Written evidence submitted by the
Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre

About us and why we are responding

The Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre (SPARC) is a hub for research in the cultural industry within the Department of Music, University of Sheffield. SPARC works in close collaboration with arts organisations across music, dance, drama and visual art to understand the experiences of audiences and practitioners in order to promote changes which make the arts more accessible and full of richer and more enjoyable experiences for the general public.

We, Professor Stephanie Pitts and Dr Sarah Price, are submitting evidence as experts on the arts sector. The insights below come from ten years of experience in academic research with arts organisations and audiences, our experiences as board members and participants of music organisations in Sheffield, and with recent discussions with arts managers from across the sector on the impact of Covid-19 on their practice.

What has been the immediate impact of Covid-19 on the sector?

The immediate impact of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown has been instant cessation of all arts events and closure of arts venues. For performing arts, ticket income has entirely stopped and they have had to refund tickets already purchased for performances that can not go ahead.

Arts organisations with the most “resilient” business models have been financially worst affected. Arts Council England (ACE) has in recent years asked arts organisations to rely more heavily on ticket sales, individual giving, and corporate sponsorship, as well as additional income through their venues’ cafes, bars and private hire. Since most of these revenue streams have stopped, they are now reliant on charitable giving, ACE funds and reserves to keep organisations afloat.

While many organisations have made use of the Governments’ furlough scheme, self-employed professionals have faced an immediate loss of livelihood. There are many who do not qualify for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme due to the length of time they have been working, or because their self-employment being less than 50% of their total income, supplemented by work from the gig economy which has also ceased.

For audiences and participants, arts events and activities are shown to boost wellbeing and social connectedness, and can improve more mental and physical health (see Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing). The cancellation of arts activities, with no guarantee of when they will return, will be detrimental to the quality of life of those who engage with it.

How effectively has the support provided by DCMS, other Government departments and arms-length bodies addressed the sector’s needs?

The Arts Council England’s response to the crisis has been welcomed. The relaxation of criteria for spending money given to National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) has been a relief to many organisations, who have been able to reassign funds to essential running costs. The ACE Emergency Response Fund has been a lifeline to arts organisations who would have otherwise faced collapse already.

That being said, the Emergency Response Fund has not been able to help every organisation. In particular, more commercial venues and those not in receipt of regular ACE funding have not been prioritised for the Emergency Response Fund, as seen in the high profile case of the Globe Theatre. The plight of small music venues has been less well-publicised; venues such as Yellow Arch Studios and the Leadmill in Sheffield are reliant on ticket sales and bar spend for their income and are at high risk of collapse. This pandemic could wipe out a key part of the music ecology, already under thread through detrimental planning regulations (see Live Music Census).

Furthermore, by prioritising NPOs for emergency funding, ACE have not been able to provide support for smaller DIY arts ventures and community organisations. Looking at our local area, Sheffield is a city full of amateur music-making, particularly in the folk and classical music scenes (see https://classicalsheffield.org.uk/). These self-organised community groups rely on concert tickets to balance the books and are at great risk of folding if they are unable to put on large concerts in the foreseeable future.

What will the likely long-term impacts of Covid-19 be on the sector, and what support is needed to deal with those?

Arts organisations are working hard to plan for social distancing amongst audiences and visitors, but this reduced capacity means that few events will come close to breaking even. The continuing need for social distancing means it will take arts organisations a long time to achieve their existing levels of income. Additional safety measures such as more frequent, intensive cleaning will also drive up costs. NPOs may be able to use ACE funding and charitable giving to cover the costs, but independent venues are unlikely to be able to stage any events until social distancing is relaxed further.

Furthermore, research is showing audiences to be very cautious about returning to arts events (see Indigo, ‘After the Interval’ survey) so arts organisations must not be expected to attract full audiences as soon as lockdown is lifted. Outdoor events might be able to social distance more successfully, but are notoriously expensive to host in comparison to indoor performances (due to sound equipment, staging, security and facilities), therefore will be out of the question for many organisations as well as presenting access difficulties for audience members without transport or with mobility impairments.

All this means that arts organisations will need sustained financial support beyond the total relaxation of social distancing. The arts sector will also need financial support for the creation of new art works, since the discussions in the sector are already showing risk-aversion given the need to attract substantial audiences once they are allowed to reopen. The ACE Emergency Response Fund is being taken from Grants for the Arts funds, which will need to be replenished if any new work is to be produced.

What lessons can be learnt from how DCMS, arms-length bodies and the sector have dealt with Covid-19?

The financial challenge of providing social distancing at performances have shown that the arts sector operates on a knife edge in balancing the books. The push towards ‘resilient’ funding models which are heavily reliant on sales and donations from the public have been shown not to be resilient at all, since organisations with these business models are suffering the worst in this crisis. Arts organisations must be more strongly and consistently supported financially by the government.

The organisations who have received no help from ACE also expose deep inequalities in funding within the arts sector, with grassroots organisations, DIY venues and community groups unable to access any emergency financial support. This often means that the most vulnerable are the first to lose out, including older people and socially isolated people who receive a great deal of support from community arts activities.

In addition, the pandemic is likely to exacerbate the inequalities in access to arts professions (see Panic! Report by Arts Emergency), as freelance gig work within this sector becomes even more precarious, leaving only those with a financial safety net able to take part.

How might the sector evolve after Covid-19, and how can DCMS support such innovation to deal with future challenges?

Arts funding needs to be increased and reviewed to ensure it is distributed to all parts of the arts sector. More support is needed for those who work freelance and piece together infrequent work within the gig economy to ensure that they can build a profession in the arts regardless of social background.

Artists have responded imaginatively with digital works, which could open up access to the arts, but new models need to be found of monetising or financially supporting this offering to ensure that artists can still make a living.

Get in touch

http://www.sparc.dept.shef.ac.uk or email sparc@sheffield.ac.uk
Download our accessible handbook on understanding audiences for the contemporary arts here: http://www.sparc.dept.shef.ac.uk/research/uaca/handbook/

Pitts & Price. (Forthcoming). Understanding Audience Engagement in the Contemporary Arts. Routledge.


All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing. (2017). Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing. https://www.culturehealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry/

Brennan, Cloonan, Behr, & Webster. (2020). Live Music Census. http://uklivemusiccensus.org/

Brook, O’Brien, & Taylor. (2018). Panic! It’s an Arts Emergency. https://createlondon.org/event/panic-paper/

Indigo Ltd. (2020). After the Interval National Audience Survey. https://www.indigo-ltd.com/covid-19-after-the-interval-national-audience-survey