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Major report published on the future of freelancing in the performing arts

A 142 page, Arts Council England-funded report has called for a sea change in the relationship between creative arts employers and freelancers following the pandemic

Written by performing arts freelancers, The Big Freelancer Report was prepared over the last 12 months, collating data from 8000 respondents to The Big Freelancer Survey, 22 separate campaign and advocacy groups, over 50 interviews with freelancers across various performing arts disciplines, and expertise from specialists in education, science and business across England.

It concludes that, although the Covid-19 pandemic has caused untold damage to freelance workers in the sector, it has exposed a problem that had been simmering for decades. As it says, ‘To focus solely on the short-term goal of getting money to freelancers, without confronting these historic inequities, would be to rebuild a broken system.’

Although focussing on the theatre sector, being supported by Freelancers Make Theatre Work, the report’s findings and conclusions resonate across all areas of the creative performance arts, pointing out that there would be no performance if it wasn’t for freelancers.

‘Organisations in the performing arts sector are full of gifted, passionate individuals who maintain the stages, administrate contracts, design marketing campaigns and manage production budgets. Yet the work that sits at the core of their business is undeliverable by those on their payroll.

‘Indeed, 94% of the work created for the nation’s stages is entirely reliant on freelancers. No other industry outsources its creative leadership or its innovation to such a degree.’

The report argues that this vital inter-dependence has not been supported by the system. ‘Instead,’ it says. ‘the pre-pandemic sector was optimised for cultural infrastructure at the expense of cultural entrepreneurship.’

Despite being funded by Arts Council England (ACE), the report is scathing about the way in which the council has handled distribution of grants. In 2019/2020, ACE paid out almost £130 million of which 79 percent went to National Portfolio Organisations and over a third of that to just five of them.

Although 21 percent was accessible to individuals through the Project Grants Scheme, this share of funding wasn’t ring-fenced, so much of it went to other organisations such as the University of Derby or the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain.

Worthy though these applications clearly were, the freelancers spoken to for the report argue that ACE was just ‘not interested in us’.

The report states that during the pandemic this bias towards large organisations with buildings and production companies left tens of thousands of individuals out in the cold.

‘The same organisations which have commanded the greatest share of the sector’s resource have also commanded its public narrative. Unsurprisingly, it was to the heads of the best-funded institutions that the media, DCMS and Parliamentary Select Committees turned for expertise during the pandemic,’ it says.

The result, it argues, is that the freelance community, which was already carrying a disproportionate level of risk in a very risky industry merely by not being on the payroll of these organisations, saw almost none of the help the Government doled out.

The executive summary of the report offers a series of short- and long-term recommendations.

In the short term it calls on the entire sector, especially those of influence, to lobby for Arts Council and Cultural Recovery Fund monies to directly benefit freelancers through training, skill retention, innovation and public works.

The report argues that the industry must recognise and address the difficulties suffered by freelancers with disabilities and those from diverse backgrounds with, ‘for example, a series of three-month paid programmes of skill retention and upskilling.’

And it recommends a coordinated, sector-wide strategy to build a safe and inclusive recovery that takes account of the needs of the freelance community.

In the long term, is states that ‘The sector cannot – and must not – return to ‘business as usual’, which to freelancers represents economic exploitation, poor working conditions, a lack of inclusivity, and an inability to shape of determine sector strategy.’

It suggests the industry cannot survive if it doesn’t change its attitude towards its freelance colleagues. ‘Significant issues must be addressed, including greater employment protections, fair pay, talent development and training, working conditions, inclusion, and the underlying power imbalance and lack of access to sector assets.’

The full report can be downloaded here.