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  • Writer's pictureKeith Jeffrey

Can you afford to work in the arts any more?

Right now NPO applications are being crafted, budgets written, forecast made so here’s a question:

How big a pay rise are you going to ask for your staff and by extension yourself?

These are terrible times for freelancers but here I want to focus on staff working within our key arts organisations all around the country.

My research has shown even before pandemic wages were being eroded by inflation now with inflation set to rise significantly this is going to accelerate.

After all these people are the backbone of arts delivery and nobody appears to be speaking up for them.

Gone are the times when you could put forward a budget which included an annual pay rise. Do that now and you must have a raft of justifications in place which you have to demonstrate, firstly to yourself then to your Board, but also, disgracefully, to the funders.

The reality is that the value of what you earn is going to be eroded over the next few years. The Bank of England forecasts UK inflation this year to hit 6% (1.). It will probably fall but it may not.

If you err on the side of caution it would be reasonable to put in an inflationary pay rise of 3 – 5% each year.

But can you? Are you allowed? Do you dare?

Since 2010 you’ve been told, year after year, you must do more for less. Cut after cut. 1% here, 1% there. It all adds up. But now the fat is gone, the bone sliced open and you’re into the marrow.

I say, enough is enough. You can’t carry on like this.

My analysis of NPOs over the 2013/14 – 18/19 period (i.e. pre-pandemic, I dread to think what’s happened since then) found staff on average were paid 7% below the national median (£28,250). Over that period there was a 2% increase in pay but with inflation at 7% that’s a significant pay cut.

This is what austerity means.

The cuts are being imposed on people like you, the very people who make life worth living. It’s shocking and it’s disgraceful.

You’re already doing work way out of whack from what you trained for. You’re expected to have a more commercial, business-like approach so you can create new income streams simply to sustain your work.

It’s not the Arts Council’s fault or your Council’s, this is government-imposed austerity and there is nothing you can do to change that fact.

But you’re the one left holding the baby. That’s not fair.

You’ve been put in an impossible position. You have to be as good at business planning, financial management, strategy development, finance, HR as any medium sized business leader but without the resources, training or support to make it work.

“Do more with less, do more with less, do more with less.”

This is the mantra, this year, next year, every year.

So what can we do?

In terms of solutions, there only three.

1. A requirement from ACE to ensure staff costs are not eroded further by some form of NHS style staff settlement. That will never happen.

2. Find new commercial or charitable income streams.

3. Be more productive.

The latter two approaches require investment in people to grow their capabilities in leadership, management, innovation and business strategy. This is very doable. None of this is rocket science but typically working in the arts sector means you may not have the skills you need in this area so targeted, widespread and flexible investment in people can make a real difference.

So there is only one solution.

Invest in our people.

The sector needs focused, bespoke timely and accessible support which builds resilience, protects well-being and grows capabilities and skills. If we can’t provide proper financial rewards the least we can do is invest in our people, something this sector has always been awful at.

Because if something doesn’t change then eventually many good people will leave the sector unable to balance increasing work pressures with the financial realities of a straightforward life with a family, mortgage and a decent pension.

I know I did. I led cultural organisations in the North and Midlands for many years but as austerity hit, I needed to do something for my financial future.

I was lucky I got a great, well-paid job with a decent pension which solved a lot of problems but it was in a different sector and I didn’t enjoy it half as much. I missed being around creative people.

But I had no choice.

This is how we let you down.

You should know where to go for help and support at the time you need it and in the way you need it particularly in leadership and management where big and rewarding impacts can be made.

Yes, there are programmes and schemes but not enough. Nowhere near enough.

If you’re the exception, if you are being invested in, enjoy it. Accept it. Please don’t feel guilty about it but you are the exception.

We cannot keep increasing pressure on our cultural leaders and managers, on you. You can do it, no doubt, but leadership and management at this level is a whole new ball game.

You already have the creative side nailed down, why should we expect you to have business management sorted as well without any help?

You’re underpaid, undervalued and overworked.

Let’s do something about it.



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