I Woke Up and the Arts Was Gone

A derelict theatre in Italy. We are looking from a dark balcony filled with rubble and broken chairs, out onto a light proscenium stage with a collapsed roof and floor. Decaying red and gold stalls curve round either side. Photo by James Kershwin, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.

Actually, it took about a week. On Wednesday 11th March 2020, I started to see the first few cancellations of events trickle in: due to coronavirus, we are sorry to announce… On Friday my own workers’ co-operative decided to indefinitely postpone the event we were due to host on Sunday, a performance art show for toddlers. By the following Wednesday, almost every theatre, gallery, cinema, festival and venue had closed — for at least three months, if not six, if not forever. Everywhere in the country that people might gather together to see art was shuttered, suspended, gone. Most of my artist friends lost all their work, many without any cancellation fees, as did precariously-employed staff in areas like front of house, who are also often artists. The entire industrial sector is gone, and in six months we have no idea how much of it will come back, or just how many organisations will be bankrupt or otherwise simply gone, or even if there will be medical, social and economic conditions for anything to come back to.

My artist friends are realising this in waves. I had a scheduled meeting on Tuesday 17th (relocated to Skype, of course) with an artist whose work my organisation has supported. We met talk about the future of the project: he began with all of his desires and ambitions, and I had to say, “Woah. We’ll come to that. First, you realise that everything is shutting down for at least six months? First, you have to decide how you’re going to cope with that.” At the other end, as soon as the first cancellation was announced I saw some artists leap immediately online and begin planning live-stramed gigs, instagram cabarets, ways to bring culture into socially distanced homes. For some, who have lost all their income and who have no security, this is a necessity, a way to bring some money into their lives through their chosen profession; for others, this is mutual aid, trying to work out how under these conditions we will continue the sacred work of making and sharing art, a crucial part of health and community, even and especially in crisis. We each cope with crisis in our own way: denial, bargaining, acceptance, action. I’ve done plenty of each. Right now I’m taking some time to pause and think, “If the arts is gone, what is it that I want to bring back, after all this?” If there is an after.

I am feeling considerable fear for my friends and colleagues. I know artists — brilliant, generous, experienced artists — who have lost their entire income for the next six months, who have no savings or family to fall back on, and who have no idea how they are now going to live. Certainly, there are secure, middle-class people who are better placed to weather this storm, but there are far more precarious, disabled, working-class and otherwise marginalised artists who have been making the most vital and significant art for years, and who now have no way to live. I also feel fear for organisations that I love that have been doing good work in getting artists paid, in supporting marginalised artists, in bringing democracy into art, in making more art available to more people, in doing the arts with some sense of social and economic justice. These organisations are more likely to be precariously funded, and are more likely to never come back. I am scared for people who are losing their work and their lives.

But what I am not feeling is any sense of grief for the arts. It is gone, for now, and I do not mourn it. First of all, there’s still going to be plenty of art. In the last week I have seen an absolute deluge of art made freely available, and I too have helped point people towards art that’s freely available. There are more films than I can watch, more music than I can listen to, more books than I can read, more games than I can play. This abundance was there before the crisis and it will abide. The particular problem of art in pandemic conditions is that we cannot be physically present with it, or present with it in social groups. In the age of digital reproduction, this was the only offer the arts could make to a consumer society: you can touch this, so you should pay for it; you can see this together, so you should pay for it; and, always rather more suspect, this is really good, so you should pay for it. But even if society collapses there will still be art, even if all that is left is our cracked singing voices and half-forgotten stories shouted across distances of at least six feet. Making art has never been the problem: the problem is getting paid.

I do not know any of my artist peers who really believes in the way the arts is organised in this country. This system is gone, for now, and I do not mourn it, because I never believed in it. I have been working full-time in this system, actively perpetuating this system, for a decade, while never believing in it. I have hustled, and earned, and made a living, and made art, and gotten other people paid to make art, and all along part of me has hated myself, and hated what I am doing, what I have been forced to do. The arts has failed in its mission of bringing culture to people: a decade of equality, diversity and inclusion policies has barely changed the make-up of its paid workforce, while working-class culture has been destroyed or assimilated, creating deeper cultural divides between the arts and the people. There’s a reason that many think that the arts is just a middle-class jolly, and as much as I’d like to explain why that’s wrong, sometimes I don’t have the stomach for it.

Even more so, the current crisis exposes the unjust economy of the arts. Even before the pandemic hit the following was true: those who make art were the least likely to be paid or to have security; those who manage the making of art were more likely to be paid, and the higher up their level of management the more security they had; those who own the places where art is made, or who direct those institutions, are paid a lot, and are probably landlords. In the crisis, this is only more clear. Creative Scotland has made the good decision that all organisations currently in receipt of Open Project Funding will receive the full amount regardless of whether the activity takes place. In return, they have asked that all recipients “honour contracts agreed with freelancers and artists”; i.e., pay the artists you said you’d pay, even if they can’t do the art. They probably cannot legally compel organisations to do this, but I hope they will at least ask with more force. Because this decision is now in the gift of the managers of the funding. We are under force majeure conditions: very few contracts and agreements are likely to be enforceable, and even if they are then which artists and precarious arts workers have the financial or even emotional resources to enforce contracts and demand pay? And so, which managers will do the right thing and pay their workers? And which managers will pay themselves first?

I know this is a decision because I am making this decision. I am in the very fortunate position of running an organisation in receipt of Open Project Funding. I have written to all the people who were due to work with us and told them they will be paid regardless: we want to reschedule the work, but if we can’t then they will be paid, and if we can then we will pay them twice. I have to do the accounts this week and work out what we can afford to do, and I will get those people paid before I pay myself, because I am in the most secure and responsible position in the organisation, and we are a workers co-op, and that is how it should be done. But when I wrote to my fellow workers, one wrote back to me to say that he had had fifteen jobs cancelled and we were the only one that had offered to pay.

I have been writing for close to a decade about how the economy of the arts is broken and ways we might fix it. I have been very honest with those I work with that I think, for example, that artistic directors should not exist, or at the very least that someone in that role should not be paid more than someone performing on a stage. I’ve sat on panels and explained this while sitting next to an artistic director, and somehow we’ve stayed pals. I’ve been an artistic director, and even if that’s in a workers’ co-operative where everyone’s paid the same rate, I’ve taken on managerial responsibility which has increased my security, which is why I’m not yet panicking about my work, which is why I have the brain space to write this essay. Give it time, though, and unless something changes then I too will be panicking, because managerial and middle-class security has always been a temporary and deceptive condition. So when I write, I do not write from a place of impatience, or a place of superiority: I write from a place of complicity, and from a place of doing long, hard work. I also write from a place of slowly but hotly burning rage.

Some may be reading this and, rightly, feeling furious with me. “Are you saying that it’s OK for all these festivals to close?” No, I’m not. The immediate closure of many arts organisations is an economic disaster, and not just for the arts, and certainly not just for the middle-classes. The town of Hay and the surrounding area is economically dependent on one annual festival which may now go bankrupt. I may be deeply sceptical of the publishing industry, I may have harsh words for its unjust structures and how it privileges the voices and security of the wealthy, I may feel like I would never want to go to the Hay Festival, but I do not want it to go bankrupt and destroy a town. I live in Edinburgh, and I have had vitriolic words for how the Edinburgh Fringe is run. There is no way the Fringe can run this year in anything like the way it has run in previous years, if it runs at all. Even if pandemic conditions are lifted, the planning cannot take place in time, and the artists and audiences just won’t be there in the same way. This will be a tremendous blow to everyone who works in Edinburgh, including the lowest paid and most precarious workers: not just the arts, but everything from pubs to corner shops operates on the basis of the annual boost in income. I don’t want that to hit all at once. Beyond the arts, my home is Orkney, which has an economy dependent on summer tourism, which will now be drastically reduced. I don’t think having an economy dependent on summer tourism is tenable for either culture or climate, but I don’t want my home to suffer through a sudden withdrawal of trade.

What I am saying is that the economic system we have built for the arts is what makes these shocks so severe. If you’re dependent on an annual festival for work and something goes wrong, you have no work. If artists are chronically insecure in the arts, then artists suffer when something goes wrong. If the arts is built around accumulating wealth for the wealthy, which it is, and built around giving megaphones to the most privileged voices, which it is, then more people will suffer when the arts is gone, and fewer people will care.

Naomi Klein writes in The Shock Doctrine about how capitalism exploits disaster conditions to strengthen its grip. Under a strong and very right-wing Tory government, this is an extreme risk for my country. In an arts that is perceived as a haven for left-wing trouble-makers on the wrong side of the culture war that the Tories have chosen to wage, there is an opportunity for extreme restructuring. The arts is gone, and what this government will want to bring back in its place after “all this”, assuming there is an after, will be far more unequal, far less diverse, far more run by bosses and landlords, far less exciting, far more about accumulating wealth for the wealthy and giving megaphones to the privileged, far less artistic. Art will be even more an industry for rich people than it is already.

The more that arts workers flail around trying to bring back whatever there was before into the after, the worse this situation will be. If we try to bring back all the same festivals under the same structure, then the festivals that are most able to meet their crowdfunding goals — that is, the ones with the richest audiences — will survive, and the ones doing the most interesting art and paying the most artists will not. If we try to bring back all the same organisations in the same way, then more bosses and directors will have a secure income and more artists won’t. Instead, then, we have to decide what kind of culture we want, and we have to organise for it now.

Rebecca Solnit writes in A Paradise Built in Hell about the communities of mutual aid that arise in disaster. Far from bringing about the vicious, dog-eat-dog state-of-nature conditions that the elite panic about, disasters tend to bring about extraordinary and very human generosity, solidarity and organisation. These communities arise autonomously, from the bottom up, and they do not need managers — indeed, the more the state tries to manage them, the less effective and life-giving they are.

Artists are coming together in beautiful community right now, to work out how they can sustain each other’s lives and how they can make and share art. It is an astonishing thing. What we also need to do is work out how we can maintain these artist-led communities of survival beyond the conditions of the present crisis, before capital and the state loom over us and force us back into a system that has never worked. My plea to my fellow workers is this: yes, organise now to sustain each other, but also take the time, when you can, to think about what comes next, so that it is better than what came before, and to organise for that goal. This is the same plea that can be made to workers in every industry, but for those of us whose industries have entirely halted, and who were already most under attack by government (education, health, culture, public service, along with every precarious and low-paid worker and unworker), this task is especially urgent, and the space is filled with the most risk and possibility.

I have made many suggestions in the past for how the arts could be organised. The conditions which determined my past proposals have vanished and may never return, though the logic remains the same. Here, then, are two suggestions, as clearly as I can make them:

First, arts work should centre the workers who make art, and all funding should be on that basis. This means that artists need secure work at a living wage, and this should be arranged alongside the work of administrators, not subordinate to it. The fewer managers we have, the better this will be. This also means breaking the boundary between arts and support work: more artists need to take responsibility for how art happens, and more administrators need to be given the time and resources to make the art they want to make. So, when a venue reopens, imagine it like this: the venue is managed collectively by all who work there, who are all paid the same rate. If there are management-only roles, they rotate, and they are not privileged, and the workers provide the direction. Everyone who manages the venue is also paid to make art, and everyone who is paid to make art in the venue also manages it. We all take turns to clean the toilet.

Second, art is for everyone, and everyone is an artist. Arts funding will make its central priorities both ensuring that everyone has access to art and ensuring that everyone has access to the time and resources to make art. This is privileged over any measure of excellence, because the art that is made will be more excellent. This is privileged over any national institution, because the art that is made will be more brilliantly various and will speak to more people. Yes, this means fewer full-time jobs making and managing art, but it means more money for more artists, for more diverse artists, and for more and better art. Yes, this means that some of our most celebrated culture will stay gone, but that was always the culture that rich people preferred and so managed to get tax money to pay for, and what will take its place will be better, and then more people will actually believe in art.

If you want this, or anything like this, you have to organise for it now, for and through your survival. That means looking to your unions, your Facebook groups, your institutions, your WhatsApp chats, your co-operatives, and fighting for survival through them, and working out how to build something better. We do this together, or we’ll never be together again.

The arts is dead. Long live…?


I have enough to live off, for now. Many of my peers do not. If you have enough to live off and you appreciated this essay, please, in return, donate to QueerCare, which is organising mutual aid for queer and trans people, or to Edinburgh Action for Trans Health, which directly pays for trans people’s healthcare and crisis needs. If you would like to support my work in an ongoing way. you can join my Patreon.