Pandemic has ‘aggravated existing inequalities’ in cultural sector - Museums Association

Pandemic has ‘aggravated existing inequalities’ in cultural sector

Sector is at an ‘inflection point’ and needs to revolutionise modes of working, says report
The cultural sector urgently needs to rethink its working models, a report has found
The cultural sector urgently needs to rethink its working models, a report has found

The Covid-19 pandemic has “held up a mirror to a deeply unequal cultural sector”, according to a new report by the Centre for Cultural Value.

Based on research conducted between September 2020 and November 2021, the report found that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic had “aggravated and accelerated existing inequalities and trends in the arts and cultural sector”, showing how the sector’s prevailing vulnerabilities significantly shaped pandemic outcomes.

The report found that the pandemic has harmed workforce diversity, with those under-represented in the sector more likely to have left cultural jobs. Meanwhile, places with a history of obtaining public investment benefited most from the Culture Recovery Fund (CRF), it found, while those without this capacity generally did not.

Freelance workers were particularly affected, the research found, constituting 62% of the core creative workforce before the pandemic and only 52% at the end of 2020.

“Perhaps the most significant finding from our study is therefore that we need to better understand the vital role that freelancers play in the cultural industries,” the report said. “Our research has highlighted the need to identify freelance cultural workers in a much more robust way so that we can map the sector more accurately and appreciate its complex infrastructure.”


Among audiences, the migration to digital made some content cheaper and more accessible for existing users but the report found that it failed to significantly diversify the audience base, and that the number of engagers remained “stubbornly static”.


“What we ultimately witnessed was more cultural attendances from roughly the same number and type of attenders,” the report said.

However, the research did show how the increased digital offer transformed the cultural experiences of many people with an established interest in the arts, especially disabled audiences and the large majority of older audiences living away from major urban centres.

Around half of all disabled people and up to 74% of disabled 16-24-year-olds engaged in digital cultural content, the report found.

Meanwhile, 80% of audiences said that taking part in arts and culture was important to their wellbeing, with a majority saying that taking part in creative activities and digital culture positively affected their mood and helped manage anxiety.

“In general audiences were most drawn to content that privileged empathy, intimacy, community, locality and nature,” the report said.

Reaching communities

Covid also inspired a renewed sense of civic and social responsibility among cultural venues, the report said, with many institutions increasing local audiences and strengthening ties with communities.


Among museums and galleries, although some interviewees reported an oversaturation of digital content, many noted that digital or hybrid delivery had “revolutionised their relationships with schools and education partners”.

The report found that local communities and schools benefited from the shift to hybrid and hyperlocal engagement.

The research showed that some institutions began to use tools such as social media to “activate” their collections among local communities. Cultural venues also began to rethink how to maximise their local impact instead of returning to the “exhibition economy”, the report said.

This approach has paid off for some; while footfall at museums and galleries remains significantly below pre-pandemic visitor numbers, there are reports of increased audiences from the immediate area, while visitors are also spending and donating more per head.

The pandemic has also highlighted the valuable economic impact of culture, the research found. “The importance of the cultural and creative sectors to animate and stimulate night-time economies and town and city centre high streets was keenly felt, and cultural investment was made a key priority for the first round of Levelling Up funds and in many locally led recovery plans,” said the report.

Imminent burnout

Among the culture sector workforce, the research found signs of imminent burnout. Between summer and autumn 2021, exacerbated by the so-called pingdemic, “the dual pressures of a sector beginning to open up and the social, economic and emotional effects on labour from the lockdowns had taken their toll on the cultural workforce and signs of an impending burnout increased,” the report said.


“While some senior leaders had put in place packages to support their staff teams, worries about the mental health impact of continuing to overwork in a climate of volatility and risk remained live.”

But the report also found that many organisations feel they are now reaping the benefits of dedicated time to think and plan strategically. “Many felt they were better able to articulate their social missions, while others have diversified their boards and enrolled their staff in diversity and/or anti-racism training,” the report said.

Regenerative approach

The report concluded: “The UK’s cultural sector is undoubtedly at an inflection point and facing imminent burnout alongside significant skills and workforce gaps. It therefore urgently needs to adopt regenerative modes of working.

“A regenerative approach would carve out time for all of the positive initiatives that we witnessed across the cultural sector during the pandemic: revisioning and restrategising, professional and network development, reflection and evaluation, play and innovation.

“But regenerative models involve sacrifices: less producing and production, less product and income, less hidden labour and overworking, less solipsism and introspection. This vision can only be realised if the cultural sector keeps working together as a joined-up ecosystem and doesn’t rupture at the seam.”

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