‘Give us space to create'
Commissioned Artist: Tara Kearney
"This has been a project close to my heart. I needed to use my body and my resources to translate the polarities of joy, anger, frustration and freedom experienced by the freelancers interviewed. It felt important that the image be set in a public environment: a park. The conversations at the workshop often circled back to access to space: whether that be a studio, a workshop, an office, or even a home. I named the piece 'seize the space' in the hope that the tenacity of the freelancers would be recognised. I was lucky enough to work with Dee Dee (a dancer, photographer and director) who also experiences the turbulence of an artist's life. It was her editing skills and movement direction that created the ensemble you see before you"
Tara Kearney: Movement Practitioner, Yoga Teacher, Performer.
Photo by Duran 'Dee Dee' Abdullah
In this section, we outline some key features of Croydon as a place, and zoom in on our workshop activities with creative and cultural sector workers living and working in the area.
The London Borough of Croydon sits in the south of the Greater London Combined Authority (GLA) area and includes the southernmost point of the capital city. In the 2021 census, it ranked 16th for total population out of 309 local authority areas in England.
When we first discussed amplifying the lived experiences of freelancers in different parts of England, it quickly became clear that we simply couldn’t ignore London. National funding organisations (including arms length and grant giving bodies) are, in our view, rightly recognising that others parts of the country require a fairer share of investment and better targeted policy interventions to support their creative ecologies. However, London remains the dominant economic centre in the UK; opportunities created in the capital continues to attract creative and cultural sector workers, including freelancers, from across the world. Nonetheless, we also know that London, much like other Core Cities , encompasses several significant within region disparities . We therefore concluded that it would be appropriate to apply our overall approach of selecting under-explored places to London itself.
Increased cultural funding for London
In the past five years, Croydon has seen a substantial increase in investment from national funding bodies for the creative and cultural sectors. In 2018, Croydon made a successful bid to the Mayor of London’s first wave of ‘Creative Enterprise Zones’ (CEZ) and was awarded £500,000  to deliver a programme to realise the proposed outcomes set out by the CEZ scheme . In February 2020, the GLA also announced the borough’s successful bid for ‘London Borough of Culture’ for 2023, with an additional £1.3 million invested to support a programme designed to reach 250,000 participants, every single school in the borough, 300 volunteers and 1,500 creatives .
In 2021, ACE announced 54 priority places, which would see increased spending and support in specific locations, as part of their delivery plan for 2021-24; Croydon was one of just five London boroughs included on that final list. Furthermore, according to the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC)’s interactive tool for mapping the creative industries across the UK , while Croydon sits within the wider London commuting zone – the largest of all established creative clusters in the UK - Croydon is also home to one of 215 micro-clusters within the Greater London area  - smaller but nonetheless significant congregations of creative and cultural businesses in a hyperlocal area.
In summary, Croydon is a part of London where funding for the creative and cultural sectors has been comparatively low, but has recently been the focus of renewed focus, investment and ambition. It felt then, in 2022, that Croydon would be a perfect location within the capital to explore conditions for practitioners and get a sense of the impact of these changes were having at the local level.
The Workshop Findings
Most of the creative and cultural sector workers we met in Croydon were in at least two different roles and/or working across multiple DCMS subsectors. We were joined by a musician-turned-games designer, a film maker-cum-cultural venue manager and a jewellery designer-cum-community connector. The participants creative workers that joined us in the room were often expressing their creative practices and approaches across several mediums, and most were maintaining side hustles and part-time jobs to sustain a living.
Freedom comes with consequences
When asked the group what being freelance, self-employed and atypical worker had meant to them in 2022, straight away, one of the first answers was: “a freedom to breathe”. From there the group was keen to communicate the “freedom” and “power” inherent in their ability to self-express and explore a “diversity of routes” - not just within the creative and cultural sectors, but out in other sectors of the economy too. Several participants explained, for example, how they were planning to use their creative practices to support the health and wellbeing of Croydon residents, an area identified as being of increasing salience to policy makers locally. One participant explained their desire to use their craft making skills to “bridge the gap” between the elderly and the young in new intergenerational projects that would facilitate mutual understanding.
As the conversation progressed, it became clear that “freedom” in this context didn’t just mean freedom of expression or the freedom to explore, but also a freedom to access and participate in work as diverse individuals. One participant explained: “I didn't go to university…because I didn't do well in that. I loved my college course but…it wasn't me. I tend to work a lot better in the evenings and the world is set to a morning person’s schedule. So being a freelancer means that I can, you know, pack my day towards the end, get the heavy stuff at the end”.
Of course, this sense of freedom came with its downside. Much like the freelancers in Truro and Rotherham, the Croydon participants described the turbulence that comes with not knowing when the next paid project would come, and the exhaustion of constantly generating a pipeline. They also pointed out that operating as an individual freelancer could be a “lonely road” and, again, much like the Truro group, they agreed that knowing themselves and the ways they like to work, alongside a self-discipline in workflow management, was vital to staying afloat.
The group also shared some of the challenges associated with running their own payroll (particularly when subcontractors were involved) and the management of contracts that can come with freelance life. One of the participants described how they had operated for many years as a successful digital games designer as an external contractor, and had not received appropriate accreditation for their work. Another shared how they struggled to be “all things” to their business - the marketing, accounting and project delivery departments all in one – as well as keep on top of their creative work.
Space to live and make
The theme of ‘space’ dominated our conversation with our Croydon group, who each reflected on how physical space had shaped their careers in quite different ways.
Firstly, it was clear that Croydon, as part of the larger urban network of London, benefited from a connected creative scene. One of the participants explained that getting to events, meeting up and connecting with people had helped them sustain a pipeline of work, but having moved further out of the area very recently, they were now feeling “increasingly isolated”. Another participant shared that, in the south London area, she enjoyed a level of support from the creative community that she hadn’t experienced in her hometown in Yorkshire, which had encouraged her to stay in the area. However, the sense of connectedness we observed between the participants in the Truro workshop was not replicated in Croydon, and many of the participants had never met, and weren’t aware of each other’s work, beforehand.
Next, many of the participants shared that the affordability of Croydon in comparison to other parts of London was a huge draw for them. One participant explained: “I live here because of the kind of work I do…working in contemporary art, it’s very hard to live somewhere that isn’t London because…[of] that critical mass of other artists…” When pressed on “why Croydon?”, rather than other possible locations in the capital, he concluded: “It’s affordable. There was nowhere else in London where I could have set up a studio”.
For others, the local area was a source of some frustration. One of the younger participants who had lived in the area for most of her life, explained how she no longer “felt inspired by the area”. As a musician, she explained she often went further afield to find recording studios and spaces to create in. She also indicated that, now she was in her 20s, she felt there was far less activity and support for her in the area compared to when she was younger. She told us: “when I was younger, there was a lot more for me to do… but as I got older, …there's no space for like…18 to 29…I don't know, there's like nothing creative or nowhere creative for us to go. So I go into other parts of London to be inspired...”.
This participant went on to explain how she felt about events and opportunities for children were reducing, which several other participants in the room strongly agreed with: “There was so much to do…every week…arts and crafts, acting, dancing…and it was all free it was all government funded…the kids are coming in have to pay now I wouldn't have been able to do that…[there was] no way that my parents could afford for me to sing, dance, act put on musicals, like while also at school… So [now] a lot of my friends parents, they all went in and volunteer because they realise how special it was for like us when we were there…” One of our participants, a father himself, reflected on the impact of this and wondered if 10- 20 years down the line a reduction in exposure to the performing arts at a young age impact the creative ability and skills of the next generation.
As we continued to discuss the relationship between access to space and inspiration, it became clear that the participants held a shared frustration at both the lack of long-term, sustainable creative space in the area, but also general spaces and venues that inspire and excite. One freelancer shared: “there are not so many…dynamic spaces where you can…finish work and go out and see people or interact with others and do what you do...”
Even when we started to move away from 2022 and into what 2023 year looked like for them, once again the concept of space resurfaced. For many in the room, the lockdown had limited their creative growth: limiting opportunities to take part in professional practice and development, but also physically keeping them at home. One of the younger members of the group spoke on the frustrations of still living at home and the importance of independent space to practice: “I feel like when it comes to music…I think a lot of people think that it just has to be in the studio, but also like being alone and actually being able to like listen to my thoughts and write that up – [getting] that all out is probably even more crucial than the time I spend in the studio. And my mother is a foster carer…I can't write music…obviously, my mother's job is incredible…[But] at the age of 25, I should be able to like, have my own space in my own one bed flat where I can still be a creative and it'd be affordable.”
For 2023 at least, it appeared that this group shared an underlying ambition: to get out, to move on, to explore and grow. On this need, one of the participants summarised: “I think sometimes when we're stuck in one place, we create in a certain language in a certain way. So I want to explore my creative being in other spaces…”
Use the empty spaces
Towards the end of conversation, as we invited views on possible policy responses to the challenges experienced in Croydon, it was therefore no surprise that the group expressed a longing for more engaging, creative and community orientated spaces in the area. They spoke about empty and underused spaces in the area and strategised together: “even if [Croydon Council] rent [spaces] at affordable prices just to get the people in the community in there… it brings people out of their homes and it gets to talk about their experiences and use the new skills and things like that. These empty buildings are just depressing…”
Work together to avoid the pitfalls
A more experienced freelancer talked of the painful career “mistakes” he had made along the way. He explained that, in 2023, he was going to lead his own projects with emerging creatives and ensure they were appropriately credited for their work. He also mused on experiences he’d had where he’d lost work with large clients at the last minute and whether more could not be done to protect freelancers from losing work, for example through more appropriate contracts and other protections.
Indeed, when we asked the group what their biggest piece of advice would be for someone new to the creative and cultural sectors, “ask for help” was the firmest, resounding nugget. They all agreed that it was time consuming create their own, so connecting to others, learning from mentors and working together, perhaps even through more formal structures, would be critical for 2023.
 Core Cities are Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield. See the Core Cities UK website: https://www.corecities.com/cities
 See Trust for London’s striking and revealing ‘Borough ratings across key indicators (Q4 2022)’ chart: https://www.trustforlondon.org.uk/data/boroughs/overview-of-london-boroughs/
 Creative Enterprise Zone announcement, Croydon: https://news.croydon.gov.uk/croydon-named-among-londons-first-creative-enterprise-zones/
 Creative Enterprise Zone details, Croydon: https://www.london.gov.uk/programmes-strategies/arts-and-culture/culture-and-good-growth/explore-creative-enterprise-zones
 Croydon announcement as the London Borough of Culture 2023: https://news.croydon.gov.uk/we-did-it-croydon-wins-london-borough-of-culture-2023/
 Locating 54 ‘Priority places’ by balancing evidence of creative activity in the area with evidence of social need and where their own historic “investment and engagement is too low”:
 PEC Creative Clusters tool: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/View/index.html?appid=007e1de4a01a46b196ad2ccaed20eb3b&extent=-20.3307,49.5899,17.1766,59.5069