Culture vultures need more than slim pickings if art is to sustain us

With crisis everywhere we look, can a struggling culture industry really save us?

Mark Cantrell
9 min readMay 26, 2022

Culture is a critical bread and butter issue, writes Mark Cantrell, but with the industry itself in crisis, can it really help revive the fortunes of struggling, economically damaged communities?

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

YOU can’t eat culture, right; maybe not, but it does provide a livelihood for many and makes a sizeable contribution to the UK economy. Like it or not, we are talking about an important bread and butter issue.

The arts and culture industry contributes over £10 billion a year to the UK economy, according to Arts Council England (ACE), with £2.8 billion going to the Treasury in taxation. Furthermore, it provides around 363,700 jobs so it’s hardly economic ‘fluff’

Little wonder, then, that there are those who look to the cultural industries to tackle some of the UK’s — and particularly England’s — deep-rooted and tangled socio-economic ills. The country is fractured and divided, beset with inequalities, rife with poverty, and uncertain of its future prospects.

To cap all that, in recent months a pre-existing cost-of-living crisis has become fuelled to cruel heat by the rising price of essentials and soaring energy costs, further exacerbated by alleged government inaction. [The impact of today’s announcements by the Chancellor of the Exchequer remain to be seen.] Things are looking pretty bleak, to put it mildly.

What can culture do against such a dystopian mire? That’s what the Local Government Association (LGA) — the body representing England’s councils — hopes to explore in the coming months following the launch of a new independent commission (see below).

The trouble is, as the Leeds-based Centre for Cultural Value warned back in February, the culture industry itself is in peril. In part, the sector is ailed by similar afflictions to England; a syndrome of historic inequalities that have undermined access and opportunity for under-privileged groups. Then along came covid, which hit the sector hard, and exacerbated such problems.

Crisis on the crossroads

Its report, Culture in Crisis, looked at the “profound impact” of Covid-19 on the UK’s cultural organisations, workforce, and audiences. It found that the sector is “facing imminent burnout” alongside significant gaps in workforce and skills.

“We’re at a major crossroads,” observed professor Ben Walmsley, the centre’s director. The report’s authors believe something must be done to transform the “bruised cultural industries” before the whole thing withers on the vine.

Among its findings, the report notes:

  • The pandemic’s impact was not experienced evenly across the sector, with younger workers, women and workers from ethnically diverse backgrounds among the hardest hit in terms of losing work and income
  • For freelancers, who make up a significant part of the cultural workforce, the impact was “major and sometimes devastating”. Freelancers constituted 62% of the core-creative workforce before the pandemic and only 52% by the end of 2020
  • The most dramatic decline in the cultural industries workforce was observed in music, performing and visual arts, where the professional workforce fell by around a quarter between March and June 2020, with no signs of significant recovery by the end of 2020, in comparison with other sectors
  • Despite the rapid take-up of vaccines, the population’s confidence in returning to cultural venues remained “stubbornly low” throughout 2021
  • While the shift to digital transformed experiences for those already engaged with cultural activities, it failed to diversify audiences
  • 80% of survey respondents said that taking part in arts and culture was important to their wellbeing, positively affecting their mood and helping them to manage anxiety

So, all in all, the sector’s not in the best of shapes. If the arts and cultural industries are themselves in dire straits, how can they contribute a solution to crises-bound Britain?

Answers to this won’t fit easily on a postcard, but that’s not to say they won’t be forthcoming. Regardless, what are we without culture? It matters, in ways that are both quantifiable and intangible. As we said, it’s a bread and butter issue; it’s also a little heart and soul in these trying times.

Katy’s calling

“Culture connects us like nothing else and the pandemic has reminded us that place and participation matters now more than ever,” said professor Katy Shaw, director of cultural partnerships at Northumbria University. “The challenge is to preserve what we have and create new culture, as well as ensuring that culture is by all, and for all, going forwards.”

Professor Katy Shaw. Image courtesy of Northumbria University.

Earlier this year, the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) appointed Shaw as programme director for Creative Communities, a new £1.5 million venture to explore how culture can address England’s regional inequalities to help ‘level up’ the UK.

Since the Johnson Government introduced the term in 2019, ‘levelling up’ has largely come to signify yet another empty ministerial slogan, but that’s not to say there aren’t people and organisations working to give it some substance; the professor is one of them.

Shaw is regarded as a leading authority in fostering cultural partnerships across the North of England. Recently she has worked with actor Michael Sheen, publications the Daily Mirror and the New Statesman, anti-poverty thinktank the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and New Writing North to deliver A Writing Chance, a diversity project to champion under-represented working class writers.

For professor Andrew Wathey CBE, vice-chancellor and chief executive at Northumbria University, the Creative Communities programme represents the “vital recognition” of the role that arts and culture plays. You can’t have a creative economy without them.

“Creativity and culture are not just important in building economic recovery, they are vital for our national wellbeing,” he added. “The pandemic, and the lockdowns we all endured to combat it, have taught us again the true value of arts and culture in our lives, and in defining what it means to be human.”

Work on commission

On that note, let’s turn to the LGA’s Independent Commission on Culture & Local Government, chaired by Baroness Lola Young, which launched in March.

“Culture has a vital role to play in our national recovery from Covid-19: it brings people together, provides inspiration and solace, supports mental wellbeing and makes better places for everyone,” she said.

“This commission is an opportunity to demonstrate the impact of the incredible work cultural services and organisations are doing to support their communities up and down the country. Collaboration is key and we are looking forward to exploring how national, regional and local organisations can work together to better support a thriving cultural sector.”

Thematically, it doesn’t sound that far removed from Shaw’s Creative Communities programme — indeed she’s one of the commissioners — but its scope is, dare we say, somewhat wider.

Hardly surprising, no doubt, given the scale of local authority involvement as not just enablers but also purveyors of cultural events, facilities, and attractions. As the nation moves towards some kind of post-covid recovery, these remain “vital”, says the LGA, but they are under “constant pressure”.

The years of austerity, which saw massive cuts in government funding for local councils, have taken a heavy toll on all kinds of services. Despite this, the LGA says they remain the biggest public funders of culture, spending over £1 billion a year in England alone.

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

This supports a nationwide network of local organisations that tally up to 3,000 libraries, 350 museums, and 116 theatres, along with “numerous” castles, amusement parks, monuments, historic buildings, and heritage sites.

In short, our national cultural tapestry would be considerably more threadbare without them. But how do we stop it unravelling in this age of belt-tightening and cost-of-living calamity?

The questions facing the commission aren’t just a matter of culture. As mentioned, they’re also very much of both the social and the economic realms, but so too are they part of our outlook and our wellbeing.

During the pandemic, as the LGA points out, people turned to culture for “solace and connection”. That wasn’t necessarily easy, given the restrictions; not everyone has equal and easy access to the kinds of remote technology used to keep cultural life ticking over. A digital divide is, of course, a very real facet of unequal Britain.

Even so, efforts were made to enable access for communities. Local cultural services such as libraries, museums, theatres and arts centres, took steps to reach out during lockdown; keeping ‘channels open’ to mitigate isolation, support mental wellbeing, and provide educational opportunities through the ‘down time’.

The question is, where do we go from here? Especially in light of the crisis afflicting the arts and culture industry, not to mention the cost-of-living woes ramping up pressure, not only on local government budgets, but on the public’s pockets too.

“Local organisations form the backbone of our cultural infrastructure,” said Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, chair of the LGA’s culture, tourism and sport board. “[They] play a vital role in supporting social mobility, boosting pride in communities, providing a pipeline of skills for the creative industries and supporting economic regeneration.

“Whether by delivering direct cultural services like libraries, or by commissioning freelancers and providing spaces for artists and performers to develop their creative skills, councils are critical to our cultural ecosystem and developing the creative talent of the future.”

Long-term, the LGA argues, “sustainable” investment in culture would lead to better health and wellbeing for communities, as well as support economic renewal, tackle educational inequalities and strengthen community pride.

Maybe so, however the notion that culture is ‘fluff’ — nice to have, but a luxury more than a necessity — is hard to uproot. Ironically, it’s tangled deep in our cultural outlook.

The commission will present the evidence, and make the local authority case, in December this year. Then we’ll see if national policymakers listen.

Growing culture

Stock image courtesy of Pixabay.

There is some recognition of the issues in government circles, if a recent announcement by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sports (DCMS) is anything to go by.

It is offering arts and cultural venues in England a slice of a £128 million funding pot to deliver better access, improve their facilities and help safeguard their futures. The department says support will be targeted on “locally-led” cultural projects, museums, and public libraries, in areas that historically have had lower levels of cultural investment.

The overall funding takes three strands: a £49.4 million Cultural Development Fund; a £15.5 million Libraries Improvement Fund; and a £63.3 million Museum Estate Development Fund. The latter is targeted at “urgent” museum maintenance and infrastructure works. A previous round of funding earlier this year saw a total of £48 million divvied up between 60 organisations.

“Cultural institutions form the heart of communities across the country and it is important that we provide them with the support they need,” said arts minister, Lord Parkinson.

“This funding will help make culture more accessible to everyone, including people who may not have enjoyed its benefits before, as well as supporting vital maintenance work to secure the future of many venues. It is an important part of our plan to level up the country, for the benefit of everybody.”

Darren Henley, chief executive of ACE, said: “Artists, arts organisations, museums and libraries have the power to animate and energise villages, towns and cities in amazing and innovative ways. This new investment in culture and creativity will help people across the country to enjoy happier lives.”

Such largesse, but government grants or the framework of council provision, can only take us so far when it comes to nurturing arts and culture. It isn’t — or shouldn’t be — something handed down to us from ‘on high’.

Even before these troubled times swept us up, culture was all-but regarded as the preserve of those higher up Britain’s socio-economic pecking order. The rest of us should go and get a ‘proper job’.

Little wonder, then, that some might feel dissuaded from ‘engaging’ with arts and culture, whether as consumer or creator, given England’s persistent streak of it’s not for the likes of us/you.

This has never been a notion left unchallenged, of course. A case in point is Shaw’s work with Sheen and others to highlight working class writers. There’s plenty more going on to challenge under-representation and lack of diversity throughout arts and culture. Whether it’s on race, gender, sexuality, disability, region; there’s so much more that needs to be done.

Communities don’t just provide the audience for arts and culture; or even its subject. In ordinary neighbourhoods across the country, that’s where the next generation of cultural makers and shapers are found. In that sense, nurturing and sustaining the cultural sector’s future starts with them.

Like it or not, it’s a bread and butter problem; one some people might prefer is ‘fluffed’…




Mark Cantrell

A UK writer and journalist, Mark Cantrell is also the author of two novels: Citizen Zero and Silas Morlock. Read more of his work at