Written evidence submitted by Gerri Moriarty
DCMS Select Committee Inquiry: Impact of COVID-19 on the sector
I am writing as a creative practitioner and arts consultant of over forty years’ experience; I am also co-founder of ArtsChain, an informal network for community, participatory and socially engaged arts practitioners in the North of England, which has 90 members. This includes both small arts organisations, some of whom are Arts Council England NPOS and some who are not, and self-employed individuals. These are all workers who work with communities who are under-served and marginalised and with individuals who are vulnerable and marginalised. Most of these communities and individuals have been and will continue to be severely affected by the pandemic and its economic consequences.
The immediate impact of Covid-19 on this part of the sector was severe, especially on freelancers, who had most of their work cancelled or indefinitely postponed and who had to face the fact that they could not be certain when they would be able to return to work and to what extent former clients would be in a position to offer contracts.
For organisations, their first task was to talk to their accountants, funders, Boards and other relevant agencies to establish their financial position and understand how long a degree of stability could be maintained. Most have tried hard to be as supportive to staff and freelance workers as they possibly can and to pay good attention to the needs and vulnerabilities of their volunteers.
Without exception, their next step has been to consider the communities they serve and ask how they can continue to contribute to them during the lock-down. Here, I offer just a few examples, but there are hundreds, perhaps thousands more, right across the country.
These are initiatives that have addressed isolation and loneliness, encouraged good mental and physical health and brought joy and a sense of community and connection both to those who have been directly involved and to those who have read about this work on social media or in the press.
Some organisations have also taken the opportunity to review, revise or strengthen their business plans, or to work on longer-term strategies, even though they understand that this requires a commitment to a high degree of flexibility, given the degree of uncertainty in the external environment.
There is now an urgent need to begin developing guidance on how groups can begin to offer participatory arts experiences safely – both outdoors and indoors. It is not clear that this is in the remit of any of the 8 sub-groups informing the Cultural Renewal Taskforce. There are two risks – one that this issue is regarded as trivial and ignored and the second that organisations will begin to develop and implement their own guidelines, which may or may not be adequate. I appreciate that it may be some time before the situation is considered safe enough to allow these important activities to begin, but there is a need for lead-in time; organisations may need to research alternative spaces, order new kinds of equipment, and plan staff training. In addition, there may be specific activities where medical/scientific guidance needs to be sought; for example, there have been concerns that singing in choirs is ill-advised.
How has the support provided by DCMS, other Government departments and arms-length bodies addressed the sector’s needs?
Arts Council England was quick to respond to the challenge of Covid-19 – I would assume in consultation with DCMS. Guidance and advice was offered and updated regularly, reporting requirements on organisations were eased (although many organisations are continuing to work on their reports and expect to submit in due course) and emergency funding was offered for projects and programmes of work. Although not every organisation will have been successful in their applications for funding and some will have chosen not to apply for this, as their current financial situation is relatively secure, it has been appreciated and will allow organisations to plan for the immediate future.
I would want to note that Trusts and Foundations, such as the Paul Hamlyn Foundation have played a role in disseminating vital information and offering emergency support to the organisations they fund. Some local authorities, such as GMCA have offered micro-commissions to organisations and freelance practitioners, as have some of the larger cultural organisations; although the funding involved has been fairly minimal, it did send out a message of hope, particularly in the early days of the crisis.
The furlough scheme has been taken up by some organisations; some have furloughed most of their staff while others have furloughed some of their workforce. This has undoubtedly been of huge benefit although there will now be concerns about how best to manage a return to work as the furlough.
At this stage, I think organisations need to be hearing more about what is likely to happen in the stabilisation phase.
What will the likely long-term impacts of Covid-19 be on the sector, and what support is needed to deal with those?
I am very concerned that the participatory arts element of the arts sector, which is vital to the successful delivery of Arts Council England’s new strategy, may be very seriously affected in the medium to long term and will struggle to make both its voice and the voice of the marginalised individuals and communities it serves heard as arguments are made for support for the cultural and creative sector. Although this work can be found and is appreciated right across the country, in every village, small town and city, it is fragmented and lacks a strong collective voice at national level.
I would suggest the support needed is as follows:
Talk to people Ace should instigate a series of specific conversations with smaller organisations and the professional freelance workforce facilitating socially engaged and participatory practice to really understand what they need to be able to survive the impact of the pandemic. Work on guidance on what will be needed in order to re-start participatory arts activities safely needs to begin
Identify specific funds ACE needs to develop specific well-funded strategic programmes with flexible models of delivery (beyond ‘Creative People and Places’) which will enable this sector to develop their community leadership skills and build the resilience they need to continue their work to meet the challenges of the 21st century
Help strengthen the sector One of ACE’s action plans / delivery plans should focus on strengthening and broadening the participatory arts sector, addressing the issues around working conditions, fair pay, diversity, dangers of professional burnout and continuing professional development and inspiration. Also, the NPO application process should involve questions about what the portfolio organisations will do to support continual professional development, employment and contracting of those who work in this part of the sector, with ACE requesting specific plans in this area.
A support package for freelance creative practitioners working in the participatory arts sector needs to be developed for 2020/2021 and 2021/2022 These are entrepreneurial and inventive people, but It will take some time for them to re-establish their income streams and/or find additional ways of making an income. A relatively small degree of support for a short period of time might be enough to stop them joining the ranks of the unemployed
What lessons can be learnt from how DCMS, arms-length bodies and the sector have dealt with Covid-19 The steps taken by Arts Council England and Lottery funders to make relevant information and emergency support available to the sector have been essential and the easing of reporting requirements has been very welcome. It could be argued that a lighter burden of reporting for a lengthier period, would free up resources and enable cultural organisations to focus fully on re-establishing their artistic programmes.
I am disappointed that there does not appear to be a sub-group with the specific task of examining the needs of the participatory arts sector; many of the issues which need to be addressed would also apply to the voluntary arts sector and possibly to some extent to amateur sport
How might the sector evolve after Covid-19, and how can DCMS support such innovation to deal with future challenges?
There is likely to be even more demand for this kind of work, as we seek to repair the damage inflicted by the social and economic impact of Covid-19.
For all that the pandemic has made us realise the value of digital, it has also made most of us understand and value what the digital world cannot offer; we have grieved the loss of physical connection and collective experience. It has also taught us much about the depth of generosity of spirit, kindness and creativity that exists in many of our neighbourhoods and communities and we would be extremely foolish if we do not strive to find ways to maintain, nurture and develop the positive aspects of what has been revealed by this appalling tragedy. DCMS needs to ensure that this aspect of cultural human endeavour can be profiled, understood and celebrated by more people - it will be as vital in inspiring and strengthening the nation’s recovery as reopening the National Theatre or ensuring that museums and galleries are protected.
There is a danger that, in the short term, too much attention will be focussed by funders on trying to preserve venues and large-scale endeavours; if this happens, it will be a massive error of judgement and the Arts Council’s ‘Let’s Create’ strategy will be doomed to failure.
Participatory arts organisations need to develop a stronger collective voice at national level; it is possible that new developments at Artworks Alliance may assist with this, and if so, it would be helpful if Arts Council England and DCMS supported this.