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In this section, we’ll explore some of the context for the ‘Creative Workforce Workshops’, situating it within the work we've already done in our wider ‘Workforce’ workstream. We’ll also explore policy shifts at the national level that this work speaks to, including a look ahead to the cost-of-living crisis. We’ll then unpack the ‘Creative Workforce Workshops’ in more detail, outlining the key features, and explaining why we’ve landed on ‘Place’ as a lens for our first in the series. 


The creative and cultural workforce: progress so far


Throughout 2021, Culture Commons led the Creative Workforce Pledge (CWP), working with trade unions and Excluded UK to co-develop a 10-point plan designed to assist Metro Mayors across England support the creative and cultural sectors in their region through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Point seven of the plan explicitly recognised the “precarity the creative and cultural industries workforces face every day” and called for a “New Deal for the workforce”, committing signatories to push for several key things, including the formation of a new ‘Freelance Charter’ for the creative economy and a national ‘Commissioner for Freelancers’ to situate workforce issues right at the heart of government thinking. The Pledge also asked that Metro Mayors set up a creative and cultural sector working group on the M11 (the grouping of combined authority leaders), and we’re pleased that the reinvigorated ‘M11 network’ of culture officers and relevant portfolio holders now provides a valuable forum for policy thinking, including on local and national workforce issues.


Between 2020-2022, Culture Commons was part of a major Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded project into the impact of COVID-19 on the creative and cultural sectors. Led by our research partners at the Centre for Cultural Value (CCV) and supported by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) and The Audience Agency, the research itself - the largest of its kind globally - raised some startling and unexpected findings on the pandemic’s impact on the 33% of freelance, self-employed and atypical workers who make up the creative and cultural sector workforce overall [1]. During the pandemic, we know that large number of self-employed, freelance, and atypical workers in the creative and cultural sectors were unable to access emergency financial support programmes and were generally less supported by the state than cultural workers in other comparable countries [2]. These conditions resulted in substantial numbers of people leaving their profession, and their sector, with signs of only slow recovery some way into 2022 [3].   


Following the research phase, Culture Commons worked with the CCV to take the ‘Culture in Crisis’ thinking on a stage further;  producing 12 new policy recommendations [4], targeted towards national decision makers, designed to help the sectors rebuild more equitably in the face of some of the systematic vulnerabilities and inequalities the pandemic exposed. In these, we doubled down on our call for nationally supported ‘Freelance Charter’ and for the UK Government appointed ‘Commissioner for Freelancers’ to take a detailed look on freelance, self-employed and atypical working conditions across the whole of the economy. We were delighted to launch these recommendations with the Minister for the Arts, and the Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Innovation in the UK Parliament in May 2022.


Since then, colleagues at Creative UK have taken things further still, announcing the ‘Redesigning Freelancing’ programme in 2022 [5], and committing to taking the design of a ‘Freelance Charter’ forward at the national level - all with the support of the Metro Mayors we lined up through the Creative Workforce Pledge campaign.

The end of 2022 and the cost-of-living crisis 


As ever, trade unions representing creative and cultural sector workers continue to represent their members at the highest levels and regularly interface with governments on their members behalf. Nonetheless, as the workers who did not leave these sectors during the pandemic now return to work, their individual and collective capacity to advocate for their needs and support each other will undoubtably reduce without additional support. The underlying and systemic problems identified by our work during the pandemic also continue to complicate, evolve and aggregate under new global economic conditions, including those caused by the current ‘cost of living crisis’.


This is why Culture Commons have launched our ‘Creative Workforce Workshop’ project. We believe that it is important to continue to platform the voices of creative and cultural sector workers, and gather qualitative evidence to show how the workforce is responding to conditions as they develop.  


Supported by Arts Council England (ACE) and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, our ‘Creative Workforce Workshops’ project sets out to hold conversations with people working across different creative and cultural sub-sectors, from different demographics and in different places across the UK. It represents the continuation of our mission to communicate and advocate for change, not only to address systematic inequalities revealed by all the research delivered during the pandemic, but to prevent situations from worsening during the economic conditions facing the UK over the next few years.


Local is crucial 


Since the UK Government’s launch of the ‘Levelling Up’ white paper [6] and ACE's announcement of 109 ‘Levelling up for Culture Places’ [7], interest in the connection between "place making" and the local creative and cultural sectors has increased. By centring culture as part of a ‘Pride of Place’ agenda and a £4.8 Levelling Up Fund [8], the UK Government has signalled towards a belief in the contribution of creative and cultural activity to the economy of local towns and cities.


Though we have seen several significant changes in the UK Government’s administration in recent months, the 2022 Autumn Statement remained committed to releasing the Levelling Up Funds previously agreed, and in January 2023, we saw several pots of cash being distributed towards capital projects supporting creative and cultural activity. Nonetheless, what is perhaps less defined, is exactly how decision makers view the role of the creative and cultural sector workforce within the context of place-orientated policy.

Since the pandemic, the connection between the creative and cultural sectors, local democracy and the economy of place has gained considerable traction at the local level. During the pandemic, communities engaged with creative and cultural activities much closer to home, and in new ways too. Research also found that those areas with well-networked creative and cultural sectors and ebullient political buy in were better at delivering emergency support to these sectors [9]. It is therefore unsurprising that 2022 saw local leaders becoming more aware of the needs of their local creative and cultural sectors, including the workforce, as well as the wider public.


This new understanding has already resulted in new place-based initiatives and pilots increasing creative and cultural sector relevant skills provision and placing creativity at the heart of wider regeneration plans. In our recent report, commissioned by the University of Manchester, on ‘Creative Improvement Districts’, we examine a new model of culture-led regeneration proposed by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA). In that paper, we identify many exciting examples from the last 10 years of local areas that have already used their existing development and place making powers to support their local economy through the creative and cultural sectors.


The Local Government Association’s (LGA) recently published report, ‘Cornerstones of Culture’ also draws together a large number of case studies and evidence, including from Culture Commons, that confirms the importance of local places when it comes to delivering successful regeneration programmes. Published following an independent commission chaired by Baroness Lola Young, the report concludes: “that greater collaborative work between councils and cultural partners, combined with streamlined place-based funding from government, is crucial to supporting one of the fastest growing parts of the economy [10]. 

As the UK Government continues to reassert a commitment to further devolve decision making to local places, including on culture, and as The Labour Party explores yet further 'legislation enshrined' options for devolution, greater local, place-based influence on local workforce and labour conditions seems likely. Therefore, we believe that ongoing evidence of how the creative and cultural workforce is faring in local areas will be crucial in ensuring that local leaders and key stakeholders develop responsive policy that gets this right; maximising the advantages of devolution while promoting better equality, diversity and inclusion.


Local cultural participation 


We know that every place is different, and there therefore simply can’t be a one-size-fits-all policy approach to meeting the needs of the creative and cultural sectors in different parts of the country. In addition, we believe it is important that the public – not just those who are already highly engaged in the creative and cultural life of their locality – are aware of the challenges and opportunities that the creative and cultural sector workforces face. 


At Culture Commons, we advocate for the development of new a new ‘Culture Forum’ programme that could ensure local people, as well as the creative and cultural sector workforces and their representatives, are empowered to participate in decision making on cultural strategies, programmes and investment in their own areas [11]. In recent years, we have seen several other programmes with objectives sympathetic to this approach coming forward, such as the Local Trust’s ‘Creative Civic Change’ which has begun to model new ways of empowering local communities to really take charge of their creative and culture lives.


‘Creative Workforce Workshops’: Place 


Our belief in the power of local places to design and deploy tailored programmes of support for the local creative and cultural workforce is why we have centred the first of our ‘Creative Workforce Workshops’ on ‘Place’. We aim to tie the policy questions surrounding place and working conditions within the creative and cultural sectors together by simply asking a small sample of creatives, living and working in three different and unique parts of the country: 


What is it like to be a freelance, self-employed or atypical worker in the creative and cultural sectors today?


We wanted to understand if, and to what extent, place matters for creative and cultural sector workers, and whether some experiences are tied to certain places, or place types, or if some might even be more universal. Perhaps most importantly of all, we wanted to turn the policy development process over to workers, recognising where they are right now: coming out of, and perhaps quickly back into, a period of unprecedented change. 


Our new 'Micro-site'

We have developed a new 'micro-site' to bring together evidence we collected by speaking to a group of 30 creative and cultural sector workers in three different locations across England. You can visit the results of each of the workshop sessions, written in the style of a more traditional ‘policy report’ in the following sections:


Truro in Cornwall

Croydon in Greater London

Rotherham in South Yorkshire

However, we also wanted to capture the sentiments and themes expressed in the workshops in a more dynamic way. We therefore commissioned three professional artists, working across different mediums, to translate each workshop session into a new artwork. We intend for the artwork and qualitative write up to work in tandem to help us communicate our findings and support the advocacy efforts that will follow. You can read more about our artists and our process in selecting them here.


Finally, in our Observations page we offer our reflections on what we picked up as policy professional from each of the individual sessions. While we recognise we cannot draw concrete policy positions from a small qualitative cohort alone, we believe that there are consistent and comparable themes that that are affecting the lives of individual workers that require spotlighting; we hope this will serve to support existing policy work or instigate further research in a variety of important areas.


We intend to share this evidence with decision makers locally and nationally, as they develop policy and programmes within their jurisdictional remits. We’ll ensure that Creative UK receive it to consider as they develop a national ‘Freelance Charter’, local Mayors and combined authorities as they develop their place-based work, and of course, central decision makers such as the Creative Industries Council (CIC) and colleagues at The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), as they develop the ‘Sector Vision’  that will shape funding and support for our sectors for some time to come. 


We hope the first of our ‘Creative Workforce Workshops’ provides fresh insight into place-based working and help keep the lived experiences of the creative and cultural workforce at the centre of the national and local policy discourse. It's our hope that this hybrid project - the words and visuals of which have been shaped by representatives of the industry themselves - will cut through to policy makers at this important moment, fusing policy and art together for maximum impact.


We dedicate this work to the people we met in theatres and arts venue across England. We hope you all find ways to continue to your brilliant journeys and hope, in some small way, this work can help with that. 


[1] Rising as high as 70% in sub sectors such as ‘music, visual and performing arts’: (p9) 

[2] See the Centre for Cultural Value’s report on international policy responses to Covid-19

[3] See the Centre for Cultural Value’s observations published early in 2022; illustrating how the music, performing and visual arts sub setor lost 40,000 workers since its peak at the end of 2019 and by Q1 2021 has showed slow signs of recovery

[4] See our event with the Centre for Cultural Value in the UK Parliament here:

[5] Creative UK's 'Future of Freelancing' programme:

[6] UK Government's Levelling Up White Paper:

[7] 100 Arts Council England Levelling Up for Culture Places:

[8] Announcement on the first round of Levelling Up Funds

[9] 'Culture in Crisis' report from the Centre for Cultural Value, See p32 :

[10] Local Government Associations' 'Cornerstones of Culture' report:

[11] For a full list of Culture Commons’ policy recommendations visit:

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