you might also find that there is plenty of free training attached to these roles too. If you get into it by volunteering to start with, you will usually only have to commit to a few hours a month, so it is possible to balance with working or claiming benefits.
6. Digital literacy goes a long way – most of the giant commercial growth in the creative industries over the last few years has been due to technology but this isn’t extremely new, nor does it mean you would have to stop doing analogue work permanently. Back in the days when I was selling shampoo, I got my first character design and sfx makeup jobs because I had a modicum of digital literacy that colleagues didn’t. I had been lucky enough to do a basic Apple Mac unit during my BTEC, I had a computer and eventually access to email thanks to my shampoo-friend who took me to an Easy Internet café on a day off. I eventually set up a website using a £35 kit and got some requests to write makeup articles just from this. It was a useful landing page for potential clients I could have a showreel on, and later on I got paid assistant work on films and videos as a thank you after having helped others in a similar position to me. Even now, polishing up digital skills helps with employability immensely, and like the other suggestions here it isn’t something that will lead you out of the creative industries forever. Rather it gives you some extra skills in an area you already have experience in. For me, the fact that I love certain types of digital illustration as well as writing is the thing that has paid my rent many times. After I stopped working on-set I even spent 4 years with a very low-brow US agency when I was doing my degree. This work literally put me through university, when the alternative at the time was getting paid far less to work in my local supermarket and stressing over bills. In all of our lifetimes, digital will still probably be in its infancy and this type of work is forever morphing but if you have expertise in a field, you should have something you can anchor a few new digital skills to. As someone who loved drawing and writing, I found digital publishing and illustration suited me more than graphic design or coding. A performer might make a great animator though? The other good news is that there are free versions of many well-known software packages and you can teach yourself how to do many things from Youtube. To start with try Inkscape instead of Adobe Illustrator and GIMP instead of Photoshop. They’re not exactly the same but you can really polish up your skills and produce some decent work with them.
7. Artist Schemes and Campaigns – there have been a lot of positive and helpful responses to the income decimation that has come with Covid within the arts community and getting involved with these doesn’t cost anything. The Just a Card campaign has been going for a while and this year has been encouraging for those of us who have seen our incomes decimated by the inability to physically connect with our customers at trade fairs, shows, exhibitions and boutiques. They are running an indie week in November 2020, across social media, that will encourage people to buy from independents over the festive season. The Artist’s Support Pledge, founded at the start of the pandemic rapidly became a not for profit organisation. This not only provides a platform for visual artists selling work but also generates income, as artists who pledge support give around 20% of their sales back by buying the work of others. Local galleries and arts groups have also been trying to support their communities, so especially if you have a bit more time on your hands these days, it’s a good idea to see what is happening locally. For example, Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham recently supported a small show for Richmond Upon Thames artists who had their annual open studios event cancelled in the lockdown.
There are a lot of other side-steps in creative jobs that might help you to keep your head above the water, either financially or emotionally, until this pandemic is over. Even if you just need a 9-5 to pay for food and housing, there is a lot you can do to keep your skills current and have something to come back to when the sector is open again.
In the meantime, even more jobs to investigate that might build some extra skills while using the ones you already have include journalism, guest blogging, project management, teaching, digital and content design, graphic design, editorial illustration, community work, editing, investigating online sales for your work. Don’t forget that one of the advantages of the digital is that it allows us to work remotely and connect with people globally, which means that in many areas we’re not just limited to looking for work in our own locality. One group of artists I often work with is life models and in the wake of this, many have been moving their work online. It is true that classes are really not the same as in person, and having done figurative drawing for over 25 years I am usually much more interested in embodied presence in the life drawing experience than just drawing something flat from the screen. However, classes are a lot cheaper and so I've done a few partly to keep supporting this sector and partly to get a little practice even if it's not my dream opportunity. They're at convenient times and unlike in the classroom I can eat crisps while drawing, plus many of the models make a real effort with set dressing. So as a temporary fix to keep going, I've grown fond of these classes and am hoping they help people to earn some money, and some have been from as far away as Israel.
To conclude, in the future it might also be worth voting for (almost) anyone who campaigns on a universal basic income, as well as reminding everyone how important the arts are for making life worth living. This might have been the case for a long time, but we’ve all been distracted by having to perform a balancing act within our industry.
Maybe there is good in all of this if the long-term effect is a change in management culture in the sector that re-builds a more economically inclusive and stable industry worthy of its huge financial might and cultural importance.