Coronavirus: ‘The people involved in this business are so vulnerable’

Artists and arts workers have been left in desperate straits by the sudden shutdown

As precautionary measures against Covid-19 virus intensify, one of the most vulnerable sectors is the arts, where the majority of workers are self-employed with little income protection. The Arts Council has already released a statement honouring commitments to the bodies it funds even if they are unable to deliver projects as planned and promising that they can draw down 90 per cent of that funding "with immediate effect". But the future for freelance arts workers has been  nonetheless unclear. Many people in the sector spent the week watching their income disappear as event after event was cancelled.

According to the Department of Social Protection, a new emergency payment of €203 a week is available to all employees and the self-employed who have lost employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic ((those affected should call 1890 80 024 or 01 2481398).  But last week, some dole offices were unclear how this would work, as freelance photographer Ruth Medjber discovered.

Frightened freelancers were asking her questions, Medjber explains. "So I popped into the local dole office just looking for information. They said: 'Apparently the system is going to be changing but we wouldn't know what to do with self-employed people if they came in now. I guess we would register them as force majeure and we'd put a note on their claim.' We always fear [the government] don't keep self-employed people in mind. are constantly updating their site but even today the two fields were 'information for employees' and 'information for employers'. There should be a category of information for self-employed people. We're a massive growing community."

Medjber, like many others, is living off savings. “All my work is gone. Every day we’re getting news of even more cancellations. Music and event photography is my bread-and-butter, and then I also go into offices to do headshots but that’s also gone now. People [in entertainment] are all part of the horrific gig economy and a lot of us operate seasonally. Festival season is the biggest thing for us.”


Will cancelled events be rescheduled? “The majority of reschedules that I’m getting are for October but I already have bookings for October,” Medjber says. “So if my dates clash, I’m still going to lose money.”

How are people coping? “Those who have a partner with a job are more cushioned. People in rented accommodation, which is an awful lot of us, are petrified about having to pay rent. People are getting mortgage relief, but we’re not hearing anything about tenant relief ... This could be something that pushes a lot of freelancers out of business.”

The wider community is trying to help. The Civic Theatre in Tallaght has started crowdfunding for an emergency artist relief fund on the GoFundMe website. They began with a target of €10,000 that has since been raised to €20,000. They will pay this money in €500 tranches to any Irish-based arts worker or technician who is facing immediate difficulties.

“We knew the impact this was likely to have on artists,” says Civic artistic director Michael Barker-Caven. “There are many vulnerable communities struggling and artists are just one, but we know that pay and conditions in the arts are well below minimum wage. We felt the simplest thing to do was launch an online appeal.”

How are the claims judged? “On a first-come, first-served basis. People just have to show they’ve suffered short-term hardship. We’re absolutely not interested in making value judgments on individual people or their circumstances.”

More generally, Barker-Caven says: “We hope that this opens a conversation about what kind of culture we have and how we support people who provide an important service. Audiences are brilliant but are probably unaware of the fragile circumstances of people working in the arts.”

Philly McMahon is the director of production company ThisIsPopBaby. Last week, they had to cancel their Where we Live festival just as it was due to launch. “We’ve been working on this festival for about 18 months. It’s a very ambitious programme - 22 individual events and 80 plus artists - and then on top of that there are crew. Part of the programme is offering a platform to voices that might not otherwise be heard. It’s a crushing blow.”

Can it be rescheduled for a different time? “Perhaps we can find another context, but people have been rehearsing and everything was being funnelled towards this moment. What people don’t understand when they say, ‘Why can’t you just do it again?’ is that the money is paying people to get to this point. We’ve guaranteed people employment right up until the end of the festival and we’re just working through all of that.”

He calls this “uncharted territory. For us, the reality is that the budget usually breaks even. [We] have a very loyal audience, so box office receipts would be a big part of this. Some people will want to be refunded, which is totally normal, but a lot of people have been in touch already to say that they want to donate the ticket back to the company. A moment like this has the potential to sink any company.”

Comedian Alison Spittle’s work is largely built around key gigs and busy months that tide her over for leaner periods. March was to be such a month. “My big Dublin gig in Liberty Hall [March 21st], that’s not happening,” she says. “And a lot of comedians make money by hosting corporate award shows and that’s gone as well. About 90 per cent of my work for the month is gone. I have gigs in April and May. Do I promote them? It’s hard to know.”

Spittle is trying to think creatively. She has projects she wants to finish writing and she’s due to join a writers’ room for BBC Radio 4 that she hopes will go ahead. She’s considering doing more internet-based work, but even podcasting has been affected. “I did one podcast for a friend in a major studio and I went back to get my headphones and the whole place was on lockdown, and she couldn’t finish the podcast.”

How does she feel about it all? “I feel great for hoarding tinned food for no reason before this ever happened. Now that old packet of Angel Delight is really going to be a star. I’m not sure what emotion to feel. I’m not angry, because there’s no one to be angry at. I don’t want it to be like the film Jaws where the mayor keeps the beaches open.” She sighs. “It just makes you realise how precarious this lifestyle is. It’s just jokes. It’s not worth dying over jokes.”

Artist and arts manager Lian Bell says that the current wave of event cancellations come on top of an already difficult situation for artists. “I’ve been very involved in a programme called Gap Day with Mermaid Arts Centre. It’s a mini residency where freelance artists get paid to be creative away from their daily lives. I’ve been seeing the applications and people are explaining that they work two or three jobs at once while also minding kids or taking care of parents. People were already being worn down.”

Is she pleased that the Arts Council has guaranteed their funding for projects? “That’s a bit of a trickle-down question. Companies and venues are supported by the Arts Council. My hope is that everybody who has promised to pay somebody will be able to pay them. But it will depend on individual contracts and what the Arts Council is able to do about forwarding that money on relatively quickly. A lot of freelancers don’t have the cushion of time.”

She hopes that special social welfare measures for the self-employed are clarified. “There are a lot of precarious workers out there in many different fields. They’re terrified and it’s hard not to be. If there was ever an argument for universal basic income, now’s the time to argue it.”

Annie Ryan, founder of theatre company Corn Exchange, held "a wake" for her Abbey-co production, The Fall of the Second Republic, when the final four performances were cancelled. "If the work doesn't happen, we don't get paid," she says. "In this case all the actors were paid for the week, so the people who really lose are (writer) Michael West and me, because we share the royalties. That's the guts of three or four grand. For those of us in the arts, that's a lot of money. It's not just the financial loss, but the opportunity to actually do the work, that's what we live for."

Is there any mitigation the government could offer people? "I would love to see some attention for freelancers," she says. "France has an interesting way of (allocating) tax credits depending on what work you get. There already isn't enough money to feed all the people who are looking to make work here and it's so expensive to live here. It's a scary time."

Liz Kelly is director of Dún Laoghaire's cancelled Mountains to Sea book festival, which was due to start later this month. "Everything was already programmed and we had published our printed programme," she says. "A lot of the spending has been done. Flights were booked. The marketing effort was up and running. There's a certain safety net under us, but for smaller organisations and smaller festivals it's an extremely difficult time."

Can Mountains to Sea be rescheduled? “In my head and in my heart, I want to reschedule but it will be the autumn before we can do anything. We need to see how we might find a way of compensating [artists and suppliers] to some extent. But all of that will be dependent on the financial review, which we’ll be undertaking in the next couple of weeks.

“Obviously we’re more than a little upset, but there’s a need for the Government to keep supporting imagination, supporting the artists. The people involved in this business are so vulnerable to shifts in the economy, yet I can honestly say I have never seen people so dedicated or who work so hard.”