Arts workers struggle to make ends meet as Covid grinch steals their work

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Arts, entertainment, and recreation sector workers represent the group with the highest take-up rate of the recently extended furlough scheme, ahead of accommodation & food services, education, manufacturing, wholesale, retail, or motor vehicle repairs, according to the latest available data.

Bar chart showing furlough take up by sector. Highlighting Arts, entertainment, and recreation.

Outside of London, the Midlands and the South East have been the areas with the highest furlough take-up rate across the UK.

Map showing furlough take up rate across the UK. Highlighting Midlands and London.

Sarah Gee, from Kings Heath in Birmingham, had two separate jobs before the first lockdown began, dividing her time between being a managing partner of a consultancy firm called Indigo which works with arts and cultural organisations, and a part-time chief executive of a music charity called Spitalfields based in East London.

Photo of Sarah Gee.
Sarah Gee, Chief Executive of Spitalfields Music, London.

She described how the first lockdown devastated both companies within a matter of days:

“When the pandemic hit, for Indigo it meant that we lost £100–120k worth of contracts within four days. It was a hell of a shock for us to figure out how we were going to deal with that.”

“With Spitalfields we had to stop our work in care homes and schools immediately.”

Sarah said that it had also become impossible to put on a summer music festival, which had originally been postponed until November, due to the insurmountable challenges involved. Her company decided to go digital instead.

She also explained the approach her company took to preserving jobs by using the furlough scheme:

“We furloughed staff. We haven’t made any redundancies. We tried incredibly hard not to affect any of their income. We actually topped up the furlough to 100% so nobody’s missed out on anything. We didn’t want them to be out of pocket …because they were taking one for the organisation’s future.”

Finally she mentioned how performers had been paid despite the catastrophic effects of lockdown restrictions:

“We paid all the artists who had been contracted in full, because that’s just the right thing to do.”


Recent statistics released by HMRC show that they also are also the group with the 5th highest take-up rate of the self-employed income support scheme, just behind education sector workers. 

This is despite the fact that self-employed arts workers account for less than 3% of the total eligible population.

Bar chart showing Self employed income support scheme take up by sector.

Sohan Kailey, a dance artist, dance practitioner, and musician from Birmingham, who works as both a performer and educator, shared his perspective on how the arts sector has been affected by Covid-19:

“The first lockdown completely destroyed the arts. Come March, we were just having festival organisers ringing us, emailing me, and saying: ‘Sohan, sorry, the gig’s off. In fact you can write the whole year off actually’, it’s been absolutely appalling.”

Lamenting what he perceived as the lack of support on offer for the arts, events, and entertainment industry, Sohan talked at length about how many different types of jobs he knew of which have been sidelined due to the pandemic. 

He said that lighting and sound engineers, dancers, festival managers and directors, have all found themselves unable to work, with some turning away from their passion to embrace manual labour.

“We aren’t getting the support we need.”

Photo of Sohan Kailey.
“This photo represents the happiness we feel when we do the things we enjoy. Dancing, creating music, entertaining… the things we miss and need lots of support with.” -Sohan Kailey, Nov 2020.
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