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A cultural pandemic: Covid-19 and the cultural sector

The Netherlands, 17 January 2022: Artists, theatres and hairdressers all over the country are participating in “Hairdresser Theatre” a protest action organised by theatre maker Diederik Ebbinge. 35 theatres become hairdressers, massage studios or beauty salons to protest that while these facilities are allowed to be open, theatres and other performing arts venues had to remain closed. A day later the action was followed by “The Museum Gym” to protest that, unlike the gyms and shops, museums had not yet been allowed to open.

Met de actie Kapsalon Theater wil de cultuursector een landelijk protestgeluid afgeven.
© AP

The Impact of Covid-19: a hard blow for the cultural sector 

The Covid-19 pandemic formed a disruption for many aspects of normal life. The cultural sector took a particularly hard blow. Lockdowns and social distancing measures have impacted especially museums, the performing arts, festivals, and the music industry. Thousands of artists have been left with no income and no prospects on when they would be able to perform again. Following a report by Ernst & Young, the creative and cultural industry (CCI) was, after the air transport sector, the hardest hit in terms of loss of turnover (loss of 31% relative to its 2019 turnover). Yet, while airlines have been supported by national governments – in the case of the Dutch airline KLM with 3.4 billion euros – the creative and cultural sectors in the Netherlands received only 1,7 billion euros. To compare, KLM has about 30,000 employees compared to the 142.000 people working in the cultural sector.  The cultural sector contributes about 3% of the total GDP of the Netherlands. In the whole of Europe, more than 8.7 million people work in the cultural and creative sector, which makes up around 3.8% of the total workforce.That is more than the amount of people working in the automotive industry or the chemical industry. Many of these are young people: in 2019, 43% of jobs in the cultural and creative industry in the EU were held by people under the age of 39.. The cultural and creative sectors also account for 4.4%  of the European economy – more than agriculture, textiles, aerospace, telecommunications and high tech goods. Culture should not necessarily need to have economic value to justify its existence, but even looking purely at the value the CCI represents to European economies, it should become clear to policy-makers everywhere that the cultural sector deserves support. 

A vulnerable sector

Covid-19 has exacerbated an already precarious situation. One of the problems with the subsidies that were provided to the culture sectors was that they did not reach self-employed artists. This while already in 2019, about one-third of the cultural workforce was self-employed (32%). The cultural sector also has a very high share of part-time workers, with 25% of the workers not working full time. These statistics do not even include many of the ‘invisible’ workers in the cultural sectors: temporary workers, those doing unpaid volunteer work or people holding a second job in the cultural sector, but having to sustain themselves with a first job in a different sector. The high number of non-standard workers means that there is little social protection for at least 1/3 of all those working in the cultural sector. 

The insecure working conditions not only impact those working in the sector, but also the inclusivity and diversity within the sector. There are many socio-economic, but also ethnic and gender barriers to finding work and staying employed in the cultural sector. In Culture is bad for you, Orion Brook, Dave O’Brien and Mark Taylor highlight insightfully how marginalised communities are excluded from participating in cultural production and representation – despite frequent calls for more ‘diversity and inclusion’. 

The cultural sector fights back

In the last years, initiatives and actions to improve the working conditions in the cultural sector have sprung up everywhere in Europe: Kunsten ’92, a Dutch interest group, has published the Fair Practice Code, Overleg Kunstenorganisaties (oko) in Belgium has launched the initiative Juist is Juist (What’s right is right) and in Finland the Railun Taiteen Manifesti (Campaign for Fair Art) was set up, to name but a few. These initiatives define principles and have toolkits to improve collaboration in the cultural sectors, improve wages and social security, also for the self-employed. Whether they are driven by government actors or cultural practitioners, the identified problems are eerily similar: too often artists are asked to perform for free, for visibility, there is little to no social security, and workers are subjected to unsafe working conditions.

On the European level, the European Cultural Foundation, Culture Action Europe and Europa Nostra are calling for a Cultural Deal for Europe, with one of the demands being that 2% of the European Recovery Fund should be spent on culture. Yet, more than money itself – which is extremely important – the wider problems in the cultural sector need to be addressed on a more structural basis, especially by improving the working and employment conditions of the self-employed and other non-standard workers. The pandemic has shown that while support can be given to big cultural institutions, these often do not reach the individual makers.

A more just cultural sector for a better cultural sector 

As consumers of culture ourselves we also have a responsibility in being aware of these structural issues. Looking at the budget list for festivals, it is astonishing to see that everything is budgeted for down to the Dixie toilets, but the artists themselves are often forgotten. Joshua Nolet, front man of the Dutch band Chef’Special, in August last year published a video on Instagram criticising just that: His band was asked to perform at the Zandvoort Grand Prix – for a few VIP tickets and no remuneration. And that in a time during which festivals and concerts had been cancelled for more than a year. 

Not just artists and cultural practitioners will profit from a more just cultural sector, so do we as consumers. Only if the creative and cultural industries allow for a living wage and good employment conditions, makers from all socio-economic backgrounds will be able to make art. We all value having art and music in our lives, but very often fail to value the artist or musician as well as all the people behind them that make the art possible. Now that festivals, concerts, museums and other cultural events are possible again, it is time for a re-evaluation of those dedicating themselves to create the art we depend upon. 

1 thought on “A cultural pandemic: Covid-19 and the cultural sector”

  1. The truth is, that while a whole society dips in constantly to the cultural sector at its various levels, that same society and our governing bodies somehow some how seem not to want to see it. It is an attitude that is certainly true at the level of of the individual practitioner. Culture runs from the child learning to play the piano after school, through our galleries, design studios, dance schools, cinemas, theatres, concert halls and pop podiums, right up to the national flagships of the Rijksmuseum or Louvre. The reluctance to support the those working in this perilous field whilst bailing out the likes of KLM displays a breath-taking cultural shallowness.
    The example of Chef’s Special is a supreme example of a broader perception of the arts…..artist, creatives, musicians, dancers, designers, etc should just be pleased to be able to be ‘involved’ and able to do what they have trained, studied and invested in, developing their skills and abilities.
    There is an enormous diversity in our cultural world, a diversity that we have all sorely missed during the pandemic years. It functions on so many levels, self fulfilment. communicating emotion, opinions, complex ideas, it offers important perspectives and insights into our modern world, and yes, it does pure entertainment too.
    The cultural institutions and practitioners who aren’t at the very top of the cultural pyramid have largely been the victims. Yes, we will all find our way back to the theatres, museums, galleries, concerts venues and so on. But in doing so, please let us not complain about the ticket prices, because it is an industry that desperately needs its income, an income that has been so brutally effected by Covid.

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