Culture, creativity and coronavirus: time for EU action

The pandemic has highlighted a longer-term failure adequately to address the working conditions of cultural professionals in Europe.

Culture has been high on the European Union’s agenda for the last few years, its value recognised in terms of economic development, social cohesion and international relations. Yet it’s over a decade since any official effort was made to establish a comprehensive picture of the working conditions of artists and cultural professionals. The sector is characterised by high precarity: low and unstable incomes, increasingly complex professional statuses and limited access to social security and benefits.

The harmful impact of the Covid-19 crisis, especially on the live arts, reveals structural problems which can no longer be disregarded. With the pandemic, we find ourselves in a historic moment for the EU to take collective action, protecting and improving the working conditions of artists and cultural professionals across Europe. Failure to take such action will make it difficult to safeguard a sector Europe needs for its revival and recovery.

Cultural ecosystem disrupted

According to a recent study by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, ‘[the] cultural and creative sectors are likely to have lost 80 per cent of their turnover in the second quarter of 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and the containment measures’. The pandemic has disrupted work across the entire cultural ecosystem: concerts, exhibitions, festivals and performances cancelled, rehearsals and productions suspended, residencies closed, touring put on hold and international meetings rendered impossible. ‘We had 110 shows cancelled due to Covid-19,’ said Line Rousseau, director of A Propic, a cultural organisation based in the Netherlands.

The first lockdown came in the busiest and most profitable time of year for the performing arts, which meant millions of people lost the biggest chunk of their annual income. ‘We had to cancel about 100 cultural events during the hard lockdown and later on festivals and invitations of artists from abroad. Our financial future is more than unclear,’ commented Sigrid Niemer, a founding member of the Berlin-based International Cultural Centre ufaFabrik.

Since the start of social distancing in Europe, many theatres, dance venues, music organisations and museums have been offering their content to audiences in digital form, mostly free. Although this has provided a temporary alternative to inaction and an opportunity for experimentation, the mass virtualisation of culture, especially the performing arts, has also brought concerns—ranging from privacy and accessibility to remuneration and ecological footprint. According to Willie White, artistic director and chief executive of the Dublin Theatre Festival, ‘so far a business model has not been created for streaming contemporary creations and there is a small demand relative to the cost of digitisation’.

Even when venues and museums are allowed to reopen, they cannot operate at full capacity, bringing more financial challenges. Many cultural professionals have been made temporarily unemployed and others redundant, even in some of the large and renowned cultural institutions (over 96 per cent of EU cultural and creative organisations are micro-organisations employing fewer than ten people).

Freelances hardest hit

Freelances comprise a high proportion of the sector: in the 27 EU member states, 32 per cent of cultural workers and 44 per cent of artists and writers are self-employed. They have been hit hardest by the consequences of the confinement measures, as in most countries they were unable to benefit from regular unemployment schemes. Moreover, many used to rely on several sources of income, yet many of those side-jobs—such as yoga classes, lecturing and in hospitality—have also been frozen.

Coupled with unprecedented uncertainty, the situation is likely to force many cultural professionals to look for jobs elsewhere. Hence, even if most venues and arts institutions will ultimately survive the crisis—though this is far from guaranteed—there is a risk many independent professionals will not be able to remain in the sector. ‘Buildings are one thing but clearly we need to look after our freelancers, many of whom we rely on to make our work. They need our creative and financial support,’ said Paul Davies, artistic director at Volcano Theatre Company in Wales.

Support schemes initiated by national governments and arts councils vary widely from country to country. The European Commission has also announced a range of measures to boost the cultural sector in the context of the pandemic. The commission’s support package did not aim to provide direct emergency relief to individual artists (this being the responsibility of member states) but focused instead on enhancing opportunities for cross-border projects and collaboration or creating new ones. The cultural sector could potentially have been included in the various EU support instruments distributed by the member states (for instance, the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative or the Recovery and Resilience Facility). France, Portugal and Spain have already allocated some support for culture in their recovery plans, although this is not substantial.

European cultural advocates have been vocal about the current threat to the viability of the entire cultural ecosystem. Their core demands have been for a doubling of the Creative Europe programme—the only one which directly supports pan-European cultural collaboration—and a proper integration of culture into the recovery packages.

Difficult to measure

Amid the Covid-19 storm, voices are increasingly emerging to counteract depictions of the crisis in the cultural sector as solely a consequence of the pandemic. The current situation has rather brought many issues to the surface, most of which are closely related to the atypical character of the work of artists and cultural professionals. One of the reasons for the non-standard nature of this work is the high unpredictability of the final outcome of an artistic process and its reception by the audience.

The value of an artwork is difficult to measure and its perception varies from person to person. At the same time, the process of staging a performance is often labour- and time-intensive. Therefore, artists usually invest a lot of time, energy, skills and even money in a ‘product’, the unique value of which is very hard to estimate. It is however widely recognised that culture and the arts have tremendous importance for societies, creating many positive spillover effects—bringing people together, opening minds, paving the way for innovation, empowering people and contributing to wellbeing.

This structural atypicality of cultural and creative work is overlooked by funders and policy-makers alike. According to a September 2020 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, many Covid-19 support measures are not well suited to the peculiarities of the sector, with employment and income support not always accessible or adapted to its non-standard and especially precarious forms of employment.

Cherishing ‘resilience’

In times of crisis, instead of designing specific support measures that take into account this non-standard modus operandi, policy-makers and funders cherish the sector’s ‘resilience’. This assumes that artistic communities should use all their creativity, flexibility and agility to adapt to harsh realities, inventing their own solutions to cope with the lack of public support. It even goes so far as to imply professionals in the sector might ‘emerge from the crisis’ in a better shape. Although resilience as such is definitely not alien to the sector, considering it as the only tool to safeguard viability can however seriously affect the freedom, autonomy and integrity of artistic endeavour.

cultural professionals,cultural workers
Europe’s cultural edifice is shaky

Cultural workers’ ‘resilience’ often means (not only in times of crisis) withstanding precarity through innovative survival strategies, juggling several jobs in scattered projects with hectic mobility. This affects their ability to pursue long-term professional goals, based on their artistic, social and political values—with limited capacity to deepen critical ideas and, ultimately, seriously engage with socially and politically relevant issues—due to the never-ending lack of time. Constant adaptability undermines artists’ ability to work, to create, to express themselves. In the long term, this stifles the creativity and critical thinking so vital for healthy democracies and the sustainable transition of societies.

A pandemic was enough to turn this difficult reality into a near-catastrophic situation. After a few weeks of social distancing, many freelance art professionals across the EU found themselves unable to pay their rent or even buy food.

One may wonder why so many were not financially prepared for even a short period of inaction. This is partly because they had been investing themselves in the sector in the past few years. As a UNESCO study points out, ‘The largest subsidy for the arts comes not from governments, patrons or the private sector, but from artists themselves in the form of unpaid or underpaid labour.’

Focus on ‘makers’ lacking

Culture is hardly absent from EU official discourse and before the pandemic had even been rising up the agenda. It was integrated into the EU external-relations strategy and there was a greater focus on its various contributions to social life and economic development. The 2018 New Agenda for Culture adopted a very ambitious approach to promoting and supporting culture at EU level.

What has been lacking, however, is a focus on those who ‘make’ culture—the artists and cultural professionals. As Israel Aloni, artistic director and co-founder of the Swedish contemporary dance organisation ilDance, pointed out in a recent essay, ‘If artists were appreciated and valued in society, and if art was recognised as an important contributor to the collective cultural and social evolution, there would be a system in place that would support artists for being artists.’

Indeed, in some member states there is discussion of how to preserve livelihoods and advance professional development in the sector. At EU level, official acknowledgement that its vitality and sustainability depend on the wellbeing of its workers is only just beginning to emerge. Before 2020, there was hardly any EU-wide debate on whether there should be comprehensive action to improve the working conditions of arts professionals, with the last EU-level look into the issue a 2006 study by the European Parliament. In November 2020, a study published by the European Expert Network on Culture and Audiovisual represented an important step in furthering this debate.

Even if exploration of the theme is only beginning to take shape, the status of artists and cultural workers has not however been a topic completely absent at EU level. Different aspects, from mobility to copyright, have been addressed in recent years, with varying degrees of progress. Importantly, an ecosystem that supports artists, cultural and creative professionals as well as European content is one of the priorities of the Council of the EU’s Work Plan for Culture 2019-2022.

Real sign of progress

As a real sign of progress, a European Parliament resolution on the cultural recovery of Europe last September was supported by all major groups and adopted by an overwhelming majority. The resolution indicated that it was not sufficient to focus only on the economic recovery of the cultural sector, given its intrinsic value and social spillovers. It is non-binding but it will certainly shape discussion on the future of the sector and the recovery of EU economic and social life at large. It was backed up by 104 MEPs sending an open letter to the member states at the beginning of the year, calling for implementation of its demands.

An increase in subsidies, via Creative Europe, is vital to preserve pan-European cultural co-operation and it is urgent to revive the cross-border cultural ties which risk being hit hard by the pandemic. But, beyond that, the resolution brings the working-conditions issue into the spotlight, calling on the commission ‘to create a European framework for working conditions in cultural and creative sectors, paying particular attention to transnational employment’. IETM, the International Network for Contemporary Arts, together with other networks, has been cultivating this idea in the past few months.

Most issues related to working conditions fall within the member states’ sphere of responsibility. But an EU action, with the aim of improving the working conditions of artists and cultural professionals, would be a significant boost for cultural co-operation, so important for European unity and the future of the European project. It is essential that citizens get acquainted not only with local and national artistic offers but also with culture and arts from other countries.

A patchwork of measures have been taken by national governments in support of the cultural sector since the pandemic began. Some countries have invested a lot in their artists, while others left the artistic community to be ‘resilient’. There were already huge discrepancies between levels and forms of support for the sector across the EU, and Covid-19 will create even bigger cracks in the European cultural landscape. In the future, this will have a negative impact on cultural collaboration: touring, co-productions, transborder projects and so on.

Many artists work mostly or only internationally. They contribute to creating a common European space of values and raising awareness of the richness of cultures within the continent and beyond. They often suffer however from the lack of harmony among national schemes supporting the status and working conditions of artists, and the current crisis has aggravated this situation.

Principles and recommendations

An EU framework on the working conditions of artists and cultural professionals would provide a set of principles and recommendations. This would trigger legislative and non-legislative activity at member-state level on crucial issues relating to the socio-economic conditions of artists, such as contracts, taxes, wages, social benefits and mobility. Many of those are already in focus and a joint framework would strengthen commitment to further progress within the commission and among member states.

Such a framework would be based on recognition of the atypical nature of artists’ work and acknowledgement that their situation requires improvement. It should stimulate an exchange of best practices among member states, as well as monitoring of progress. It would boost debate, highlighting the problems which are being overlooked. Ultimately, it should aim to create favourable conditions for artists to work across EU borders.

While such a framework would be non-binding, similar to the European Pillar of Social Rights, it would be a tremendous step towards recognising the value of artists’ and cultural professionals’ work, as well as the atypical nature of their working conditions. Establishing it would be an important political message and a crucial signal to policy-makers at all levels—and the cultural sector itself—that European culture has a future, that artists are valued and that there is a burning desire for change.

This essay first appeared in the Green European Journal