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Biting the hand that feeds us - towards a more equitable arts industry

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

It was shared widely across social media and the many were in agreement: Covid-19 was pulling the inequalities between freelance artists, arts institutions and arts funders into sharp focus.

The health crisis and subsequent lockdown has forced most of us off the treadmill, giving us time to reflect on what we truly value in our lives.

Some of us have lost loved ones, myself included, and now find ourselves in a state of indefinite, ambiguous grief.

It’s an ongoing rollercoaster impacting all of us in a myriad of ways.

In the arts, already stretched funding has been further stretched, exposing a power imbalance in our sector, with funders and arts institutions at the top, and artists at the bottom of the food chain.

As my industry (theatre) faces catastrophic financial devastation, we’ve thrown our voices behind campaigns that highlight the huge contribution our industry makes to the U.K. economy – arts and culture, a glorious flagship of U.K. innovation worth £10.8 billion a year, is sinking fast.

And it has become increasingly clear that the engine of our now sinking ship runs off the fumes of artists who struggle to make ends meet – a problem I hear almost daily from peers and one that Lyn Gardner recently highlighted in The Stage. (Paywall)

Back in March I joined thousands in a desperate smash and grab job applying to emergency commissions and funds.

Between myself and my theatre company we faced eight funding rejections (and counting) – it made us feel like we didn’t matter anymore, a sentiment echoed by theatre company Rash Dash in their post-ACE Emergency funding rejection blog.

Whilst many in employment were being furloughed, artists found themselves back in the gladiatorial ring of arts funding, desperately clamouring to prove they were more worthy than their peers of the funding that would allow their very survival.

Yet again, it felt like we had to justify what the world would get in return for investment.

I thought: at what point of crisis do we need to get before we give money without conditions attached?

I’ve heard cries of ‘but we’re all in this together’ from across the sector and yes, to a certain extent I agree but there is, and always was, a great disparity.

It seems that interrupting ‘business as usual’ has finally awoken us to what has been happening in plain sight for far too long – artists stuck in a system that often treats them appallingly, but too scared to bite the hand that feeds them.

So I asked my followers on social media (in a totally non-academic exercise) what they would say to the hand that feeds them if they could – perhaps together we can work towards a more equitable arts industry post-lockdown.

Here’s what they said:

· Make feedback mandatory – artists spend days (weeks even) of unpaid time applying, your ‘small team’ is not an excuse

· Have clarity in your call-out – reading ‘the successful applicants demonstrated ‘X’’ when that wasn’t clearly stated in your guidance notes feels like gaslighting

· Stop making us do the legwork – artists are not beggars, we are essential to innovation and progress, come and find us

· Consult with freelance artists on your call-outs – £500 is not a commission, stop saying it is

· Consider application length in relation to money offered – we write multiple bids a month, it’s exhausting and unsustainable and we don’t get paid to do it

· Stop saying you want to fund things you really don’t care about – if you’re looking for the next Fleabag to slap your logo on just be honest and say that, otherwise it’s a waste of our time

· Dismantle tradition – even those with degrees struggle to write a successful bid, you hold the power to make things more accessible, step up

· Offer long-term support and champion sustainable careers – you reap the benefits when your £2k commission gets £35ks-worth of glory thanks to a talented artist, how are you supporting them when the buzz has died down?

· Remove reductive terminology – BAME has to go, we all live in this society, not as an adjunct to it

The list isn’t exhaustive and the solutions will require all of us to work together to rebuild a fairer future.

Look, we know arts funders and arts institutions care about the arts, but in order for artists to have sustainable careers we need stable income.

If you truly believe in the value of artists, put your money where you mouth is and put money in our pockets – and if you’re broke then support the innovation of new ways to monetise artist’s work.

They say necessity is the mother of all invention, but I’m hoping for a post-covid-19 world where the notion of the ‘struggling artist’ is a thing of the past.


This blog post was commissioned by Creative CoLab. The blog was written prior to the announcement of the Government rescue package for the Arts and Culture sector on 5 July 2020.

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