How can our culture sector ever recover from COVID-19?

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A colourful image of a band on stage at the Belsonic Festival, Belfast.
The Belsonic Festival, Belfast; image by Philip Hay and used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence

This article examines some of the risks which COVID-19 has posed to the culture and heritage sectors in Northern Ireland, and assesses whether the support measures put in place by the Northern Ireland Executive and its arms-length bodies match up to the interventions employed in other countries.

Through the long hours of lockdown, many of us have realised the value of the entertainment industry more than ever. Our wellbeing and learning has been nurtured through films, box sets, concerts, live solo sets from musicians on social media, and even online performances from theatres. Art galleries and museums have opened up their collections and resources to be viewed online. But all of this has happened remotely with the closure of all public performance spaces. Culture and heritage professionals, like those in many other sectors of the economy, have either had to work from home, with all of the compromises and limitations that that involves, or have been furloughed or unemployed. Those whose work is seasonal have found that the lockdown occurred at the worse possible time with the cancellation of the festival season.

The lockdown has provided some with the time and space to focus on creating new works of art, but monetising those creations at the current time is extremely challenging. While some galleries and museums have begun to plan for a partial reopening, live gigs will be an impossibility for some time to come and the assembling of crew and cast in television studios and on film sets has been limited. The Department for the Economy has just released Charting a Course for the Economy, the first in a series of communications on how it envisages the Northern Ireland economy will recover from the pandemic. In this document, the arts are identified as one of the economic sectors which operates with a high degree of proximity to people and, therefore, is one of the least likely to recommence normality soon. A recent examination of this issue by Queen’s University Belfast made the case that cultural work will, in the long term, be affected more than many other set of occupations.

The culture sector in Northern Ireland – funding and incomes

Prior to the lockdown, it was estimated that the creative industries, which are not quite the same as, but have a strong overlap with, the culture and heritage sectors, made up around 5% of businesses in Northern Ireland, employed around 25,000 people, and accounted for 2.7% of Northern Ireland’s total Gross Value Added (contributing £1,088 million). It is estimated that the arts sector specifically employs around 7,500 people in Northern Ireland.

But some of the sub-sectors within the broader realm of culture and heritage have historically been disproportionately vulnerable during periods of economic shock, operating often in a freelance capacity with relatively low paid, short-term contracts. A report on the living and working conditions of artists in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland published in 2010 found that many artists[1] are poorly paid and can have uneven patterns of employment.

… for many NI artists, working as a professional artist constitutes a difficult and uncertain way to make a living.

Income for those working as an artist can be precarious even without the disruptions of a global pandemic. The mean annual income for work as an artist was £7,419 pounds in 2008/09, with supplemental earnings from other jobs outside the arts and culture sector commonplace. Earnings of an average NI worker at that time were 1.5 times those of the average artist. That research also found that female artists were earning significantly less than male artists, and that gender difference was greater among those artists working on a self-employed basis.

How have artists and other creative professionals fared during the crisis?

Without more recent studies of the sector, it is difficult to know whether any of these features of artistic employment had significantly changed by the time COVID-19 arrived. But what seems clear is that this sector has been hit hard by the social and economic disruption which the lockdown has involved. The Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI) conducted a survey of arts organisations and individuals in late March and early April to ascertain the anticipated impact of the COVID-19 shutdown on the Northern Ireland Arts sector. The survey found that the anticipated loss of income from a three month lockdown to the 108 arts organisations who responded to the survey is expected to total £3.97m, an average of £36,714 per organisation. For individuals, the period from March to May will have resulted in a loss of £3,756 per artist.

The closure of arts venues has resulted not only in the ceasing of box office performances, but also activities such as public facing classes, workshops, work within schools, and community engagement work. The research also highlighted concerns that some vulnerable groups within society are being placed at greater risk as a result of the discontinuation of arts activities, including older people with Dementia and young people with poor mental health and wellbeing. It seems that a minority of artists have had their contracts honoured but most have been terminated, potentially creating difficulties not just for those artists but for the ability of organisations and venues to recruit and retain a pool of artists in the future. ACNI concluded the following:

Evidence indicates the financial impact of the coronavirus and subsequent lockdown will be considerable with significant implications for some organisations on their ability to trade and artists to earn a living wage, many of whom rely entirely on their income as artists to support dependants.

Core funded arts venues generated a combined total of £12.3m through box office income in 2018/19. ACNI has launched a survey of all organisations which generate funding through box office sales in order to ascertain the impact of the lockdown on such venues, as well as producing and touring theatre companies, festivals, non-venue based organisations, and organisations providing courses for educational activity.

What help is available?

Some of the generic measures put in place by the UK government to support the economy as a whole may be useful for creative professionals, such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, rates relief and delays in rates collection, and various forms of loan schemes.

But these measures do not work for some in the creative industries. For example, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that around two million people in the UK will not be eligible to claim the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. Creative professionals may feature disproportionately in this population: a 2017 report by the Creative Industries Federation found that 47% of workers in the creative industries in the UK were self-employed, compared with 15% for the workforce as a whole. The Federation of Entertainment Unions has written to the Chancellor to highlight where creative professionals may be falling through the gaps in the self-employment scheme. Portfolio careers are common, some work on both a PAYE and self-employed basis, there can be large fluctuations in annual earnings, and the creative industries have a large proportion of new entrants and graduates in their first year of self-employment and so are unable to claim. Those unable to claim self-employment support also include those with limited companies. The amount that can be claimed may be impacted if maternity leave has been taken in the last three years.

Some creative professionals have voiced concern that as the lockdown restrictions begin to ease but theatrical performances, gigs and concerts may not resume for some time due to a continuing need for social distancing, the income gap between self-employed artists and the rest of society could widen.

What is the NI Executive doing about this?

On 27 March, Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey MLA announced funding of £1m (referred to as a ‘Creative Support Fund’) to support the arts sector in Northern Ireland. ACNI is distributing this money, which has been topped up with an additional £500,000 of Lottery funding to a total of £1.5m. On 27 April, ACNI announced an Artists Emergency Programme. Individual artists could apply for a grant of up to £5000 ‘to take new and innovative approaches in continuing to provide their talents and services to audiences’. 88 individuals have been provided with grants so far under this scheme and while it is currently closed, ACNI has stated that it is ‘currently assessing the remaining intake of applications, decisions on which will announced at the end of May’.

ACNI has also issued some general guidance for artists, as well as announcing a series of measures to relax funding conditions and exercise flexibility around contracts.

Part of the £1.5m Creative Support Fund is being used to provide small and medium sized organisations through an Organisations Emergency Programme, with funding of up to £25,000 to help them develop new projects, or programmes, or to re-arrange events which have had to be cancelled. This fund has yet to be rolled out but is expected on 1st June. It is understood that a further ‘£500,000 (will be) held to monitor demand across the Organisations and Artists Emergency Programmes and allocated as projects develop’.

The Communities Minister also announced a donation of £10k to the ‘Bread and Butter’ Go Fund Me initiative, created to support struggling artists which give grants of £200 to artists, to pay for food.

However, there has been some criticism that support for the arts is being focused largely on established artists who have already received ACNI support and the major venues, with many performers and smaller companies and venues falling through the cracks.

Research by the International Council of Museums has found that more than one in 10 museum workers worldwide expects their institution to close permanently because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Museums Association (which supports the non-national museums) has created guidance for the sector in Northern Ireland. Many local museums in Northern Ireland are over-seen by local councils and as such cannot apply for a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan; no specific support has been announced for these museums and they are expected to be severely financially challenged as a result.

The Department for Communities’ Historic Environment Division issued a survey seeking to gain greater insights into how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting heritage organisations in Northern Ireland.

Support from other organisations

The following is a sample of some of the support measures put in place by other organisations:

  • The Freelands Foundation has made 500,000 available to all artists and visual arts freelancers living in Northern Ireland who are experiencing financial hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • BBC Northern Ireland Commissioning invited programme proposals from local independent production companies for projects that could be undertaken immediately, or developed for broadcast later in 2020/21.
  • BBC Northern Ireland is continuing to work in partnership with BBC Three and Northern Ireland Screen in ‘securing factual entertainment pilots for the channel from the local independent sector’.
  • There is some UK-wide support available from the BBC aimed at supporting the independent production sector. The BBC has also donated £700,000 to support the Film and TV Charity to assist freelancers affected by the disruption to filming and production caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • In terms of UK-wide support which is aimed specifically at the culture and heritage sectors, the UK Government has announced a £400,000 Community Radio Fund, administered by Ofcom.
  • The UK Government has also arranged for support of local newspapers including through purchasing advertising.
  • The Music Venue Trust launched a Save Our Venues Campaign which aims to raise money and awareness about ‘the continued economic threat to over 500 Grassroots Music Venues throughout the UK’.
  • The British Film Institute (BFI) has repurposed over £4.6 million of Lottery funding to target specific areas of the sector, including exhibitors, freelancers and producers. It has also adjusted criteria on existing schemes in response to issues such as cash flow and company overhead.

However, a number of arts and heritage organisations have voiced concern that gaps remain, and the often small-scale and low waged nature of the sector may lead to long term impacts on the health of the sector in the future. Some have called for more extensive support for those working in the cultural sector, and indeed some of these were highlighted by ACNI in its evidence to the Communities Committee on 27 May.

A brief comparison of the financial support being made available in Scotland and Wales indicates that different approaches are being taken across the UK.


  • Creative Scotland made available a fund, its Bridging Bursary , which is similar to the ACNI Artists Emergency Programme, to support individual artists and freelancers.
  • A similar fund is provided in the form of the Screen Scotland Bridging Bursary.
  • Creative Scotland is also providing an Open Fund, available for both individuals and organisations.
  • Screen Scotland created a COVID-19 resource directory and announced two funds, totalling £1m, for broadcasting and film productions.
  • In contrast to Northern Ireland where little additional financial support is available for museums, Museums Galleries Scotland has set up two new funds: £700,000 aimed at independent museums for ‘urgent core costs’ and a smaller fund of £55,000 to support digital working.


In general, support available for the culture and heritage sectors in Wales is more extensive (see this blog artice from Senedd Research at the Welsh Parliament for more details).

Questions remain about whether the funding and support measures currently being provided by the Northern Ireland Executive and other organisations will be adequate to support the culture and heritage sector through an extremely challenging period. The risk remains that a severe contraction of the sector could have a long-lasting societal impact.


[1] In this piece of research, ‘artists’ are defined as those working in the visual arts; performing arts and film (theatre/drama, music, dance, film and circus/street art/spectacle); and writers.