The Edinburgh Fringe in Bristo Square, pre-pandemic.

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Culture is bad for you

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Research conducted at the University of Edinburgh is helping challenge inequalities in the creative and cultural industries (CCIs).

Ongoing class, race and gender inequalities make a myth of the idea of meritocracy – that with hard work and talent it is possible to succeed, regardless of your background.

Research shows that, despite many people who work within the creative economy believing in culture as a meritocracy, there are stark classed, racialised and gendered workforce inequalities, such as a lack of representation of people from certain backgrounds. The lack of inclusion of these groups is even more prevalent at senior levels.

Three people talking and laughing

Dr Orian Brook is Chancellor’s Fellow in Social Policy, in the University’s School of Social and Political Science, and a member of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s College of Experts. Dr Brook worked with Professor Dave O’Brien, who led the research but subsequently left the University, and Dr Mark Taylor at the University of Sheffield. Her work on the initial data analysis, of both a large quantitative survey and interviews with almost 250 people working in CCIs, looked specifically at social mobility issues – the under-representation of people from working class backgrounds and the over-representation of those from middle-class backgrounds. She says the sector is particularly affected by entrenched social mobility inequalities that go back decades.

“The perception of social inequality in creative work was that it must have got worse, as there used to be more people from working-class backgrounds in creative jobs, so they must now be being excluded.

“Actually, they’re not being excluded now any more than they were – they always had much worse chances of getting into creative work. The proportion in the population has reduced, due to the loss of manufacturing work and an expansion in office work, which means that they have become an even smaller minority.

Blame discourse

“The response from the sector to previous work uncovering social class inequalities had been ‘what a shame because it didn’t used to be like that in the ‘70s, when anybody could be creative – what went wrong?’ – ‘it must have been Thatcher, and student fees, and people not being able to draw the dole while they develop their bands anymore’. The whole discourse became how politicians had made it impossible for working class people to get creative jobs.

“Our social mobility work looked back, from people born in the 1950s to people born in the 1980s, early 90s, and for each decade, looked at what proportion of people from different social class backgrounds got into creative jobs. What we found was that the proportions change a lot over time because the social class profile of the broader society changes over time. There has been a big shrinkage in people from working class backgrounds in creative jobs but the chances of someone from a working-class background getting a creative job have not changed.

“The chances are, if you are from a more middle class background, you have something like four times the chance of getting a creative job.”

Panic! report

Dr Brook co-authored both the initial report, Panic! Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries, and the 2020 book – Culture is Bad for You.

The Panic! Report was produced in collaboration with Create London, Arts Emergency and the Barbican but involved more than 100 CCI organisations in the UK. Its impact influenced culture change not only at the three collaborating partners but across the sector, including at leading cultural institutions such as the British Film Institute and the Young Vic Theatre. Changes have included transformations in hiring practices, programming and commissioning, and the research directly influenced Arts Council England’s 2020 10-year strategy, Let’s Create.

Alternative Old Boys Network

One of the organisations Dr Brook worked most closely with is Arts Emergency, an award-winning mentoring charity and long-term support network that works with young creatives.

“Arts Emergency is a network working with young people and hooking up those from less privileged backgrounds who wanted to get into arts or creative jobs with mentors. This was for people who didn’t have the social capital to already know people who were working for the BBC for example, or in architecture or film. Arts Emergency would hook them up with mentors in that field so that they would have a way in, like a sort of alternative to the Old Boys Network.”

Arts Emergency worked in London but aspired to expand its operations geographically. Dr Brook used data on schools in areas of social deprivation, with a high proportion of pupils claiming free school meals, mapping this against concentrations of people working in creative and cultural industries who could be approached to become mentors. The final piece of the puzzle was ensuring proximity to a university offering degrees in creative disciplines. A cornerstone of Arts Emergency’s work has been encouraging young people to access creative and humanities education.

“I triangulated all that data – pupils on free school meals, their attainment levels and the proportion going on to higher education, and creative work – and mapped that against universities to help them identify where would be good places to focus their efforts and try to expand. It was never going to be a hard and fast you must go here; more a suggestion of areas that may be more fertile ground.”

Carys Nelkon, Acting Co-CEO, Arts Emergency, said: “Orian’s research was very important in helping us identify the areas where we wanted to expand to. It helped us identify that we wanted to expand into Merseyside, which has been really successful, and now Brighton. The next area we are looking at is Leeds and Bradford.

Two people shake hands in greeting

“We used the research to inform how we choose between areas and that’s developed over time into a nationalisation comparison spreadsheet that we update regularly. The Panic! report really did coincide with a time of big change for us. It was a real moment of realisation for the industry, and we’ve tripled in size since its publication. I would say that’s in part due the report.”

Crash Culture

Dr Brook’s work attracted impact accelerator backing for Arts Emergency’s Youth Collective of young creatives in their early 20s aiming to work in CCIs. This funded the Crash Culture podcast, a series in which the group dissects the implications of the research on their own careers.

“I think that’s really interesting,” says Dr Brook. “It’s obviously academic research but it’s then being taken on and interpreted by young people thinking about their own careers. It’s quite practical from that point of view and hopefully will reach a broader audience in terms of their peers and the people that are working with them.”

A group of people sat at a table talking.

For Dr Brook, work to redress the balance is ongoing. Projects in development include an ambitious plan to reinterview a hundred people working in CCIs from the Panic! project and see how their situation and perceptions have changed in the intervening years. Eventually, she hopes to see the research make a lasting and positive difference to the sector.

“I would like to see a broader understanding of how so many of the practices that are kind of standard are, in fact, problematic and make the sector much less available to people who don’t have a privileged background. It’s that issue of awareness, I think.

Sea change

“For example, I was having a conversation with somebody who’s doing a study on unpaid internships in arts degrees. I know that there has been a bit of a sea change within the sector in terms of understanding that unpaid internships are problematic. Not everyone can afford to do them and it is very excluding for people who don’t have family connections or the sort of background necessary to get into internships that are of value to them.

“I think there is that understanding from within the organisational level but, what I was hearing, is that it’s still very much seen as a completely normal and desirable thing by the universities because of the need to get real world experience. If students are still expected to go out and do unpaid work, there’s some joining up there that needs to be done.

“I think it’s very difficult. It’s about asking people to be more reflective about various aspects of the conditions in creative organisations such as the work/life balance and so on. There’s this expectation that people who work in the arts do it for love but we all need to pay the rent and eat. There are only certain groups of people who can afford to say it’s not about the money. I’d like to see greater recognition of that and an understanding that people still need to be paid even if they love what they’re doing

“The fact that they may be saying no to unpaid work doesn’t mean they’re not committed or passionate or talented. It just means they can’t afford it.”