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'Culture in crisis': impacts of Covid-19 on the UK cultural sector

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

Culture Commons is pleased to have been working closely with the Centre for Cultural Value on their major study into the crisis-hit UK cultural sector, with new research revealing the profound impact of Covid-19 on the workforce, audiences and organisations.


The ‘Culture in crisis - Impacts of Covid-19 on the UK cultural sector and where we go from here’ report, co-authored by Culture Commons Director, Trevor MacFarlane FRSA, is the largest investigations into the impacts of Covid-19 on the cultural sector anywhere in the world. This research has provided audience and sector intelligence in real time and has been pivotal source of insight during the pandemic for civil servants, cultural organisations and policy makers alike.

The study was led by the Centre for Cultural Value, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Covid-19 Emergency Fund and undertaken in partnership with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) and The Audience Agency (TAA). Culture Commons is now developing a series of recommendations for policy makers which will be shared at an event in the House of Lords in May 2022, as well as gathering support from sector leaders on behalf of the partners.

Key findings


  • The pandemic held a mirror up to a deeply unequal cultural sector.

  • Its impact was not experienced evenly across the sector, with younger workers, women and workers from ethnically diverse backgrounds among the hardest hit in terms of losing work and income.

  • For freelancers, who make up a significant part of the cultural workforce, the impact was major and sometimes devastating. Freelancers constituted 62% of the core-creative workforce before the pandemic and only 52% by the end of 2020.

  • The most dramatic decline in the cultural industries workforce was observed in music, performing and visual arts, where the professional workforce fell by around a quarter between March and June 2020, with no signs of significant recovery by the end of 2020.


  • Places with a history of obtaining public investment – and the arts and cultural organisations based in those places – benefited most from the Culture Recovery Fund (CRF).

  • Networks played a key role in building resilience and, in light of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, many cultural organisations re-evaluated their relevance to local communities. This was complemented by an increase of hyperlocal engagement due to lockdown restrictions on travel and behaviour.


  • Despite the rapid take-up of vaccines, the population’s confidence in returning to cultural venues has remained stubbornly low throughout 2021.

  • While the shift to digital transformed cultural experiences for those already engaged with cultural activities, it failed to diversify cultural audiences.

  • An increased digital offer did transform the cultural experiences of those who already engaged in cultural activities, especially disabled audiences and older audiences living away from major urban centres.

  • 80% survey respondents said that taking part in arts and culture was important to their wellbeing, positively affecting their mood and helping them to manage anxiety.

Read the full report here.

What Comes Next

Culture Commons and the Centre for Cultural Value are now working to test and refine a set of policy recommendations based on the research findings, at a time when the critical importance of the cultural industries in supporting the Government’s Levelling Up agenda is becoming clear.

Immediately evident is the need for national and local governments to communicate clear public health and safety guidance to all cultural organisations at the onset of a future crisis or pandemic.

The Cultural Recovery Fund was critical in assuring the immediate future of cultural sector organisations. However, the report highlights the need to better map and understand the vital role that freelancers play in the cultural industries so that they cannot fall between the gaps in emergency support in any future crisis.

Partner Comments

Trevor MacFarlane FRSA, Director of Culture Commons said:

This major study has been absolutely critical in communicating the impacts of Covid-19 on our creative and cultural sector in real time during the pandemic. The evidence accumulated in this 15 month programme is now helping us shape policy recommendations to Government as well as support the creative and cultural sectors to transition into recovery. We're delighted that Culture Commons will be working with the Centre for Cultural Value through 2022 to really drive these recommendations through.

Professor Ben Walmsley, Director, Centre for Cultural Value at the University of Leeds, said:

“Although the pandemic is still very much a part of our everyday lives and the longer-term implications of our research are still emerging, it is already clear that the pandemic and the public health measures taken to address it have had a significant impact on the arts and cultural sector in the UK. We’re at a major crossroads. There’s a danger that, with the desire to ‘return to normal’, policy makers will fail to understand and to learn from the experiences and challenges faced by the arts and cultural sector during the pandemic. The UK’s cultural sector urgently needs to work together to adopt more equitable and regenerative modes of working and create positive and lasting change.”


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