THE WORD For the nation to recover, we need our undervalued artists

Erica Whyman, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s deputy artistic director, believes this country has never valued its artists properly. That has to change, she writes, if Britain is to recover from the Covid-19 crisis

In Berlin, within the first month of lockdown, nearly €500m (£440m) was distributed to the artists and creative freelancers of the city. The German government has pledged “there will be enough for everyone”.

In this country the Self Employed Income Support Scheme has brought some relief to many freelancers - its extension to August is to be welcomed – while the Arts Council made £20m available incredibly fast specifically to support artists, and there are many relief funds doing invaluable work. Yet I know no-one who believes that there will be enough for everyone.

There are many reasons why. Over many decades our arts organisations have had to find ever-more ingenious ways to raise money, as public funding for the making of art has, in the main, reduced. Where public investment has increased or held firm, the promise to many funders has had to be increasingly entrepreneurial or instrumental. 

Most organisations have become lean and efficient in ways that would be the envy of other sectors, but this has led to many organisations reducing the number of artists on permanent payrolls.  I’m not suggesting this was inevitable or desirable, but it is what has happened. Over the same time frame, battles have been won by, for example, performing artists, to have the same status as other freelancers, in order to gain greater control over their finances – control that has increased their vulnerability in this crisis. 

The debate will and should rage as to whether this extraordinary moment of challenge for our society and for the arts will provoke the shaping of new more secure and inclusive structures.  I hope that it does, but I don’t believe that these structural vulnerabilities are the root of the problem. I don’t think, and I have never thought, that this country truly values its artists, and if ever we should stand up and fight for that to change it is surely now.

The 1980 UN Recommendation on the Status of the Artist articulates the need to treat creative workers equally, whilst recognising the particular vulnerabilities of their work.  In South Africa, Spain, South Korea, new laws are finally enshrining those rights.  In the UK it remains the default attitude that it is a luxury to choose to make art for a living. A luxury reserved for those who can afford it.

The truth is that it is a both a responsibility and a compulsion - the choice is whether anyone can survive financially and emotionally while doing it.  A society that fundamentally thinks it is not “serious” to make art will not easily countenance protecting those artists’ income, but in the same unthinking breath it will turn to art, to story, to music, to dance, to comedy, to poetry in times of pain, fear and uncertainty.  It is rapidly becoming a cliché that this pandemic has reminded us how much we need these things in our lives – an avalanche of art, but at what cost?

We need the Treasury to recognise the economic value of our artists, that is true.  70% of the performing arts sector is freelance, sector that contributes £1.3bn to our national economy. It is a further truth that if the following four rescue measures were implemented, a great deal of fear would be avoided and gold standard talent and skill preserved:

  • The SEISS continued beyond August to at least October in line with the income protection extended to employees.
  • Eligibility extended to include artists who took a career break for parental or adoption leave
  • A mechanism agreed with the sector to support the recently self-employed based on actual loss of earnings.
  • The £50k cap removed as it excludes artists, distinguished in their field, who have lost all their trading income this year.

These are necessary truths,but they are not enough. They lead us back to a world where success is defined by celebrity and notoriety, the ability to generate income, not by craft, distinctive voice, empathy, or ingenuity. And that definition perpetuates deep inequalities in the arts – voices historically under-represented for reasons of class, race, disability, communities whose stories we most need to hear and value, will once again be excluded, unless we all refuse to allow that to happen.

Our artists are completely essential to the recovery of the UK from this crisis, and one day there will be tickets sold again which will contribute to the cost of making their work. But whilst that is not possible, let us urgently understand that artists are fundamental to a democratic, free, self-reflective society that has the tools to recover from trauma, to change for the better, to learn and to thrive. 

Creative workers are not a luxury, they are the fabric of who we are and we should and will be judged on how we treat them now.

To find out more about how the RSC and theatres across the country are campaigning to secure a diverse, ambitious and hopeful future for theatre in this country, visit  Please see for a short list of resources for freelancers working in theatre and the performing arts. 

Print Email

Patreon message

If you enjoy what we do at Arts Industry and want to show your support, why not become a Patron? A small amount each month will help us keep doing what we do and improve our website.