The needs of artists and cultural organisations in a crisis

On Thursday 19 March 2020, I received a request from Arts Council England to take part in an online meeting the next day as part of an External Reference Group which would be asked to comment on their draft proposals for supporting the arts sector in the face of the coronavirus (Covid-19) health crisis currently sweeping the world. (I was a Council member between 2005 and 2013, and had written a blog post a few days earlier about what I thought ACE should do in the crisis.) The message arrived late and I just replied to say that I was happy to take part. Early next day, I asked people to let me know via Twitter if there was anything they wanted me to take into the discussion. 

There were a lot of suggestions, but I barely had time to read them before the meeting. But since that was convened online and involved about 20 people from ACE and the arts sector, there was also limited opportunity to raise issues or make suggestions.  Afterwards I wrote another blog post to keep people in touch with what was happening, while respecting the confidentiality of the discussion. In it I said I’d forward to Arts Council England all the tweets I’d received.

This document is my attempt to fulfil that promise. I’d no idea it would be so difficult to print out a series of tweets! I’ve tried to keep the threads (names in blue are responding to tweets that start above). There are also tweets from people replying to other people whose tweets don’t appear in my timeline. And I may well have missed some in the process – especially as comments might be added after I post this. So if you want to be sure to see everything, you might want to go back to the original tweet and read from there.

  • Download Arts Council England Response to the Covid-19 crisis: Requests and proposals from artists and arts organisations (PDF)

Still, I hope that it’s useful to be able to read this snapshot of voices from artists and arts organisations facing a devastating crisis in their working lives. Naturally, there’s a lot about their own urgent needs. It’s hard to comprehend what it means to suddenly have all your work and income vanish overnight, especially if you have a secure job. But there’s also a lot about the people that these artists work with, the needs of those who may be even more vulnerable and wider questions of culture and society. All those thoughts are important and they should be read and reflected on by the agencies – not only Arts Council England – who are responsible for the future of Britain’s cultural life.  

Nothing has been changed in these tweets but obvious typos (‘tje’ for ‘the’) have been silently corrected. I also received emails and messages, but they aren’t included here because they weren’t public like the tweets. I will write to those who contacted me to ask for their permission to share their ideas, which were often valuable because they had more space. If I get there agreement, I will publish a second paper.

Finally, if you have anything further that you’d like to share, please use the comments box below or email me directly through the contacts page. I’ll do my best to keep this conversation going – just one among thousands that are happening now – depending on the other pressures in my working and personal life. Thanks to everyone who responded to my call out. I was glad to go into that meeting feeling that I had listened to your voices beforehand.

  • Download Arts Council England Response to the Covid-19 crisis: Requests and proposals from artists and arts organisations (PDF) 


  1. Hello Francois
    I’m playing with truly radical ideas at the moment thinking about how we might reset the whole system. Why? Well, given that this may now be a ‘stop start’ existence for a year or two we should think about how to keep the skills capital together and how we might re-purpose it. I have no answers but will keep you posted.

    1. That sounds intriguing – and very worthwhile. I agree that we are at the beginning of something that is going to change all our lives much more profoundly than we yet know. We’ll need some good new ideas, as well as solidarity and empathy.

  2. Dear Francois, unfortunately I missed the original thread/ call out. And I cannot get any detail of the conversations had or why certain decisions have been made, the influencers of and the exit plan. Having only recently been funded by ACE for projects involving communities, I am in a positions where my practice has come from very little external investment so this closure is impacting me in different ways. Whilst I understand people, organisations need money in order to pay outgoing fixed charges, heating, rent, lighting, water, insurances and these can add up to a lot. Organisations (NPO) should have enough reserves, excluding staff pay, to run this for some time yet (two months? three?), if they haven’t then some learning will come of this. Is ACE in the right place to do what the Gov should be doing for all freelance – self employed people, how will the government see this intervention, isn’t it a watering down of the purpose and real support the arts can be to communities especially when we come out the other side having spent the reserves? I also understand the move towards the only outlet ‘Digital’, but when it comes to it people will still want to engage with the spectacle, to feel the power of an individual delivering that experience. The thing is when cabin fever takes hold and then there is the release the arts would be in a great place to impact that time, ‘everyone’ is on that start line, we are all isolated. We don’t know what people will be looking toward in the near or distant future. I think Lady Kit’s suggestion of support for those doing some research and development is honourable but I am happy to use my time to research and develop that ‘thing’ ‘experience’ on line, through my personal library and having the time to reflect on the last year, I don’t need paying to do that, I have nothing else to do and I am in the same position as everyone else, we cannot visit places so that research cost is a saving in cash where it is a loss in primary source experience. I would like to come out of this situation sharing with the communities I have kept a relationship with on line, by letter and on the telephone, the community members I would like to be working for in the future. What will need funding is that engagement, the increase in costs to me, travel, energy used, new rents, materials and paying others to be part of it. Now the landscape seems to look like, I will be re-emerging to a frenzy of opportunity to develop an audience, to highlight the qualities of the arts without anything close to the type of investment it will need. I only say this because I don’t know what the fund is asking for in return for 2.5k, if it is asking for lots of artists to hold on to that investment to go when the gun goes off then great there will be a happening. For clarity I am paying studio rent, project space rent and April another projects space rent, insurances as an employer and an individual, losses on commitments made for personal organisational development and I am still not clearing a personal taxable value of more than 9k a year.

    1. Dear Adrian,

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. The reasons behind ACE’s decisions are for them to explain, rather than me. The meeting I took part in was asked for its views, but, as ACE has made clear, had no decision-making role (

      What I do know is that the UK cultural system is very market-oriented. When theatres, concert halls and galleries close, the loss of earned revenue is far greater than the available reserves: for many NPOs, grant aid accounts for less than half, and sometimes less than a quarter of their turnover. This article from the Guardian explains why many classical musicians are facing an immediate financial crisis: The funding for NPOs looks big, but it will not keep 840 closed cultural organisations from bankruptcy indefinitely. The loss of the Square Arts Chapel in Halifax last week is a reminder of how vulnerable some of them are. And each loss is a blow to a community and the loss of a resource that may take years to rebuild.

      I don’t know how government will see this intervention: its thought process is entirely opaque to me. I suspect, though, that it will barely notice, except in DCMS, because it has much larger concerns. If, as is being said, it is about to announce help for freelance workers, it will not be because it is thinking about artists, but because of the much larger numbers of cleaners, drivers and labourers who have been pushed into casual work in recent years and who do not have any reserves.

      Your commitment to using this time to research and develop your practice, so as to support the communities with which you work is admirable, and I share that intention. At the same time, I believe that this period of suspension will be longer than we foresee, and that restrictions will be lifted only gradually over a period of time, to avoid a rise in infection rates. Containment is a response, not a solution. We are only trying to buy time until we can develop a vaccine for this disease. From what I read, that should not be expected before a year or two, at best. When we do emerge it will be in a very different place.

      I do not know what the world will be like when we are once again able to go about our lives in a more or less normal way, but I expect it to be deeply changed. Many lives will have been damaged and people will have been hurt by grief, loss, fear and confusion. We are all likely to be much worse off and for a long time. The solidarity that has been so evident in these early days will be tested in the weeks and months to come. I hope that individually, in communities and as political societies we might come to reassess our values and priorities, but that will not happen unless we are ready to work for it and to defend kinder, fairer and more sustainable ways of living.

      The Arts Council’s funding for freelance artists will open shortly. I’ve no idea what its terms will be or what it will expect applicants to do, but I hope that you can find some support to keep you going and help in your future work with communities.

      Keep well and good luck

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