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Abigail's Blog: Being part of the whole

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A fortnight ago the government announced support for freelancers during the Coronavirus emergency. The Chancellor even referred to musicians in his statement. For around five million people, this brought a system which offers some safety net during this unprecedented situation. And with this announcement, there was perhaps a small shift towards an acknowledgement that our economy is built on the employed, freelancers and gig-ers. Employment is not the only status, with everything else an anomaly. Of course it wasn’t the moment to stop and debate whether a fundamental shift had happened and whether things can be different for everyone who is freelance or self-employed from now on. The main point was that there was a new set of arrangements to support a large number of people.  But hopefully at some point we might look back and see that something changed our attitudes about work in and amongst all of this.

For my sector this was an important moment.

Across the creative sector, a huge sigh of relief was emitted. We are underpinned by freelance workers, the creative industry simply would not exist without them. Sage Gateshead could not exist without them. Most artists I know are freelance: musicians, composers, directors, visual artists, writers, dancers, filmmakers.  For many this is practical – there are very few full- time roles within organisations for these skill sets, so there is no option but to work on lots of different contracts in any one year.  For some the definition of being ‘free’lance is really important. The ability to move around, to align with different projects and organisations at different times and freely choose the work they undertake – there’s something important in this for many of the artists I know.

Wherever you’re reading this now – at home I guess! – the room you are in is bound to include something from freelancers in the creative sector.  Your books, your pictures, your music. And think of the amount of input creative freelancers have had into your online day so far – in music, in design, in image, in film, in written content.  They are absolutely everywhere in our domestic and communal lives. And my corner of this industry – the cultural sector – is no exception.

When an emergency like this hits, there’s no doubt that the impact will be felt first by freelancers – work stops immediately. And although the cultural sector in general has paid fees for existing contracts even though the work could not be delivered, the pipeline of work has completely stopped for so many. What will be clear as you look around your room or into your digital life is that we need this part of our sector as much as we need big organisations like Sage Gateshead. We are part of a single eco-system and cannot exist without each other: from the freelancer, to the cultural charities like Sage Gateshead, to the commercial parts of the creative industries.  The UK’s global success in culture and the creative industries would not have happened without all of these elements of the system.

The impact on freelancers within our sector was one of the first things we could see, even as we were in the middle of the immediate task of closing up Sage Gateshead and all that this entailed. Our focus has therefore been to look for ways to support freelancers in the belief that if organisations do this collectively, this will stack up to something, even where individual actions are modest. So far our actions involve showcasing freelance musicians online, running online advice sessions for musicians, delivering a wellbeing webinar and hosting monthly GP clinics for musicians, both in partnership with British Association of Performing Arts Medicine. Alongside our peer venues across the city, we’re offering to support freelance musicians who want to apply for emergency funding to Arts Council England.

Why would we offer this support? Look at what has exploded over the past three weeks since we were told to stay at home – there has been an eruption of cultural content available online and a big spike in appetite. Exhibitions, concerts, theatre even whole festivals have happened online for huge audiences. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  It’s proof that, whilst culture isn’t critical care or a frontline service, it is hugely valued in difficult times – for wellbeing, for education and for entertainment. In short to affirm quality of life.  This content has been commissioned or created with cultural organisations, so that the creators are paid and it is available to audiences for free. It’s created as part of an ecosystem which, to be healthy, needs all parts to be healthy. We need to support freelancers so that this can continue to happen, now and into the future through our recovery from this and life afterwards.

One of the things which is thrown into sharp relief by this global pandemic is that we are all part of a bigger system. Supporting the whole of that system is important and this applies within the creative sector as it does elsewhere.