Working in the arts is a real job – don’t you dare ask us to retrain!

Arts workers are among the worst hit by the COVID-19 employment crisis. Professor Almuth McDowall asks why the government is so reluctant to offer support.

As a former classically trained dancer, I have been deeply moved by the plight of my colleagues working in the performing arts across theatre, music and dance.

Our pioneering research with PiPA in 2018 highlighted that over 54% of people working in this sector are self-employed, almost four times as many as in the UK general population. One in three don’t have a steady contract. Unlike in any other industry, it is common and expected that people finance the work which they love through other income. Teaching, cleaning, waitressing – you name it, they’ve done it. Taken together, this has always made for a toxic cocktail of precarious work. But never more toxic than now, as theatres are closed, orchestras can practice socially distanced at best (witness the recent ‘come back’ streaming of the Royal Opera House), and dancers now rather famously, thanks to social media posts aplenty, train in kitchens, bedrooms, on balconies or in the park.

Yet, the notion remains that work in the arts is somehow not real work, but a privilege that only the few can indulge. Recent controversy about the ‘Cyber Add’  illustrates the point. BA Acting student Ruby Hoggarth shares an alternative view about life in the arts during the pandemic:

“Graduating during a pandemic into an industry that is in complete crisis has been hard enough, but being nationally downgraded and humiliated by the very people who allegedly have our best interests at heart has been an embarrassment like no other. Not only has this media strategy grossly disregarded the importance of our industry, especially at a time of national crisis when people turn to the arts for healing, it has shown us that this government have little humanity and no ability to believe in the beauty of art.”

It’s a feeling BA Musical Theatre student Alex Conder can relate to:

“I chose to move away from home to study in the UK as a Musical Theatre student as I knew the spirit and quality of the art made in Great Britain is second to none. To then graduate and be told my career in the arts is viewed as a hobby or “not viable”—after the world has done nothing but devour art in the pandemic—is not only a slap in the face to our current artists, but also tarnishing an incredible historic legacy of fine art and creativity in this country.”

Along with hospitality, retail and manufacturing , the arts are the one of hardest hit sectors in the UK. Companies had to make judicious use of the furlough scheme which is now coming to an end. What next? Theatres will find it hard to put on productions at a profit with social distancing measures in place, as even the sell-out run of an adapted Jesus Christ Superstar in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre demonstrated. We can’t very well take the roofs of all our theatres to aid ventilation, either!

So who’s responsibility is it? Chancellor Rishi Sunak has said that all workers need to adapt to the changing world of work and life in the wake of COVID-19. Well, those working in the performing arts have shown formidable resilience and adaption skills to date, our data shows that many juggled two if not three jobs to make ends meet and have a reasonable income. Tom Rogers, a soloist with Birmingham Royal Ballet has long branched out, initiating his own podcast series, Tom & Ty Talk, and as a guest editor for his company.

Tom says “For me it is vital that people working in the arts respond to the times we are in through creativity and self expression. Despite the political and social upheaval brought about by COVID-19 and our current government, the desire for art and culture remains. By continuing to be creative and bringing art to our communities, we will remind society and this naïve government of the true value arts and culture plays in all our lives.”

Chancellor Sunak seems to have forgotten that the arts and culture industry contributes £10.8 billion a year to the UK economy and gives jobs to 363,700 people.

The enjoyment and quality of life the arts bring to our lives is, however, much harder to measure. I know that I am privileged as I earn a reasonable income which I spend first and foremost on the arts. Life has lost its technicolour, since frequent carefree visits to the Royal Ballet, Sadlers Wells, Birmingham Royal Nutcracker seasons at the Royal Albert Hall, and London musicals are no more. I miss the bonding experience of going to see live music with my three teenage girls or treating my mum to a classical concert visit together.

These are small worries in comparison to existential crisis. The stress and worry caused by the uncertainty and lack of support is taking a toll on those working in the arts. Is Universal credit really an option? Of course it isn’t, as this quote from Geddy Stringer illustrates vividly:

“I timed my move to London terribly, having just finished a somewhat interrupted year on the MA in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music. There’s been no clear support from the government and no industry to work in. I’ve been trying desperately to get a part-time job elsewhere, but the job market is a minefield to say the least. My only option has been Universal Credit. I know that this can’t last forever, nor do I want to take it for much longer. But until the government sees the arts as a viable and lasting career option – instead of a hobby – and gives it the support it has long justified, then there isn’t really anywhere else to go.”

So what is the answer? A government funded rescue package doesn’t come soon enough. But a rescue package is exactly that – a sticking plaster. What we need is a long-term strategic solution, as COVID-19 is not going to go away in a hurry. More than ever, we need to continue to celebrate the past, present and future of the arts as  part of our legacy and identity.

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How to ask your employer for sponsorship

Picture of a man holding a piggy bank.

If you’re in employment and have a place to study on one of our programmes, you may be eligible for employer sponsorship.

Employer sponsorship is when your employer pays for all or part of your tuition costs. This is usually in recognition of the fact that your studies will benefit your work in some way.

For many of our students, a Birkbeck degree allows them to seek a promotion or to perform their role more effectively. Here’s how to discuss your educational ambitions with your employer.

Find out what’s available in your organisation

Before approaching your line manager about sponsorship, do your homework so you know what definitely is or isn’t available.

Larger firms may have established sponsorship schemes with an application process, while others may operate on a case by case basis.

If you can’t find anything on your company website, your HR learning and development lead will be able to help.

Consider your motivations for study

Take some time to think about why you want to study your chosen course. Will it help you develop the skills to perform a technical aspect of your role? Will it provide a theoretical underpinning to help you manage complex problems? Will you gain a broader understanding of how to differentiate your organisation in the sector?

Once you have a clear understanding of why you want to study this particular course, it will be easier to translate this into reasons why your employer should be interested.

Demonstrate the business case

To secure employer sponsorship, you will need to show the positive return on investment it will provide for your employer. Perhaps the skills you gain in the course will enable you to apply for a promotion and stay with the company for longer. Developing your knowledge of an area of the business might make you more efficient, enabling you to take on more responsibility. Link the programme description to objectives in your current role to show the direct value for your employer.

Show your commitment to learning and development

What have you already done as part of your continuous professional development (CPD) that can show your commitment to your career? It could be as simple as reading around the subject, attending a webinar or signing up for in-house training. Your employer will want to be confident that you will make the most of the opportunity that they are investing in.

What if I can’t get sponsorship?

Employers often have limited budgets available for staff learning and development, so don’t be disheartened if you’re unable to secure funding. Having demonstrated your commitment to your professional development and to the organisation, it is worth asking whether there are any alternative opportunities for you to develop your skills, such as shadowing another employee.

You can also find more information about what alternative financial support is available for our students on the Birkbeck website.

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