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Listening, Not Talking

Dr Jessica Walker on the necessity for protecting and supporting live arts in the UK.

On the 6th May, a piece I wrote about the fate of the live arts, in view of the current crisis, was published in Arts Professional. In it, I suggested that the light shone on the financial insecurity of life as a freelance musician, (an issue long before Covid), could provide the impetus for arts organisations to examine their working practices, and to begin to nurture more equitable relationships with independent artists. I also predicted that with all live art at a standstill, it would be the individual artists who would have the flexibility to keep making music in innovative ways, and to reclaim some autonomy in the workplace, bypassing the established organisational gatekeepers. Since writing that piece, a lot has changed; I wanted to look further at the institutional and political responses to the plight of freelance artists, and also to highlight the action artists themselves have taken, in the face of ongoing uncertainty.

In our weekly MAX forums - a group made up mainly of singers, instrumentalists and conductors - we discuss strategies for positive change in the live arts, and what we might do to facilitate this. MAX has arisen purely as a result of Covid 19, with the reaching out of like minds, searching out solutions to a complex set of problems. To this end, we invite arts leaders to come and talk to us, we ask them probing questions about how they work, and they talk to us with a surprising and refreshing degree of candour. Crucially, we all listen to each other. Without wishing to speak on behalf of the whole group, I know that the initial suspicion I felt towards certain arts leaders, has shifted through our shared thought and discussion. What has become evident from our sessions, and from my own dealings with arts organisations for whom I am developing projects, is that there is a new willingness from those at the helm to engage with us, and to treat us on more of an equal footing. It is also notable how many recipients of the Culture Recovery Fund have taken to social media and expressed their desire to use the money in their continued work with freelancers. Perhaps they were encouraged to voice this sentiment, but none the less, this crisis has been the catalyst for many arts workers in employed positions to appreciate that they cannot function without the work done by thousands of other, unsupported artists.

If there are reasons for cautious optimism here, it is still the case that more than six months into the pandemic, many of us have hit an existential low. Yes, the focus on our lack of support, by many newly formed groups, such as Freelancers Make Theatre Work, has reaped the rewards of greater institutional understanding within our field, and shown that we can come together as a force for change. However, this alone cannot improve our situation; ill-chosen statements by Government spokespeople continue to show a careless disregard for our livelihoods, undermining our very sense of worth and purpose.

It would have been hard to ignore the outpouring of indignance and anger from across the arts and beyond, about the patchy support for independent artists, yet the Government response has remained unswerving in its summation of our situation – if you can’t make your job work, go and do something else. This is a response that not only suggests what we do is of little intrinsic value to wider society, but that misunderstands the very nature of our working lives. Artists only give up in extremis, for the simple reason that their job is their vocation – their essential sense of self is inextricably linked to the expression of their craft. (Politicians should get this – traditionally they have been stirred into action through a similarly vocational fervour). Some of our neighbouring EU political and economic systems do recognise the unusual societal position of artists, and have supported them not only through this time, but also by building financial support into the normal run of things. Our system, however, does not do this. In order to buy themselves the reward of practicing their art, artists here have always sought alternative employment, alongside the main event – they have had to, in order to survive. They teach, work in hospitality, have side-lines in reed-making – you name it, they do it. This is not the same as giving up and doing something else. Now, however, with most of these other jobs also in short supply or defunct, artists find themselves not only without the main event, but also without their other means of support. Many have reached a point of no return, their sense of self-worth irreparably damaged. Highly trained musicians, actors and creatives are leaving the profession in large numbers. They have been broken.

Artists only give up in extremis, for the simple reason that their job is their vocation – their essential sense of self is inextricably linked to the expression of their craft.

It would be easy to dismiss a surfeit of depressed artists as the most minor of national considerations, given the loss of jobs across the spectrum, but it is important to examine how we got to this point, and why there should be an onus on our politicians to take more care in their consideration of our collective fate. Successive governments have promoted the arts as a valid career choice, funnelling it through the same business model as every other industry. University courses in music, drama, and arts management have proliferated, conservatoires have expanded, capital building projects in HE institutions and professional arts venues have multiplied. Growth has been the political mantra, the answer, for more than twenty years. Growth has got us here, to this point, and to this place, a place now filled with closed venues, and with thousands of unemployed arts workers.

Our economic paradigm means the only off the shelf solution to the problem of too many arts workers, is to tell them to go and do something else. This is not good enough. While nobody could have predicted the virus, or its consequences, it is incumbent on those in charge to appreciate the bigger picture, and to accept that the extent of the problem has something to do with the exponential growth of a business beyond its own natural borders. Most of us in the business understand this; we have known for some years that the subsidised live arts scene in the UK needed to shrink. It has been unsustainable for a long time, leading to a workplace of misplaced hierarchies, poor pay, insecurity and a lack of trust between artists and the companies they work for. Now we have arrived at this juncture, I would ask that politicians respect our situation, and work with us to create viable change. Putting to one side the immediate needs of workers with no work, there are broader issues at play here. Let me give as an example our main funding body’s Let’s Create strategy. The ACE ten-year plan puts inclusivity at its heart, yet currently we are in danger of cancelling out years of progress in cultural inclusivity, because the only artists left will be those who can afford to be artists. This cannot be what the Government wants, but it is what will happen, unless we act swiftly.

Our economic paradigm means the only off the shelf solution to the problem of too many arts workers, is to tell them to go and do something else. This is not good enough.

The last months have often felt like a salvo of different groups shouting their positions at one another; not only politicians and arts leaders, but the strangely disparate groups of actors, musicians and creators, all of whom work within different employment and economic structures, and who have been brought together through necessity. It has sometimes been hard to sift through the different opinions, and to find unity and common goals, among a workforce pushed to the edge through lack of opportunity and everyone-for-themselves mentality. Now that so much information about our working practices has been aired in the public realm, it is time for everyone to come together, to talk in a balanced way, and to listen to each other. One of our MAX members, who has regular meetings with politicians, assures us this is starting to happen, and that there is great sympathy and support for artists, at odds with the public message we receive. If this is the case, I would urge the DCMS to instigate immediate, considered and sustained conversations between independent artists (not celebrities, whose experience is atypical), arts organisations, arts ministers, and educational bodies, so that we can start to rebuild our art forms progressively, with integrity, and with consensus.

There is a responsibility across the board for protecting and supporting the live arts, even if it must exist in a less resourced incarnation. It is not that artists deserve special treatment at this challenging time, but their art and music does. It is a necessary, common thread that connects us to one another, and that moves people on a visceral level. There is no substitute for this, and it must be cherished and fought for.

Dr Jessica Walker is a performer and Lecturer in Artist Development at the Royal Academy of Music. Read more about Jessica here

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