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Levelling Up: What’s art got to do with it?

The creative and cultural sector is a huge contributor to the wider economy

Inc Arts

6 min read Partner content

The creative and cultural sector can be a powerful tool in reducing inequality. If we're serious about levelling up, then we must invest in the arts.

Radical circumstances require radical thinking.

Throughout the UK business leaders have battled through pandemic, furlough, supply chain disruption and redundancy – and are now watching as the new horsemen gallop ever close:  inflation and energy crises seem less of a threat, and more like certainty. 

But in the midst of ongoing global economic challenge we have an opportunity – and a duty – to reset the UK economy in a way that maximises productivity and potential for every individual in the country. Not just because it’s morally the right thing to do, but also because the crises on the horizon will require every source of capacity to maintain growth. 

The imaginative thinking required to make positive radical change is found in abundance in a sector that has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. One of the UK’s fastest growing sectors in the UK, in 2019 arts and culture contributed £10.47 billion to the economy and employed 9% of 16-24 year olds in the workforce.

The creative and cultural sector is a powerhouse: in London alone, before the pandemic the creative and cultural sector employed one in every six workers. Across the UK almost 1 in 8 businesses are creative businesses.

Its workforce teaches skills that benefit all other sectors - skills used by individuals across all industries. Vast swathes of the UK’s current and future workforce benefit from the skills they’ve developed through engagement with the creative sector workforce: presentation, production, people management, the creation of strong narratives to persuade others to action - all are skills honed through direct contact with creatives. 

The creative and cultural sector develops capacity and talent that benefits the widest myriad of industries elsewhere: For every £1 in turnover directly generated by the arts and culture industry, an additional £1.24 in output is supported in the wider economy.

It’s why in the creative and cultural sector the government’s increasing focus on socio-economic inclusion is very welcome. 

In addressing socio-economic inclusion we - almost by definition- also address the needs of marginalised communities everywhere: levelling up offers opportunities for people with long histories of disadvantage and under-representation, whether that’s arisen through geographic remoteness or through having experienced homophobia or racism. Socioeconomic inclusion allows all to reach and deploy their potential. The challenges ahead of us demand that we use all resource to best effect.

Vast swathes of the UK’s current and future workforce benefit from the skills they’ve developed through engagement with the creative sector workforce.

 Arts and cultural production offers some of the most effective ways to bring to life government’s ambitions around levelling up of opportunity across the UK. The sector offers society a highly visible means of showing how we can strengthen community and ensure no-one is left behind. 

In one of London’s most deprived boroughs is a local community theatre, The Albany, which during lockdown worked closely with the local authority emergency response teams, building relationships with GP’s social prescribers and local social housing providers to ensure that older members of the local community and others experiencing isolation were not left forgotten. Through 65 volunteers they reached almost 3500 people in the borough through a range of projects delivered during lockdown and beyond.

This is the power of arts and culture – the stuff that doesn’t make the headlines, but builds community, and brings to life the levelling up agenda. 

As government fine tunes national spending decisions now is a great time for MPs to visit the cultural offers in their constituencies. We’re asking leaders to see for themselves how cultural engagement supercharges local economies and skills development. The creative industry is not only about bringing areas to life with a visual, exciting product, but plays a vital part in delivering local jobs and supporting economic growth. 

We ask that within that consideration, leaders understand the particular challenges unique to those with protected characteristics. The creative industries offer a powerful means of levelling up inequity: in ensuring opportunity is open to all we must also recognise the particular and unique barriers to participation that exist within marginalised communities.  

In the arts and cultural sector, those from ethnically diverse, Black and Asian communities are more likely to have been freelance and self-employed than those identifying as White. Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds (SEB) are more likely to be in freelance positions than those from higher SEB. The precarity associated with freelance and short-term contracts represents an additional barrier to entry and progression for people from less privileged backgrounds.

Arts inclusion charity Inc Arts champions the creative, economic and contractual rights of the UK’s ethnically diverse workforce – to support socioeconomic inclusion and also recognise that there can be additional barriers to productivity for workers with protected characteristics. 

The pandemic saw a 44% drop in employment for black women working in arts and culture – a statistic that has parallels in other sectors, as a recent LSE survey into black women in corporate culture attests to a depressingly similar risk of disengagement from the workforce. 

The loss of ethnically diverse workforce talent from the arts and cultural sector - and from the workforce  more widely - is what sits behind the national Arts Against Racism campaign launching in January. The creative and cultural sector is working in partnership with inclusion arts charity Inc Arts on a permanent campaign to establish inclusive best practice that allows all to thrive in the arts. The campaign will create a transparent industry code of conduct and engage audiences in ways that are truly welcoming to all: that levels up employment opportunity as well as celebrates inclusive best practice in arts and cultural organisations. 

The Albany Theatre is but one example of the ways arts and cultural organisations are thinking creatively to level up locally.

Arts Against Racism looks at the full sector to level up. We are building long-term, collaborative change to rewrite statistics that currently tell us that ethnically diverse people are three times more likely to be rejected for arts funding compared to their white peers.

The argument for levelling up is unassailable. We can’t afford to lose good people or fail to develop talent – and we can’t afford to lose ethnic diversity in the creative and cultural sector workforce. 


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