Cat Dunn: What Scotland must do to save arts from Covid-19

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The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have been far-reaching and among its collateral damage is the arts industry, which has been all but decimated and the creatives within it left out in the cold. 

The arts, we know, are propped up by the self-employed. New or emerging artists, marginalised creators and fresh art school graduates, many with no outside support. Scotland’s creative industries are made up of 15,000 businesses employing more than 90,000 people (pre-Covid, at least). That doesn’t account for freelancers. 

Since Covid-19 hit almost a year ago, it is the creatives who have been left to pick up the pieces. Arts organisations pulled the plug on events and collaborative projects. Income was eviscerated. When you are a freelancer on a low income, you are only ever a handful of gigs away from falling into destitution. 

So, how does someone pay rent with no income? For these artists, it becomes a dire choice between keeping up with rent payments and putting the heating on, or choosing to purchase materials to create new art in hope of creating income. It is that simple. 

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The scramble for income has had a knock on effect for Scottish grassroots arts venues too. The rent charged by these venues allows them to run exhibitions and pay staff. This income is needed more than ever, especially as they cannot have their bars open or hold events. 

Some of the current funding, such as the Culture Organisations and Venues Recovery fund, is directed for struggling businesses which mostly form larger firms within the sector. Overall, financial support seems to be targeted towards those businesses that are deemed to have staff who might be losing a living. That is important, of course. However, in this rush to support, we should not and cannot forget the smaller, community-based venues which have supported artists, particularly those early in their career.

Artists also need direct support. Yet the majority – those who have some form of part time work (or did prior to Covid-19) or have just left art school – do not qualify for the Hardship Fund for Creative Freelancers. 

But there seems to be no funding directed towards marginalised artists as well as no funding towards new or emerging artists who have just completed art school, and this is especially disappointing considering we have acknowledged a racial impact of Covid-19, and that only two per cent of artists across the sector are BAME. 

It is critically important to continue working on making the arts inclusive and appealing by helping people access it. Sadly, this is not the current reality. Last year the UK Government shamelessly used a photo of a ballerina to promote its Cyber First training apprenticeship scheme. “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber”, the poster screamed, a slap in the faces of the thousands of performers who had been unable to work for months. The ad – which even Tory Culture Minister Oliver Dowden conceded was ‘crass’ – was later removed. 

The problem is funding simply does not seem to be targeted to assist in developing new work during a global pandemic. There is no access to studio space but no assistance in setting up a creative workspace in your home, even though this is exactly what masters art students had to do last summer in order to create work needed to graduate – and will no doubt need to do again. 

Not only are new and emerging artists not making a living from art but they are suffering the consequences of not being able to access the materials and places that would aid in creating new artworks and give them the chance to grow and succeed as artists. 

The funding decisions simply do not consider marginalised, new, or emerging artists or practitioners. The small people are being ignored and are falling into the cracks in the system as usual. 

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DG Unlimited, a membership organisation for the creative sector in Dumfries and Galloway, recently called on support for the “significant minority” of the creative population living in island and rural locations. It suggested an “art out to help out” scheme, modelled on the Eat Out to Help Out initiative from UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak which was unveiled last year to help hospitality venues weather the effects of lockdown. 

The latest Scottish Government growth sector statistics, published last year but looking at figures from 2019, showed creative industries accounted for three per cent of the country’s employment and contributed £5billion to the economy. Unsurprisingly, it also showed that employment was highest in Scotland’s two main cities: Edinburgh and Glasgow. 

In a letter to Holyrood’s culture committee, DG Unlimited said: “The principle of an ‘elastic economy’ does not apply and the sector will not bounce back overnight once the ‘new normal’ has been established.” 

It added: “There is little point having venues, galleries and arts centres if we don’t have the creative workforce to produce and deliver the nation’s cultural products and experiences.” 

There must be a way for artists and community-based venues to be fully valued and funded. Not only can funding assist with subsidising artists in studios who can’t afford rent for a few months, but grassroot organisations can pay their staff and continue to be there to offer support for new artists, musicians, dancers and emerging talent when we emerge from the crisis. 

The arts are critical to our economy, our wellbeing and our recovery. We cannot afford to neglect them now. 

Cat Dunn is a freelance social art researcher, producer and activist, whose work seeks to engage and create dialogue about social identity as seen through marginalised communities. She is a member of PassTheMic and a volunteer with Empower Women for Change.

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