Cultural Labour in a City of Culture: Some Problems and Alternatives

UK arts policy has rarely paid attention to working conditions. How can a cultural "projectariat" find good quality work while also building vibrant creative scenes?

Cultural policy and cultural labour

What is – or should be - the purpose of arts and cultural investment?

This well-worn question has attracted various competing answers from recent governments, some of which I will review shortly. But one thing that unites the different agendas and trends in UK arts policy is a lack of interest in the question of work quality. Cultural policy discussions have generally failed to give serious attention to the material conditions under which cultural work is actually conducted1. Can the people doing it be paid properly? Build sustainable careers? Find jobs where they can create the kind of culture they want while still obtaining material security?

It’s not particularly surprising that policy elites should ignore this question. Work quality has not historically been the foremost concern of British governments, and cultural policy has been tied to so many other agendas, from urban “regeneration” to social inclusion, that it has been easily ignored. This is despite the glaring and well-documented problems facing arts workers: endemic low or unpaid work; reliance on insider contact networks to find jobs; and the scattered and disparate nature of work opportunities which make careers difficult to plan in the long-term. The last factor also encourages short-termism among arts organisations in their capacity as employers, for instance reducing their interest in training provision and workforce development.

Hence many arts workers can be considered part of a “projectariat”, insofar as their careers depend on hopping through a series of one-off funded projects for which they have to continually compete against others. This makes their working lives highly precarious, and can force them into an entrepreneurial way of operating, based on individualised risk and reward, that they may not necessarily want; according to Susan Coulson, they are often “accidental entrepreneurs”.

This matters for several reasons. People having access to good, sustainable work opportunities is surely an end in itself, or ought to be. We also know that the UK arts workforce is highly unequal, dominated by those from relatively privileged backgrounds. The fact that arts work is often so dependent on low- or unpaid labour inevitably compounds the barriers to participation facing those without strong financial support networks. As regions – particularly “post-industrial” ones – seek to attract capital investment by touting the vibrancy of their creative scenes, it becomes essential to examine what is happening to those people who work to make areas “attractive” in this way, often in exchange for very little of the resulting wealth.

The thrust of British cultural policy has morphed erratically over recent decades, as documented by historians such as Robert Hewison2. The Keynesian origins of the Arts Council were as an appointed expert-led institution making decisions based on perceptions of quality, and prizing its autonomy from political objectives (though it was not entirely untouched by Cold War-era concerns about keeping the intellectuals onside). Arts investment, and pressures on the Arts Council itself, became more directly politicised during the 1980s as public funding receded and, instead, arts organisations were exhorted to justify their existence in terms of their revenue-raising potential. This politicisation has never really been wound back, though it has assumed different forms.

As Hewison shows, New Labour in government retained a focus on economic efficiency but also assigned new, ostensibly social democratic, objectives to arts and cultural policy. Since the arts were (naively) assumed to be a relatively open and democratic environment, there was a growing sense that they could be used to stimulate “engagement” and civic participation among “excluded” population groups. Moreover, it was also supposed that arts activity could form the core of local regeneration strategies: it could conjure up a “buzz” that encouraged people and capital to relocate to a given location, and generally create a mood music in which productivity-boosting innovations might materialise. This claim is more often assumed than evidenced.

Hence over this period we can also see the expanding “instrumentalisation” of the arts as a means towards various public policy ends. This phenomenon has been widely debated, often in critical terms, though it is rarely outright rejected. In many cases, academic critique has focused on trying to develop a more progressive kind of indicator, rather than getting rid of indicators entirely. Arts funding has thus been made increasingly conditional against the attainment of quantifiable targets conforming to policy goals. This is not without consequence for arts workers themselves, as we shall see shortly.

Under post-2010 austerity, budget constraints meant that local governments found it more and more difficult to stimulate arts and cultural activity at all, irrespective of how its purpose was conceived. In this context, those local authorities seeking to centralise the arts as part of their development strategies became more unusual. And those that pursued this strategy were increasingly dependent on major policy interventions such as the City of Culture scheme: Hull is a good example of this, which will be discussed below. These cases are outnumbered by ones where local authorities have drastically disinvested from their local arts economies, for example as in Newcastle or Moray.

These different political currents were not, of course, a sequence of distinct phases with one replacing another. Instead, they piled on top of each other, meaning the demands made of arts investment became ever more multifaceted. And so the point of this brief historical overview is to show how any given “cultural investment strategy” will embody a range of different, sometimes contradictory, logics. Schemes such as City of Culture, or the designation of a new “cultural quarter”, are always contested. Different parties in the areas they touch will have different agendas: boosting participation, bolstering the “visitor economy”, improving artistic quality, raising property prices… These goals may be advanced by different people and compete for prominence.

However, to return to the point made at the beginning, while some of these logics are more desirable than others from a socialist perspective, none of them have much to say about the specific question of work quality. Indeed, the provision of good quality work is one of the few things that has not been turned into a set of evaluative indicators, at least to my knowledge. With this in mind, there is some value in taking a closer look at particular arts and cultural interventions, and considering what they mean from the perspective of work quality. During 2018, I conducted a series of interviews in Hull, in the immediate wake of its experience as 2017 City of Culture. What lessons does this hold experience hold that can help us understand how cultural investment schemes might affect cultural labour?

Hull City of Culture 2017

The City of Culture scheme was initiated in 2009, as a UK counterpart to the longer-running EU Capital of Culture initiative (whose previous British “capitals” were Glasgow in 1990 and Liverpool in 2008). Hull was the second UK City of Culture, after Derry in 2013. Much of the information that follows is based on my interviews with 21 key participants connected with Hull 2017 – including local officials, members of the delivery organisation, artists themselves and trade unionists representing them.

City of Culture is typically awarded to cities seen as “on the cusp” in terms of their arts and cultural economy. In other words, those that appear to have prioritised culture in their development strategy, but which lack the resources to fully pursue this objective. This description fit Hull fairly well in the run-up to 2017. Hull is one of the most deprived cities in the UK. This, combined with its relative geographical isolation, has led it to be unfairly stereotyped in popular perception. Its cultural scene is innovative (particularly in theatre, where it is home to important national institutions such as Hull Truck), but also fragile, with many organisations disappearing from the scene entirely through years of budget pressures. It is distinctive in certain respects: for one thing, it still retains a Council Arts Development Unit with a modest budget (which have been abolished in many other local authorities), and also retains public ownership over some key institutions in the museum and theatre sectors.

Being named 2017 City of Culture entitled Hull to core funding from central government and Arts Council England, but the city also embarked on its own fundraising drive. The newly-established delivery organisation aimed to use these initial guaranteed resources to attract various other forms of sponsorship. They succeeded in this, with initial targets for fundraising being substantially exceeded. As such, Hull 2017 had to quickly create an infrastructure that could absorb this huge influx of resources. Moreover, this had to be translated into a year-long programme of events that could function both as a credible artistic spectacle and fulfil a range of other objectives, while also developing a strategy for “legacy” post-2017.

Like other cultural policy initiatives, this process has to be seen as embodying various different, and in some cases competing, logics. Most obviously, there was hope that City of Culture could “rebrand” Hull, associating the city in wider public perception with innovative cultural performances and installations, as a rebuttal to accumulated “crap towns” clichés. Inevitably, this objective has to be seen in a context of the city’s need to compete against other towns for investment and cash-rich visitors; what might in policy jargon be called “placemaking”. This kind of competitive dynamic is an unfortunate feature of a context of austerity where industrial strategy and public investment are abrogated at national level.

This rebranding goal required the commissioning, within a highly constrained timeframe, of a sequence of large-scale artistic spectacles. in many cases, this in turn necessitated engaging established national studios. Most local Hull-based organisations did not have the capacity to meet the time pressures and scale demanded for the largest commissions. Where work was commissioned locally, this was generally done in a way that played to Hull’s existing comparative advantages. For instance, Hull is home to a number of well-regarded theatre institutions, and the delivery organisation relied on these actors in particular to produce work, since they already had the wherewithal to take on challenging projects.

The placemaking element to Hull 2017 feeds into wider-ranging regeneration ambitions, such as the redevelopment of the pedestrianised zones around Humber Street. These are now being marketed as housing and studio space for artists. It should be noted, however, that some of my artist interviewees said they felt it was unlikely they could afford to live there themselves. In the “legacy” period post-2017, the role of the delivery organisation has developed to include more public relations functions on behalf of Hull as a destination for visitors and investors: for instance, they may contact social media “influencers” likely to be in the area and provide them with travel tips, food advice, and so on, in order to present the city in a favourable light.

So this market-driven placemaking was one of the logics driving Hull 2017, but there were others, which will need to gestate over the longer term. Some of my interviewees also accentuated a more “quality”-driven set of priorities. For instance, certain respondents expressed the hope that City of Culture would be used directly to raise the overall strength and depth of artistic activity in Hull, specifically by targeting investment at areas of existing weakness. This was not entirely congruent with the placemaking imperative, which demanded the city be advertised quickly and spectacularly. As such, this objective appears to have been left mainly to the Council Arts Unit itself, even though the resources at its disposal were much smaller than those of the delivery organisation. This raised questions over the potential for a long-term boost to Hull’s arts and cultural infrastructure post-2017; a concern which, for various interviewees, was compounded by other damaging concurrent developments such as the closure of various courses at Hull School of Art and Design.

However, another logic which was more strongly and directly prioritised during Hull 2017 was increasing participation among hitherto “unengaged” Hull residents, particularly on estates outside the city centre. This goal was accentuated in the bid itself, and has also been a long-term interest of important local actors, often with radical histories, such as Hull Truck theatre. The main instrument for implementing this goal was the Creative Communities fund, with just over half a million pounds in resources to be distributed in grants of up to £10,000. This was an open funding pot where successful applicants were supposed to show that their projects combined artistic merit with a genuine strategy for engaging new people in the arts. Ideally, they were also meant to demonstrate some kind of “partnership” relationship with other community groups, such as local charities, schools, residential homes, and NHS bodies.

For the people running this fund, there was a genuine effort to encourage new applicants to the scheme, and particularly those who would not previously have considered applying for arts funding. Hence there was no requirement for professionalisation: people could submit projects with a wide range of “exit points”, opening these resources up to people in the community who had an idea for a project but not necessarily any interest in pursuing artistic work beyond 2017. Still, many professional or aspiring professional artists did apply, and in some cases the projects they created through this fund provided significant boosts to their profiles, putting their careers on a more sustainable footing.

In discussion of the Creative Communities scheme, a particular watchword was “confidence”. Hull has been an unfairly maligned city, and through this activity, its residents were beginning to feel like they did not have to be excluded from the arts world. Initial evaluation evidence points to some successes in this respect (though, of course, it is too early to say in the long term). For instance, the Cultural Transformations report, conducted by researchers at the University of Hull, produced survey data showing large spikes in the number of Hull residents attending arts and cultural events. Indeed, 9/10 Hull residents in their survey self-reported some form of “arts engagement” during 2017. Of course, it is difficult to ascertain exactly what this means (“engagement” being a notoriously vague term), and whether it indicates a genuinely expanded arts audience post-2017.

So Hull 2017 was a large, complex process in which a range of priorities jostled for prominence. But what did all of this mean for the question of work? Amid these competing logics, there was little sense that improving the quality of work, and the sustainability of “projectariat” careers facing Hull cultural workers, figured highly as an end in itself. The assumption tended to be that by building participation and by improving the cultural atmosphere in Hull, things would also start to improve for Hull artists. However, other data indicate greater caution in this respect.

Cultural work in a City of Culture

While the tone of the Cultural Transformations report was optimistic – often justifiably so – it did uncover more concerning findings. These tended to relate to the answers given by cultural workers themselves. Many reported positive experiences on various measures: for instance, in terms of their ability to learn new skills and “try new things”. Seven out of ten respondents in arts organisations said they had been involved in a project made possible by City of Culture, underlining its scale and significance within a small local arts environment.

But it is also worth noting that some respondents reported intensified competition for funds, as well as for audiences and venue space. These were corroborated by my interviews, where there was a sense that more people were now trying to access the same resources: one potential dark lining to the silver cloud of increased confidence and participation. My interviews also found complaints in some quarters about the creation of the delivery organisation as a new gatekeeper determining access to funds, thus changing the criteria applicants had to work to in order to get them.

One thing my interviews with Hull cultural workers showed is the importance of looking in a nuanced way at the gradations within the Hull “cultural projectariat”. Interviewees tended to differentiate three broad layers of cultural worker. At the “top” are those who have more or less stable positions in relatively well-established institutions. Hull 2017 enabled an incremental increase in the number of Hull artists able to enter this level. For instance, one local theatre company was brought into Arts Council England’s “National Portfolio” (which entitles it to four years’ worth of core structural funding), due to its prominent role in City of Culture. This means their core staff can now be permanent employees of the company rather than contingent freelancers. This stability greatly enhances their own security, and thus their ability to do creative and challenging work without needing to constantly worry about meeting funder targets. It also makes it easier to keep getting funded in future, since the intensive work associated with applying for projects can be done by paid staff rather than as an unpaid activity. In other cases, self-employed artists were able to consolidate their careers as freelance artists because of the exposure gained from Hull 2017 projects. Thus, some cultural workers experienced seismic benefits from Hull 2017, but this was limited to a relatively narrow group often concentrated in certain areas of existing comparative advantage (e.g. theatre companies who were already at the “up-and-coming” stage and ready to break through to a national profile).

At the other end, we have those who were not previously at all integrated into the Hull arts scene, but who were encouraged to take part, and in some but not all cases to pursue the arts as a career, because of City of Culture. These people were particularly likely to benefit from the Creative Communities fund, and the raised ambitions at this grassroots level were a big part of the “confidence” narrative.

In between this is a middle layer, what we might call the “projectariat” proper, comprising established arts and cultural producers who continue to cobble together a career from disparate projects but who have not yet had the “break” that the first group has. It is among these that we are more likely to find the more pessimistic evaluations of Hull 2017. Certain interviewees, for instance, reported actually reducing the amount of work they were doing in 2017, due to a sudden spike in competition for funding, audiences and venue space. The process of seeking funds may also have been made more difficult in certain cases. For instance, to access Creative Communities resources required some of my interviewees to spend significant time and effort networking with potential collaborators in support of their applications, which some found quite challenging.

These points are not intended as a critique of Hull 2017 per se, since greater participation and new links between artists and communities are surely good things. Interviewees were often more likely to praise these developments than worry about them. However, the point is simply to underline the following observation: in a context where arts careers are inherently precarious and unpredictable, increased participation, whatever its many other benefits, can also have the adverse consequence of making difficult careers even more so. In this sense, whatever the evident benefits of these initiatives, they do not address the problem of cultural labour in any fundamental way. All of this raises an important question: in the institutional network mobilised to deliver Hull 2017, were mechanisms available to address the well-recognised problem of poor quality work?

As I have already noted, this did not generally feature as an end in itself. Arguably the very nature of City of Culture as an intervention is not well-suited to countering these problems, because of its time-limited nature, and because of the competing demands placed upon it (both the liberal pressure to rebrand the city as a competitor for investment, and the social democratic aspiration to widen participation in arts and culture). Institutional regulation in the arts in general is weakly-placed to guard against poor working conditions, because so much artistic activity is highly informal.

There are certain mechanisms for regulating working conditions embedded in the operations of funders like the Arts Councils. They will, for instance, examine the budgets of applications they receive and mandate adjustments to them if not enough money is being allocated for staffing costs. This focus has intensified recently because of high-profile discussion around unpaid internships, as Arts Council England has reported.

The problem is that these kinds of criteria, as implemented through the processing of funding applications, cannot begin to get to grips with the vast levels of informality in the arts and cultural world. All the unbudgeted extra work surrounding a cultural project – dealing with contingencies, networking, marketing, not to mention additional hours put in as part of a labour of love – are a breeding ground for unpaid work which goes unrecognised by the formal funding apparatuses. This is one major way in which work in the arts becomes inaccessible for those whose circumstances do not enable them to invest large quantities of unpaid efforts for weak financial reward. Perhaps most notable, given we are discussing the “projectariat”, is the volume of unpaid work which goes into preparing a funding bid in the first place. This is a particularly high-risk kind of unpaid work, since there is a strong chance it could all be in vain if an application is rejected. Any highly competitive funding stream is likely to impose this kind of high-risk unpaid labour. It is in this context that the requirements imposed by new funding gatekeepers – such as the imperative to build up new “collaborators” as part of a Creative Communities application – become particularly salient.

We can recognise the benefits of greater participation in arts and culture, and greater artist-community links, while also noting that a fundamentally different institutional context is needed if this participation is going to translate into a wider range of people building sustainable arts careers. The wider national environment, and the competing logics it had to embody, meant that Hull 2017 for all its positives could not realistically provide this. How to imagine a system, then, that genuinely addresses work quality in the arts and cultural world?


In previous research theorising “projectariat” work in social services, I argued, along with two co-authors, that working conditions were strongly influenced by the nature of the relationships between funders and provider organisations at local level. We argued that frontline staff experienced more secure careers and better working conditions in situations where the local institutions charged with disseminating and evaluating project funding had long-existing relationships with the organisations actually providing these services. The latter, in the social services we examined, were usually small non-profit organisations staffed by professionals with a strong social work ethos. In these cases, the actual nature of services provided tended to co-evolve through dialogue between local public institutions and small provider organisations, who usually enjoyed relative stability from year to year, and comparatively high levels of professional autonomy over how to do their jobs. By contrast, in situations where funders were being pushed (in our case by funding conditionality imposed by the European Social Fund) to “marketise” the delivery network (i.e. by developing buyer-defined tenders intended to stimulate market competition between multiple potential providers including for-profit enterprises), the organisational landscape became much more unstable, and working conditions for “projectarian” social workers also deteriorated: job security decreased, bureaucratic workload increased, internships and other training became harder to access, payment-by-results systems devalued professional expertise and care.

The arts and cultural sector is a different context, but it may be possible to draw out some implications from this argument, given that the arts, too, are built on complex networks of small non-profit groups who depend on their relationships with funders. In a given local arts economy, can we envision a set of stable public institutions which is closely networked with local arts organisations, providing them with the assurance of long-term supportive relationships rather than hopping from one competitive short-term award to the next? Could such institutions allow the nature of arts services to be driven jointly by dialogue between local publics and the input of arts workers themselves?

Other experiments in local government might provide some initial ideas here. The example of Preston is increasingly invoked on the left as a promising alternative model for local services. Here, there is a focus on the use of “anchor institutions”- ie local bodies (such as trade unions, universities, social enterprises or other public institutions) which come to be seen as partners of the local council, and thus part of the infrastructure for procuring services in a more socially-minded way: for instance, prioritising local providers, committing to source services from organisations paying the real living wage, or directing resources to other kinds of model such as cooperatives.

This is a recent development and as such we don’t yet know much about the results of this approach, particularly with regard to its effects on working conditions in providers of local services. But it may give us a way of thinking through new approaches to arts funding. Admittedly, some of the key points about the Preston model do not seem that applicable as a ready-made solution for the problem of working conditions arts and culture. For instance, de facto cooperatives already exist in many cases in the arts – many small arts organisations are non-hierarchical and democratically run – yet this is no guarantee of better working conditions. Indeed, poor quality work in the arts is often less to do with hierarchy and managerial control than the urgent need to compete for funding opportunities and deliver highly ambitious projects on shoestring budgets. Cooperative models would not solve this.

What seems more of a priority is developing local institutions which can bring together, in a democratic and decentralized way, the people who make art and culture, and the people who “consume” it. To improve the quality of cultural labour, it is necessary to have a more stable organisational landscape, in which funding priorities are developed through dialogue between established local arts organisations (“anchor” organisations?) and engaged local publics, rather than through sequences of risk-laden and competitive project funds. There could be a participatory process to decide what kinds of art and culture we want; how a pool of resources is to be divided between different identified priorities; and then money allocated accordingly to organisations with a track record of taking part in these discussions and offering responsible employment practices.

Would this kind of system, based on dialogue within an existing organizational network rather than the staging of competition, simply reproduce the elitism and exclusivity that already exists in the arts? This inequality is deeply entrenched and has a great many causes, many of which would survive a change like this (unequal access to cultural resources in childhood, for instance). But I cautiously suggest it would break down three important barriers to a more egalitarian arts world.

First, for reasons explained earlier, competitive funding applications are an uneven playing field because people with strong existing economic capital and the correct networks tend to find it easier to succeed in them. Highly competitive funding systems, therefore, are in many cases a barrier rather than an aid to wider participation. Secondly, the risk that these organizational networks might exclude new voices could be mitigated by giving “anchor” organizations a mandate to bring through and train new talent as part of their work. Third, by requiring these organisations to provide more stable and formalised employment, the “precarity” that prevents those without independent financial means from succeeding in the arts could also be reduced.

The development of the quality of arts and culture in the UK is undermined by the sector’s poor quality working conditions. It seems unlikely that this fundamental problem could ever be addressed as simply a beneficial by-product of other processes and agendas – it needs to be an end in itself. This, then, is a call for a more stable environment in local arts and cultural scenes, based on democratically embedded decisions about the use of resources, in combination with durable local institutions which place the upmost value on the labour of those who work to improve British cultural life.

  1. Banks, Mark, and David Hesmondhalgh. “Looking for work in creative industries policy.” International journal of cultural policy 15.4 (2009): 415-430. 

  2. Hewison, Robert, Cultural Capital (Verso, 2014).