The World Transformed: democratising the culture sector post lockdown

Julie Saumagne and Sam Swann explore the links between worker exploitation and institutional elitism in the culture industry

September 4, 2020 · 6 min read
The World Transformed 2019

Lockdown pulled off the flimsy mask of the culture sector. When our elite cultural institutions locked their doors, ‘culture’ didn’t suddenly stop. As Italian writer and performer Alex Cecchetti put it, ‘if you think artists are useless, try to spend your quarantine without music, books, poems, movies, paintings and porn’. Time changed pace and huge numbers tentatively took to their paint brushes, sketchbooks, sewing machines, musical instruments, books, games, films and cooking utensils. Creativity gave us a lifeline and boosted, buoyed and comforted us through the most collectively traumatic event of a generation.

The coronavirus crisis also reminded us of the social role of culture. Creative forms of socially distant interaction flourished, with people sharing ukulele videos over WhatsApp, showing off new dance moves on TikTok, coming together through video games, online games of Mafia and family quizzes, or watching and discussing the same TV shows. Lockdown has given us a glimpse of how essential and inescapable the arts are, even while the doors of our most celebrated institutions remained closed. Culture never belonged to them – it is everywhere. As we say at TWT: culture is ordinary, and people are extraordinary.

Meanwhile, lockdown has also revealed the true nature of our cultural institutions. While some smaller and struggling venues did their best to support communities through the crisis (such as members-owned social club the Holbeck in Leeds, which opened itself up as a community aid hub to directly support over 2,000 locals), institutions like the Southbank Centre, Tate and National Theatre closed their doors – and when they prepared to reopen, sacked hundreds of their most precarious and marginalised staff. While workers have been holding regular pickets and rallies to resist mass redundancies, management retained their six-figure salaries. Nobody can claim to be surprised. The fight against precarity in the arts has been going on for a long time, but it took a crisis to amplify its relevance and urgency.

Yet the share of cultural funding dedicated to a small number of elite institutions remains disproportionate. London received a third of all Arts Council funding in 2018/19, and two institutions alone – the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company – get a third of all theatre funding. Meanwhile, huge numbers of smaller arts companies around the country disappeared under austerity measures, and the most precariously employed have been consistently forced through the cracks.

An arts industry for the many

This elitist disparity is not new: it has been there since the Arts Council’s inception, and for centuries prior when wealthy benefactors were the ones to decide who would be funded to produce what work. Covid-19 only uncovered the rot beneath the pleasant facade of the arts and culture sector. Seeking a return to the status quo means simply papering over the cracks that were always there. Now is the time to tackle institutional elitism heads-on, and try to imagine an arts industry that works for the many.

In the immediate term, we must fight for the livelihoods of the most precarious and marginalised workers who are once again the first to go. This means connecting a heavily disjointed sector, and energising depoliticised cultural ‘consumers’. We need to throw our full support behind the strikes and protests currently taking place at Tate, Southbank, National Theatre – and use the increased media attention to mobilise a bigger, national campaign against precarity and inequality in the cultural sector.

In the meantime, we must also continue the conversation about who art is really for. ‘Saving’ cultural institutions as they are cannot suffice: the fight ahead of us is about reclaiming them. Lockdown showed us the real value of culture as a means through which people can express themselves, connect with each other and flourish. How do we build society where more people can let their creative side run free; where more people have the time and resources to develop their artistic skills, and the security necessary to turn their passion into a career if they wish to?

These are some of the questions we’ll be considering during this year’s edition of The World Transformed. On 5 September, we’re bringing together trade unionists and campaigners for an Arts and Culture Day of Strategy. We will reflect on the ongoing fight against redundancies, how we can support and build on it. We will talk about structural oppression in the arts, and discuss how marginalised groups can break away from asking for representation and start demanding power. We will also try to imagine what a democratised arts sector would look like, and what role it could play in building a radically fairer, more equal and happier society.

So whether you’re an arts worker, an arts lover or an ally, we’re asking you to get involved. Join us in the struggle for our livelihoods, and for arts and culture for everyone – for bread and for roses.

Red Pepper is a media partner of The World Transformed 2020. Julie Saumagne is an artist and activist, and Sam Swann is an actor, Equity union councillor and organiser of the Good Night Out Reading Group.

To find out more go to and follow them on Twitter @TWT_NOW

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