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Culture in crisis – new report from our major research project into the impacts of Covid-19

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UK cultural sector at a crossroads, as new research reveals profound impact of Covid-19 on workforce, audiences and organisations

The UK’s cultural sector is at a major inflection point and facing imminent burnout alongside significant skills and workforce gaps, our newly-published research report shows.

The report ‘Culture in crisis – Impacts of Covid-19 on the UK cultural sector and where we go from here’ shares findings from one of the world’s largest investigations into the impacts of Covid-19 on the cultural industries. The scale and methodology of the research provided audience and sector intelligence in real time and was a vital source of insight during the pandemic for civil servants, cultural organisations and policy makers.

The study was led by the Centre for Cultural Value, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) rapid response to Covid-19 and undertaken in partnership with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) and The Audience Agency (TAA).

Key findings – Workforce

  • The pandemic held a mirror up to a deeply unequal cultural sector.
  • Its impact was not experienced evenly across the sector, with younger workers, women and workers from ethnically diverse backgrounds among the hardest hit in terms of losing work and income.
  • For freelancers, who make up a significant part of the cultural workforce, the impact was major and sometimes devastating. Freelancers constituted 62% of the core-creative workforce before the pandemic and only 52% by the end of 2020.
  • The most dramatic decline in the cultural industries workforce was observed in music, performing and visual arts, where the professional workforce fell by around a quarter between March and June 2020, with no signs of significant recovery by the end of 2020, in comparison with other sectors.

Key findings – Organisations

  • Places with a history of obtaining public investment – and the arts and cultural organisations based in those places – benefited most from the Culture Recovery Fund (CRF).
  • Networks played a key role in building resilience and, in light of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, many cultural organisations re-evaluated their relevance to local communities. This was complemented by an increase of hyperlocal engagement due to lockdown restrictions on travel and behaviour.

Key findings – Audiences

  • Despite the rapid take-up of vaccines, the population’s confidence in returning to cultural venues has remained stubbornly low throughout 2021.
  • While the shift to digital transformed cultural experiences for those already engaged with cultural activities, it failed to diversify cultural audiences.
  • 80% survey respondents said that taking part in arts and culture was important to their wellbeing, positively affecting their mood and helping them to manage anxiety.

Professor Ben Walmsley, Director, Centre for Cultural Value at the University of Leeds, said:

“Although the pandemic is still very much a part of our everyday lives and the longer-term implications of our research are still emerging, it is already clear that the pandemic has had a significant impact on the arts and cultural sector in the UK.
We’re at a major crossroads. Policy makers now have an opportunity to learn from the experiences and challenges faced by the arts and cultural sector during the pandemic. The UK’s cultural sector urgently needs to work together and seize this moment to adopt more equitable and regenerative modes of working and create positive and lasting change.”

Anne Torreggiani, Chief Executive of The Audience Agency

“As a partner in this research programme, we’ve generated crucial primary evidence to help the arts and cultural sector understand the impact of the pandemic on audiences and how behaviours and attitudes have changed at different stages of the pandemic. The real-time data that emerged from the audience monitor survey (Cultural Participation Monitor) means that policy makers and leaders in the cultural industries had access to the best possible information on which to base key decisions in a rapidly-changing environment.”

Eliza Easton, Head of Policy Unit, Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre

“We were pleased to be a policy partner on this major programme of Covid research, shaping policy recommendations that supported the sector through the pandemic. As we begin the pandemic recovery phase, the findings from the research will be a vital tool to help cultural sector professionals and policymakers to navigate the way ahead.”

Professor Christopher Smith, Executive Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council

“We invested in this UK-wide research programme, led by the Centre of Cultural Value, because we believe in the vital role of research in supporting the recovery of the creative and cultural sector.
We look forward to working with partners across the research ecosystem, the creative industries, and policy, to help develop the innovative solutions that will enable the UK’s cultural sector to recover and thrive.”

The Centre for Cultural Value is now working with policy partners to test and refine a set of policy recommendations based on the research findings, at a time when the critical importance of the cultural industries in supporting the Government’s Levelling Up agenda is becoming clear.

Immediately evident is the need for national and local governments to communicate clear public health and safety guidance to all cultural organisations at the onset of a future crisis or pandemic.

The Cultural Recovery Fund was critical in assuring the immediate future of cultural sector organisations. However, the report highlights the need to better map and understand the vital role that freelancers play in the cultural industries so that they cannot fall between the gaps in emergency support in any future crisis.

Read the Executive Summary and full report here

Image: The Lowry in lockdown. Photo: Nathan Chandler

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