Culture Common has been working with trade unions, local and combined authorities, universities, sector leaders and key policy makers to co-design policy and programmes to improve standards for some of the most dynamic and dedicated, yet under-supported, workers in the UK economy.
In recent years, we’ve led the ‘Creative Workforce Pledge’  which has seen Metro Mayors from across England committing to actions to support creatives in their areas, and presented 12 policy recommendations to the UK Government in the UK Parliament alongside our research partners at the Centre for Cultural Value .
What are Creative Workforce Workshops?
Building on the campaign and pandemic recommendations, our new ‘Creative Workforce Workshops’ programme has been designed to keep the voices of people working in the UK's creative and cultural sectors elevated and support ongoing advocacy efforts to improve workers terms and conditions.
The connection between the creative and cultural sectors, local democracy and the economy of place seems to be gaining more traction at the local level. Central and local government policy, as well as key research findings, increasingly point towards the important relationship between thriving creative and cultural sectors and successful local, place-based regeneration.
That's why we have focussed the first series of ‘Creative Workforce Workshops’ on ‘Place’. We hope that by tying policy considerations around place and workforce together, we can draw out observations on the lived experiences of creatives living and working in different parts of the country to see what we might discover. We pose the question:
What is it like to be a freelance, self-employed or atypical worker in the creative and cultural sectors in different parts of the UK today?
We hope this, our first ‘Creative Workforce Workshops’ will complement the considerable efforts already being made by trade unions, subsector networks, trade bodies and individual practitioners right across the country. Above all, we hope it will provide fresh insights into place-based working and help keep the lived experiences of freelancers at the centre of the national and local policy discourse.
What places did we visit?
Based on our overall project objectives and design principles, we held 3 two-hour workshops with 30 participants across three different parts of England:
Croydon, Greater London
Rotherham, South Yorkshire
Within the limitations of our project, our final places were identified to ensure:
Different ‘types’ of places in England were as fairly reflected as possible
We heard from workers in parts of England that have historically received comparatively low levels of public investment or and see low engagement in terms of creative and cultural activity
We could include workers from our chosen creative and cultural subsectors and target demographic groups
We had buy-in and support from local partners on the ground
Recognising the different contexts that workers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland operate within, we hope to explore the devolved administrations in a future series.
Who did we speak to?
Given the breath and variance we see between creative and cultural subsectors, we decided to limit our focus for this series to a smaller cluster of them, focussing in on some with particularly high levels of freelance, self-employed and atypical status working.
In order to focus our advocacy efforts, we balanced the full list of The Department for Digital Cultural, Media and Sport standardised subsectors against evidence provided by the Centre for Cultural Value on those most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic . We also included workers from some subsectors that actually saw an increase in demand for their services during the pandemic. This approach enabled us to explore issues faced by those most detrimentally impacted by the pandemic (and likely to be most impacted by the cost-of-living crisis), but also provide an opportunity for a tentative comparative analysis with those who could be less impacted.
After running a public facing call for participants to join the workshops between September and October 2022, we selected 30 participants who were:
Freelance, self-employed and atypical workers in the creative and cultural sectors
Working within ‘Music, performing and visual arts’; ‘Arts’; ‘Crafts’; and ‘Publishing’ DCMS subsectors
Diverse in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic background, and disabled categories
At different stages of their career i.e. from grassroots artists, newly graduated, emerging, middle-career and established workers
In partnership with artist support organisation ArtULTRA, we commissioned three local freelance creatives to join our workshops to produce unique works of art. You can find out more about our three artists, and view their original art works, by visiting the deep-dive pages for each area: Truro, Croydon and Rotherham.
This project was only possible through the help and support of local partner organisations, who worked with us to source our workshop participants and host our discussions. Our thanks to Cornwall’s Cultural Compact (Tyller A Nerth), Hall for Cornwall, Greater London Authority (GLA), Stanley Arts, Flux Rotherham and Rotherham Children’s Capital of Culture 2025.
What did we find?
Between October and November 2022, we held three semi-structured group discussions with diverse groups of workers - each with very different perspectives and individual stories to share.
Although we do not feel it is appropriate to draw concrete policy positions from a small qualitative cohort at this stage, we have been able to draw together a collection of initial observations that could inform ongoing policy work, and potentially provoke forays into further areas for consideration by researchers and others:
1. Place Matters
The most dominant, yet perhaps the simplest of all the observations we can draw from our first series of workshops, is just how important a local environment is in shaping the careers and life experiences of freelancers in the creative and cultural sectors. We found that hyper-local infrastructure (including everything from quality of nearby geographical assets, local relational networks and transport connectivity) played a crucial role in enabling workers in our sectors to reach their full potential. We propose that decision makers in local places should continue to experiment with ways to celebrate the creative and cultural life of their area, through locally initiated City of Culture, Borough of Culture or other place-specific models more appropriate to the area, ensuring local people, and the workforce, have an opportunity to contribute to the design, delivery and evaluation.
2. Flexible working is the future
Evidence we gathered suggests that the workforce feels that interdisciplinary and cross-subsectoral working is becoming, and will continue to become, more commonplace. Participants explained how they worked across entirely different sectors and subsectors for a variety of different reasons: from maintaining additional sources of income and financial security to cross-pollinating and exploring different forms and disciplines. Local and national level decision makers may want to consider reframing some support programmes for the creative and cultural sector workforce into something more holistic; getting beyond subsector silos towards new subsector-neutral and place-focussed interventions. In addition, we hope that Arts Council England (ACE) will extend the ‘Developing Your Creative Practice’ programme, which several participants said had enabled them to explore new and flexible ways of working. Furthermore, to truly unlock the potential of freelancers in the creative and cultural sectors, and across the economy more widely, methods for recording occupational data and the tax regime as a whole will need to be reformed to keep up with the fast-changing realities of working practices so vividly articulated by our workshop participants.
3. Networks make all the difference
In all three places, opportunities to generate work seemed inextricably linked to an individual’s capacity to meet, engage and connect with other freelancers, organisations and institutions in the area. Participants were clear that most of their opportunities came through “word of mouth” - “this person who knows this person, put me in touch with this person”. Indeed, “Don’t do it alone” was the advice offered up by our participants in Croydon. Formal and informal networks appear to have led, at least anecdotally, to more work, but also guarded against the loneliness the participants associated with freelance working. Culture Commons will continue to work with policy colleagues across subsectors, as well as with the research community, to spotlight the critical role that networks play in developing skills and opportunities of creative freelancers. For many of the creatives we spoke to, national level networks were not always a natural fit for them, and locally focussed and subsector-specific networks seemed to be more beneficial. Culture Commons will keep up our calls for the creation of a new national body to support workforce networks across the UK, which we first posed to the UK Government in 2022 .
4. More permanent space is needed
Across all locations, but in Croydon in particular, participants were keen to express their need for access to flexible and affordable space on a more sustainable and permanent basis. This wasn’t just about getting into more traditional studio or recording space: participants were clearly hungry for places that inspire, facilitate connections with others and where they could find out more about what is going on in their local area. Whilst participants felt these kinds of spaces used to be available to them, over time, they are becoming less and less so. From what was being discussed in each of the workshops, Culture Commons believes that ‘Creative Improvement Districts’  and other similar models could be ideal vehicles for both meeting the spatial needs of creative freelancers and addressing some of the wider policy priorities in a place, ultimately securing a longer-term and sustainable hub.
5. Professional and personal growth must be considered
From our conversation in Cornwall, it was clear that career progression for mid-level professionals has become a real area for concern. Not being able to access repeat funding, a limited capacity in local opportunities, combined with the feeling of being geographically isolated from other key places means our participants in Cornwall felt at real risk of stagnation. From the solutions proposed by the participants and with further thinking, Culture Commons suggests several steps could be taken to support mid-career creative and cultural sector freelancers in different parts of the country; this could include a more deliberate role for the private sector in utilising local workforces in the places visit, and developing bridging programmes that encourage collaborations between workers in different parts of the UK; as well as closer working between civil society and the creative and cultural sectors to improve public services which could provide new opportunities for the workforce.
6. Local creative and cultural support organisations should be distributors of freelance opportunities
In Rotherham, it was clear that several ACE National Portfolio Organisations are truly connected to local freelancers. These relationships seemed to be vital in creating opportunities to empower local creatives at earlier career stages to deliver projects through relationships built on “trust”; this was creating quicker routes into work for workers needing exposure, experience and development. Culture Commons proposes that NPO’s, and other publicly funded organisations working with the creative and cultural sector, are often better connected to local freelance networks, and are therefore well-placed to deliver trust intensive programmes for local freelancers.
7. Better engagement with under-represented groups is needed
Our workshop discussions surfaced several concerns related to narrow forms of inclusion of underrepresented groups, including local minoritised ethnic groups and working-class creatives, but did not leave time for wider discussion. From the demographic profile of those applying to our workshops, we also know we need to do more to enable particular demographic groups to access policy discussions and research opportunities. We therefore feel it would be beneficial to carry out further workshops specifically to understand how places (particularly smaller towns and rural areas) might ensure authentic, balanced, and representative workforces are engaged and supported.
8. Employment structures require a serious review
Participants in Croydon and Rotherham felt that more flexible and seasonal working patterns, such as the ability to work their own chosen hours and across different projects, helped them to access employment and flourish in their chosen field. However, participants in all three places were clear about the downsides of the freelance life, including: hidden or unpaid work, anxiety around generating pipeline, and no statutory sick pay or specific ‘leave’ policies. Unlocking the power of seasonal working, empowering individuals to work to their strengths, whilst also providing crucial statutory protections and entitlements, could be key in unlocking the full economic and social potential of the creative and cultural sector workforce. We therefore believe that it is imperative to explore how PAYE structures can be more flexible and responsive to 21st century working patterns, alongside a national review of how freelancers can be provided with baseline benefits already available to those in PAYE structures. Culture Commons will continue to call for UK Government appointed ‘Commissioner for Freelancers’ to lead this work at the national level.
9. We need to create more opportunities for local input
Participants in all three areas strongly welcomed a moment to share their views on what was happening in their locality, and suggested ways they might be able to improve conditions for fellow workers and the general public alike. Participants in Truro proposed that, as creative thinkers and problem solvers, the creative workforce are well placed to support in the realisation of cross-cutting and complex policy priorities in an area, and stand ready to do so. Culture Commons will continue to develop our thinking around a ‘Culture Forum’ programme; locally embedded mechanisms that would see the creative and cultural sectors, the associated workforce, the public and decision makers brought together to co-create a cultural strategy for an area.
 Culture Commons campaign for freelance, self-employed atypical workers in the creative and cultural sectors can be found here: https://www.culturecommons.uk/post/creative-workforce-pledge
 Details of the event in the UK Parliament can be found here: https://www.culturecommons.uk/post/culture-commons-the-centre-for-cultural-value-launch-new-policy-recommendation-report?utm_campaign=8e2f72fe-f56a-42cc-bc72-4cfc5622baa3&utm_source=so&utm_medium=lp
 See the ‘Project Design’ section of this report for a full rational of our chosen places and subsectors
 The Centre for Cultural Value’s ‘Culture in Crisis’ study report can be found here: https://www.culturalvalue.org.uk/culture-in-crisis-new-report-from-our-major-research-project-into-the-impacts-of-covid-19/
 See pg 11 in the downloadable report here: https://www.culturecommons.uk/post/culture-commons-the-centre-for-cultural-value-launch-new-policy-recommendation-report?utm_campaign=8e2f72fe-f56a-42cc-bc72-4cfc5622baa3&utm_source=so&utm_medium=lp#viewer-18m33
 Our paper on ‘Creative Improvement Districts’ can be found here: https://www.culturecommons.uk/post/creative-improvement-districts