Covid-19 highlights the gap between employees and freelancers in the arts

Hugh Linehan: Pandemic has helped highlight existing shifts in cultural production

The Gate Theatre in Dublin.

The Gate Theatre in Dublin.


When Selina Cartmell, director of the Gate Theatre, explained in some detail to The Irish Times last week why the Gate, unlike the Abbey, Druid and other companies, had been unable to mount any productions, virtual or physical, since its building closed in mid-March 2020, one line jumped out. “We didn’t have the resources to invest in streaming and artists,” she said.

This certainly seems to be true. Cartmell laid out the financial realities of what was needed to keep the Gate afloat in the absence of ticket sales.The costs of cancelled productions were significant, but the biggest burden came from salaries, rent and other contractual operating costs.

All of which is fair enough, although one wonders whether the quixotic conversion of the theatre’s auditorium into a large, flat studio-style space was the best use of whatever money remained. But generally speaking, it’s hard to see what else the Gate could have done with the hand they were dealt last year.

There’s still something unsettling about the equation Cartmell describes. A State subsidy of more than €1 million, via the Arts Council, mostly paid for building rental and maintenance, and for staff working in areas such as administration, marketing and finance. (Further State support, in the form of the employment wage subsidy scheme, also went towards part-paying the salaries of the 13 full-time employees, with all the rights – holidays, sick pay, pension contributions, parental leave, etc – to which they are quite correctly entitled.)

Meanwhile, though, the actor, director or designer who didn’t work at all last year will have to content themselves with the pandemic unemployment payment, possibly with a small top-up from one of the pandemic-specific Arts Council funding schemes currently available.

Funding upshot

The upshot for the Gate of the funding model described by Cartmell is that the State pays for the administration and the building, while the audience pays for the art. No ticket sales, no art. This seems like a through the looking-glass version of what State support for culture was originally supposed to achieve. It also revives a longstanding criticism among some artists of the so-called “professionalisation” of the sector which has taken place with the enthusiastic backing of the Arts Council since the 1990s – that it has created a cadre of salaried gatekeepers who enjoy a level of job security and income that actual artists or performers can only dream of. This apparatus, reinforced by the creation of specific postgraduate courses in arts management and cultural policy, has in turn given rise to a new clerisy which speaks to itself in its own opaque language, reflected in the byzantine application processes for funding which agencies such as the Arts Council now require.

This may be an exaggeration, but it would be very interesting to see a full breakdown by employment type of the employment status, conditions and annual incomes of everyone working in the creative industries, including funding agencies. Not, for once, in order to focus on any particular individual’s pay, but to see whether there is, in fact, a two-tier system in operation.

Deeper shifts

This isn’t a question solely for Arts Council-supported artforms and organisations. It reflects deeper shifts in how cultural production works, many of them mirroring broader changes in society. It used to be the case that some actors had full-time staff jobs with RTÉ and the Abbey Theatre. Nobody really seems to regret the fact that this was finally done away with a couple of decades ago; it always seemed out of step with the project-based nature of dramatic work for stage, screen or radio. But there’s no doubt that creative industries enthusiastically embraced the broader trend towards outsourcing and casualisation which has taken place since the 1980s. So broadcasters now look to independent companies to make programmes that were previously produced in-house, and newspapers rely more on freelancers than heretofore. Such arrangements can often benefit all sides, giving writers, directors and performers the creative freedom and autonomy they desire. But they also significantly alter the power dynamic between the company and such workers. And, if the time comes to make cuts, it’s far easier to dispense with the freelancer than with the staff employee.

The public sees very little of this, and when it does it’s usually through the misleading prism of marquee names at the top of their profession who operate as sole traders and often command eyewateringly high fees. But that’s not the reality for the vast majority.

The challenges faced by the Gate and others in the past year have been exceptional, but moments of crisis can often help us see underlying realities. One of the latter is the gap that exists in the arts between the precarious many and the salaried few.

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