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3. How diversity and inequality became central problems for UK cultural policy

Published onNov 29, 2023
3. How diversity and inequality became central problems for UK cultural policy


This paper offers an overview of recent trends and research on inequality in UK cultural policy. It does this by considering two, interlinked, issues: the drive for greater diversity in audiences and workforces, alongside concerns and debates over rising inequality in the cultural sector. It focuses on how social class- and the associated social mobility agenda- became central to cultural policy decision making.

The paper is divided into four sections, beginnign by telling the story of ‘managing’ culture in the UK. It sets out the impact of various public administration reforms, specifically the rise of auditing and accountability measures and their impact on cultural policy. It then turns to consider how these auditing regimes were populated by statistics on the audience and workforce. These statistics have shaped current debates over issues of diversity and inequality, as they have made the problem of inequalities visible to policy makers. This point is substantiated with the case study of social mobility in the creative sector. Academic research on the low rates of social mobility into cultural and creative jobs, and low levels of working-class representation in the audience for the arts, have seen various responses from policy including funding decisions, organisational reforms, and new regimes of data collection.

To further illustrate this discussion, the paper offers three case studies of arts organisations who have been active in this policy space. Jerwood Arts reshaped its creative bursaries programme in light of both data on social class and critiques of the social mobility agenda; The British Film Institute began a data collection regime for social class in its funding streams in 2018; and Arts Council England’s most recent 10-year strategy, Let’s Create, is a response to both political, sector, and academic concerns over class inequality in the arts.

However, as the paper describes, policy responses have done little to shift the persistent inequalities in the creative sector. These problems have been exacerbated by a decade of declining funding for the arts and ‘austerity’ within the British State; Brexit; and the impact of the Covid pandemic of 2020. The penultimate section considers these impacts and the associated policy response, bringing the analysis up to the present with discussion of the UK Government’s Creative Industries Sector Vision.

Managing culture in the UK

Cultural policy in the UK is a complex system of national, regional, and local governments, along with a variety of Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs). This complexity reflects a legacy of differing governments’ aims for cultural policy, as well as reforms to the way public administration is conducted by central government and devolved national administrations.

This paper will not rehearse the full history of British cultural policy (see Hewison, 1997, 2014; O’Brien, 2013; Upchurch, 2016). Some history is important to fully understand how specific issues associated with inequality became important to cultural policy. In particular, the history of public management reforms since the 1980s in the UK helps to explain how specific inequalities became visible problems for current cultural policy.

The 1980s saw the introduction of a range of reforms to public administration that was dubbed the ‘New Public Management’ (Osborne and Gaebler, 1992). Two trends are most significant for the present discussion. These reforms aimed to withdraw the state from direct provision of public goods and services; and to introduce management techniques from the private sector into public administration. Economy, efficiency, and effectiveness were to be the three core aims of public service, and public administration provision.

These reforms began under the Conservative governments of the 1980s. They were developed, albeit with important and distinctive characteristics, by the New Labour administrations of 1997-2010. New Labour embedded a management regime of measurements and targets across the public sector, including cultural policy (O’Brien, 2013). NDPBs, such as the Arts Council England (ACE) and the British Film Institute (BFI) continued to make funding decisions- and thus deliver cultural policy- at arm’s length from central government. At the same time, they were supposedly held accountable via a regime of measurements, indicators, and targets.

Both New Public Management and the subsequent attempts to govern via indicators and targets were subject to extensive critiques (Hewison, 2014, Hesmondhalgh et al, 2015). Notably, critics questioned the appropriateness of numeric forms of data for the cultural sector. Fitting in to this agenda saw both government and the cultural sector develop numeric proxies for the economic impact of culture; the social impact of culture; the economic value of culture; and a host of policy frames including the use of culture in urban regeneration, alongside the creative industries agenda as a whole (O’Brien, 2013).

What is striking is that this approach to cultural policy has remained largely unchanged since the mid-2000s. This is irrespective of the government, the particular prime minister, and major political and public administration changes such as the UK leaving the European Union. The Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) today has a list of priority outcomes, alongside a range of performance indicators. In turn, Arts Council England’s latest 10-year strategy Lets Create is assessed and monitored via an impact framework and a set of key performance indicators.

This approach to the public administration has not only created new modes of monitoring via metrics and performance indicators; it has also, alongside the creative industries agenda (Hesmondhalgh et al, 2015) seen a focus on new categories in cultural policy. In the 1980s, the Arts Council shifted language from ‘audiences’ to ‘consumers’ and from ‘subsidy’ to ‘investment’ (Quinn, 1998:177). In the current context, DCMS publishes detailed information on employment in a range of arts and cultural sectors, and the Arts Council has added ‘participants’ and ‘creators’ to its understanding of cultural policy (Arts Council England, 2020, 2021). It has also adopted a geographic lens to its decision-making and policy, seeking to rebalance the funding disparities (Stark et al, 2013, 2014) between London and those parts of England outside of major regional cities.

Auditing Regimes

Who consumes culture in the UK?

The regime of managing culture through data and indicators is made possible, in part, by the UK’s excellent data sources (for a critical history cultural data regimes see Selwood 2019). The DCMS collects data on engagement with culture in England in its annual Participation Survey. This is the successor survey to the Taking Part survey, which had both a longitudinal and annual version. A major difference is the latter was a face-to-face survey, whilst its replacement is online and paper and postage based, but there is continuity and consistency between the two in terms of key questions and subject matter.

This sort of data is a hugely significant resource, offering rich and detailed levels of information on cultural engagement often only available from bespoke commissioned surveys in other nations, or at much less detailed (and frequent) levels for cross-EU trends (Anand et al, 2020).

Taking Part launched in 2005, reflecting the need for data on culture to fit into the indicator regimes interested in the effectiveness of government spending on- or ‘investment’ in- cultural institutions. Key questions at that time reflected concerns over audiences missing the potential benefits of cultural engagement (Dawson, 2019 O’Brien, 2013), as well as the need to understand general patterns of attendance, and later, participation and engagement in a variety of cultural forms.

Since 2005, the DCMS data, whether from Taking Part or the Participation Survey has shown consistent results. Typical headlines are that 90% of the English population engage with the arts at least once a year, 80% at least once a week. This is driven by reading, going to the cinema, playing video games, or going to live music. More traditional arts attendance, such as visits to galleries and museums, are a much smaller percentage of that engagement figure (DCMS, 2023).

DCMS offers a wealth of detail on these headline figures. These include demographic characteristics, such as race, gender and (proxies for) social class, as well as information about how engagement differs by geography (DCMS, 2023).

Although the headlines suggest the English have a rich cultural life, the dataset has provided the basis for a longstanding critique of inequalities in the country’s patterns of cultural consumption. Miles and Sullivan (2012), Taylor (2016), Leguina and Miles (2017) Mihelj et al (2019), Hanquinet et al (2019), and Brook et al (2020) all used this dataset to demonstrate class, race, gender, and geographic inequalities in cultural consumption and participation.

Most notably, this history of analysis demonstrated that individuals with intensive engagement in culture - for example, repeated attendance at opera and art galleries and theatre performances- were a relative minority in the English population. Rather, the cultural norm for England was watching television, reading books, spending time with friends and family, and perhaps visiting the cinema. Activities that attracted most government investment were most detached from the everyday lives of the English population. Moreover, this series of research papers demonstrated the segment of the population benefitting most from government investment were white people, from middle class backgrounds, in professional occupations, with high levels of education, living in the Southeast of England.

These inequalities manifested in policy debates associated with Arts Council England’s 10-year strategy reviews for 2010 (Great Art and Culture for Everyone, 2010-2020) and 2020 (Lets Create, 2020). The consultation and development materials for both of these long-term strategies reflect the ongoing policy desire for the arts audience to better reflect the demographics of the overall English population. Moreover, Lets Create offered a radical rethink of the meaning of arts and culture in England to address the inequalities that government data, alongside academic research, were demonstrating had been unmoved and unchanged since the mid 2000s, when high quality population level arts data was first collected at national governmental level.

Who works in culture in the UK?

The data collection regime and policy concerns over audience inequalities are echoed in the case of the cultural workforce. DCMS defines Cultural and Creative Industries as nine clusters of occupations within the economy: Advertising and Marketing; Architecture; Crafts; Design (product, graphic and fashion design); Film, TV, radio and photography; IT, software and computer services; Publishing; Museums, galleries and libraries; and Music, performing and visual arts. These sectors correspond with 30 groups of occupations, for example Music, performing and visual arts is constituted by: Artists; Actors, entertainers and presenters; Dancers and choreographers; and Musicians.

For the workforce, DCMS publishes details of sector Gross Value Added (GVA), employment, and business demographics for the whole of the UK. The key data sources here are the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Annual Business Survey (ABS) and the ONS Annual Population Survey (APS). The APS draws on data from the ONS Labour Force Survey (LFS).

GVA and employment figures have been central to cultural policy since New Labour. The economic contribution of culture, both in terms of money and in terms of employment figures, has been widely used as a justification for both public investment in, and policy salience of, the sector.

The economic contribution of culture in central government data has gone hand-in-hand with a variety of cross-national arguments and justifications for culture, such as the economic benefits of hosting major cultural events; the need to attract a wealthy tax base of creatives to urban areas (Florida, 2002); and the impact of culture on the regeneration of places (see O’Brien, 2013 for summaries of these arguments). Needless to say, all three of these have been hotly debated, if not roundly debunked (e.g. Stevenson, 2023).

The same data sources used by central government to show positive GVA and employment figures have also shown inequalities within the workforce. Using the same sets of data we can see that inequality, by gender, ethnicity, and social and economic status or class, is an important characteristic of cultural and creative work (Carey et al, 2023).

Issues of gender and racial inequalities in the creative workforce, as captured in academic research and government statistics, had been well known for a long time. However, social class inequalities have only recently entered the data collection regime. In 2014, the ONS introduced questions about social class origin to the LFS. This has enabled a new area of demographic analysis- and the emergence of a new, but also well-known and longstanding, set of inequalities.

Fitting social mobility into cultural policy

Since 2014, for a variety of reasons, class inequalities have been discussed as part of a broader government and arts sector focus on social mobility. This history is intertwined with both data collection regimes and with a specific politics associated with the concept of social mobility.

Social mobility is, unfortunately, a confusing term. This is because it has two main uses, one is a technical academic term, the other reflects policy and media use(s). Whilst these two uses seem superficially similar, they are distinct in several ways. Moreover, academic work has critiqued the policy and media versions of social mobility, further adding to some of the confusion.

In policy and media, social mobility captures a range of social inequalities in contemporary Britain. It is also embedded in a broader political project of social fairness and meritocracy (Littler, 2017).

For academic research, social mobility has a precise definition. It describes the rates of individuals moving from one social position to another, from their origin to their destination. These origins can be based on parental occupation, with the occupation an individual ends up doing later in life as the corresponding destination (Goldthorpe, 2016). Origins and destinations can also be based on income, with parental income for origins, an individual’s income later in life as a destination. Social mobility, in academic usage, involves a description of probability of moving classes or moving up the income scale, rather than a comment on the fairness, or morality, of society. Social mobility research captures how for some people there is no movement, the class they are born into is the class they end up in. For others there is long- or short-range mobility between classes.

This idea of long- or short-range mobility is usually associated with class being defined as a set of occupational groups. This is based on the Office for National Statistics’ occupational classification (NS-SEC) that places individual occupations into a set of seven groups, with an extra one for those who are unemployed. NS-SEC clusters range from I (higher managerial and professional, which includes doctors, CEOs and lawyers) to VII (routine occupations such as bar staff, care workers, and cleaners), while VIII is those who have never worked or who are long-term unemployed.

In 2014, as part of the Labour Force Survey, ONS began asking people a set of questions about their class origins. The central question was what the main income earner in their household did for work when they were 14. Along with additional information about the type of work associated with the childhood household, this question meant people could be classified into the NS-SEC categories for social origins. For example, if they had a parent who was a doctor (NS-SEC I) or a cleaner (NS-SEC VII).

This information allows estimates of how many working-or middle-class origin people there are in the economy, as well as comparing people’s parental occupational origins to their own occupational destinations. The data shows how many children of cleaners (NS-SEC VII) end up working as doctors (NS-SEC I), allowing an understanding of social mobility in society and revealing how many individual origins are different from destinations. The data gives the overall rates of social mobility in British society.

The data also provides information on social mobility in creative occupations. It shows significant class inequalities. The most recent analysis, by Carey et al (2023) suggested around 25% of all creative workers were from routine and manual- working class- social origins, compared to around 37% of all workers.

More detailed analysis (Carey et al 2021) shows creative industries are dominated by those from professional and managerial- middle class- social origins. 2020 data from the LFS indicates that over half (52%) of all creative workers are from these middle-class backgrounds. Aside from Crafts, all creative industries and all creative occupations have over representations of those from middle class origins, with specific, key, cultural occupations including journalists and newspaper editors (69% middle class origin), musicians (67%), artists (62%), and authors and writers (57%), having acute class inequalities.

There have been few to no changes in these patterns since the data was first collected in 2014 (Brook et al, 2020). Moreover, O’Brien et al (2016) in the first analysis of the 2014 ONS LFS data, found evidence of pay gaps between those from upper-middle class origins and those from working class starting points. For example, in Film, TV, Radio and Photography occupations there is evidence of a class pay gap of up to £23,000 a year. Their analysis also suggested that much of this class pay gap is related to individuals’ education levels.

The pay gaps, and associated analysis, reinforce existing research that suggests even when women, ethnic minorities, and working-class origin individuals make it into cultural and creative occupations, they face significant penalties based on their demographic characteristics.

The limits of social mobility

The influence of these statistics is difficult to disentangle from media and sector concerns along with political scrutiny of inequalities in the cultural audience and workforce (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, 2019, 2022; House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, 2023). Sector, media, and policy concerns have seen several responses from the government, particularly following regime changes since the 2016 referendum on Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

The government launched a formal industrial strategy for the creative industries in 2018. The Creative Industries Industrial Strategy Sector Deal (BEIS, 2018) is noteworthy because it addressed the need for a more diverse creative sector, even though social mobility was not a specific focus.

The centrepiece to address inequality was an industry-led creative careers programme for 2,000 schools and 600,000 individuals. This was seen as a way of raising awareness of the range of jobs available in the sector, along with upskilling and retraining programmes. The focus was on the ‘talent pipeline’ framed as a set of skills mismatches and lack of awareness of potential jobs in the sector. The core strategy focused on digital skills (as a result of the conflation of IT occupations and cultural and arts jobs within DCMS statistics Campbell et al, 2018) and advertising and awareness programmes, with little direct intervention from DCMS. The approach was also based on existing creative clusters, focused on cities and regions with existing capacity for creative industries development. Political turbulence and the change of government in 2019 meant although the creative careers programme went ahead, little else of the industrial strategy survived; Government rhetoric in 2019 about ‘levelling up’ regional inequalities also failed to stand the test of the pandemic in 2020 and then three changes of Prime Minister in 2022.

In 2021 The Social Mobility Commission (SMC), the non-departmental public body that monitors social mobility and advises the government on policy, published a toolkit on the creative industries (Social Mobility Commission, 2021). This set out current analysis on the extent of class and social mobility inequalities in creative jobs, and offered advice to organisations on measuring and addressing class inequalities.

This was perhaps the high point for the social mobility agenda regarding class inequality in the cultural sector. Subsequent changes in leadership at SMC, coupled with a shift in focus by SMC away from mobility into the professions (including the arts), have seen relatively little from SMC to follow up its creative industries work of 2021. Two leading sociologists of social mobility, Goldthorpe and Bukodi (2022:583), have suggested that SMC’s approach is now “characterised as one encouraging the working class to keep to their place, both socially and geographically”. This is in contrast to the previous focus on widening access to professional occupations, such as the creative industries, for those from working class social origins (see also Maslen, 2022).

The decline of formal policy support for social mobility in the creative industries has been matched by the continued influence of critical voices questioning social mobility as an appropriate framework for both the cultural sector and for addressing social inequality more generally (e.g. Gamsu and Ingram, 2022, Ashley, 2022). Politically, this found expression in the Labour Party’s 2019 rejection of social mobility and its associations with individual success coming at the cost of societal injustice. These two trends, coupled with the shift in direction (and controversy over leadership) at SMC, seemed to marginalise social mobility within arts discourses and as a policy framework for creative industries. However, the data collection regimes, and the ongoing inequalities associated with social class in the cultural and creative sectors, are still present (e.g. Carey et al, 2021).

Organisational and Policy responses: Jerwood Arts, British Film Institute, and Arts Council England

How has this agenda played out practically for cultural policy? Three short case studies serve as illustrations of the practical impact of both the social mobility policy moment, as well as the impact of the ability to collect data on social class in the cultural workforce and audience.

Jerwood Arts Creative Bursaries Programme: from individual social mobility to organisational change

Jerwood Arts is a private sector arts funder with a variety of programmes. Since 2010 it has run the Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries (WJCB) programme. It has supported over 150 early career creative workers from working-class backgrounds. Originally using university grant eligibility data to decide on admissions to the programme, the 2020 edition saw major revisions to the data collection regime. This reflected changes in data collection based on the ONS LFS data on social class, and was also a response to academic analysis of class inequalities and social mobility in the creative sector.

In 2019, in preparation for the 2020-22 programme, Jerwood Arts published the Socio-economic Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts: A Toolkit for Employers (Jerwood Arts, 2019). Whilst Jerwood were not the only arts organisation working on class issues (for example Create London and Arts Emergency’s Panic! programme, and more general work by Sutton Trust and the Bridge Group), it set out a data collection regime for social class that mirrored the ONS’s. The intention was that the Jerwood toolkit could be adopted by other arts organisations.

The Toolkit also saw shifts in the focus of the programme. Academic research suggested the sector’s longer-term nature of class inequalities had not been transformed by Jerwood’s individually focused social mobility programmes. In response, 2020-22 saw a move to include organisational development alongside ongoing support for individual social mobility into the arts.

Working with 50 host organisations, as well as 50 individuals, the programme used the Toolkit to try to change how hosts approached social class in the context of recruitment. This produced a follow-up toolkit, (Team) Work in Practice: Collective Insights, Ideas, and Challenges to Drive Socio-economic Inclusivity in your Organisation (Jerwood Arts, 2022). Much of the focus in the second toolkit was on organisational change, rather than personal adaptation to the existing, often exploitative and exclusionary, working culture of the arts (cf. Ashley, 2022).

This shift in focus reflected a shift in social mobility discourses. The programme’s support for organisational development, along with the stress on what organisations need to do, rather than solely on how individuals need to be supported, recognised critical perspectives on social mobility. These critical perspectives argued social mobility’s focus is on making individuals fit their destinations, rather than demanding systemic change to make sectors (and society) more equal and just (Ashley, 2022). Moreover, in the case of the cultural sector, social mobility was often for only small numbers of individuals (Brook et al, 2022).

The persistence of inequalities in the arts, and the changing socio-political circumstances, were important to WJCB’s interventions. Notably, by 2022 class inequalities were a mainstream part of cultural policy discourses. Social class, and issues of social mobility in the cultural sector were given more prominence as Arts Council England published research on understanding the class characteristics of the arts workforce (Oman, 2019) and instituted a new data collection regime for NPOs.

BFI Film Fund: A new data regime on social class in the film industry

The BFI launched its data collection regime for social class in 2018. This adopted the approach used by the ONS in the LFS and recommended by Jerwood Arts (2019). A similar approach formed part of the framework that would later be recommended by the Social Mobility Commission (2021). A target of 39% working class origin individuals funded through BFI programmes was launched in April 2023 (BFI, 2023). However, it was not until the summer of 2023 that the BFI published analysis of the data it had collected.

The BFI Film Fund is an open access fund that offers financial and other forms of support to writers, producers, and directors at three stages of film creation. These range from “Network”, which supports those at the start of their career, through to “Development” and “Production”, with rising levels of funding for each strand.

The analysis of 2019/20- 2021/22 data showed ongoing and significant inequalities in social class representation in the BFI Film Fund, both in terms of who applies and who is funded. The 2023 analysis also showed important intersectional inequalities, with working class origin women likely to struggle to access and be awarded funding when compared to working class origin men, who in turn struggle in comparison to their middle-class colleagues.

At this time of writing the BFI has yet to announce a major policy response to these figures, although the commitment to a target for working class representation is in itself significant. How the BFI will achieve this in light of the systemic and substantive issues revelled by the data remains to be seen.

Arts Council England’s Lets Create

Whilst data collection regimes have proved influential in framing cultural policy’s interest in social mobility, the broader policy landscape after 2016 has also been important. This plays out in the case study of Arts Council England’s most recent 10-year strategy, Lets Create.

Arts Council England concluded a research project on measuring class origin for its National Portfolio Organisations (Oman, 2019). This took place against the backdrop of its The Creative Case for Diversity (2017) policy work, and the then development of a new 10-year strategy.

Social class inequalities and the associated social mobility agenda were given much more prominence as a result of this work. They were also given prominence as a result of more directly political interventions.

ACE were given instructions from one of 2022’s Secretary of States for Culture to shift some of its funding away from London. ACE makes funding decisions to major organisations based on a 3 year-round that brings 600-700 organisations together into National Portfolio. The November 2022 National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) decisions saw some of the larger, city-based organisations lose all funding and many receive standstill (and thus real-term reductions given the rate of inflation) or reduced funding settlements. A range of smaller, regionally based organisations joined the funding portfolio for the first time.

These funding decisions reflected both financial constraints and the 10-year strategy for ACE, ‘Let’s Create’. The strategy aims at three outcomes for individuals, communities and the nation’s creativity, delivered through a framework of four investment principles: ambition and quality; dynamism; environmental responsibility; and inclusivity and relevance (Arts Council England, 2020, Arts Council England, 2021). The debates over the 2022 NPO round, and more generally over ‘Let’s Create’ are still ongoing. The strategy and attendant funding decisions marked a shift from the previous ‘Great Art and Culture for Everyone’ 10-year strategy, although the majority of major cultural institutions in England’s cities, particularly in London, have remained in the portfolio. ‘Let’s Create’ aims to give prominence to less institutionalised cultural activity. There is less emphasis on audiences and venues and more on participants and creators, of whatever form.

Let’s Create’ is partially a response to inequalities in arts and culture in England, both in the workforce and in the audience. Awareness of these inequalities, in turn, reflects both the national data collection regime as well as ACE’s own work on collecting class data. Alongside the political pressure for changes in funding patterns, scandals within arts organisations following the #MeToo movement in the 2010s, and organisations’ responses, and failures to respond, to the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 (e.g. Barbican Stories 2021) also shaped awareness of inequalities as policy was being made.

ACE’s Let’s Create agenda fixed cultural policy in the direction of more participatory forms of culture. It remains to be seen how effective this strategy will be when set against the reality of longstanding traditions in cultural practice and dominance of specific genres and organisations within England’s cultural policy. Irrespective of Let’s Create’s potential struggles and limitations, the changing orientation will have implications for how organisations are supported to bring socio-economic equity to their staff and audiences.

The Sector Vision, ‘good work’, and the post-pandemic cost of living crisis

By 2023 cultural policy was struggling to come to terms with the impact of the pandemic, and political turbulence in central government. The pandemic accentuated the longstanding issues of inequality in both the arts workforce and the arts audience. Data from 2020 and 2021 suggested a slower than expected return of in-person core audiences (Walmsley et al, 2022) and little evidence of new audiences developed by digital innovations during lockdown (Feder et al 2022). This raised questions for those organisations dependent on both ticket sales and in-person spending for their revenue.

Research also highlighted the specific impacts for early-career creative workers (Walmsley et al 2022). Whilst almost every worker in the performing and visual arts was negatively affected by the necessary public health interventions of 2020-22, data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested younger workers, most likely at the beginning of their careers in the arts, were more likely to be losing work.

The impact of the pandemic exacerbated longer term trends in the sector linked to ‘austerity’ and reductions in funding streams for arts and culture. Following the election of the Coalition government in 2010, various areas of policy were subject to reductions in both absolute and real terms funding. Central government’s cultural budget was not reduced as much as local authority funding, but the overall impact was lower levels of government support for culture (Gilmore et al, 2024)

The impacts of austerity, as with the pandemic, were felt unevenly. Campbell and Rex (2022) note that some local authorities in England cut cultural budgets entirely, whilst others carried on with substantive, but reduced, levels of support. Overall though, the sector was less resilient and less well prepared than it might otherwise have been by the ‘shock’ of covid (Gilmore et al, 2024).

Some arts organisations were able to diversify revenues, drawing on more philanthropic sources of funding. However, as the House of Common’s Culture Media and Sport Select Committee (2011) noted in 2011’s, this type of revenue skewed towards larger and more prominent organisations based in the South East of England. The diversification of revenue streams, including towards a greater number of philanthropic sources, generated considerable debate over the influence (or not) of the changes in funding regimes on the practices of arts organisations (Alexander, 2018).

These debates and discussions were neither new (e.g. Upchurch, 2016) nor have they been concluded. By the early 2020s, O’Brien et al (2022, 2023) noted a distinctive shift in the governance of arts organisations since both the 1970s and 1990s (charted by Griffiths et al, 2008). Whilst arts governance in the 1970s was still gentlemanly and aristocratic, and the 1990s more public sector and technocratic, the early 2020s saw a greater influence of board members with expertise in property development and tax regulations. 

Concurrent to the negative impacts of the pandemic, political changes saw key agendas lose salience. By Autumn 2022, central government’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda, which seemingly focused on funding suburban regions of England for the purposes of regeneration (Jennings et al 2021), had been all but abandoned. The end of the Johnson administration and the financial crisis under the Truss regime saw a shift away from both the language and the concerns of rebalancing the economy with funding given to ‘left behind’ regions and places. Whilst there were signs of culture-focused funding as part of Levelling Up, the agenda stalled in the face of persistent structural inequalities in arts funding and the arts sector in England (DCMS Select Committee, 2022).

The impact of the pandemic, alongside the shift away from ‘levelling up’ of place-based inequalities, represented a cultural policy context ill-equipped to deal with high inflation and what became known as the ‘cost-of-living’ crisis of 2022-2023 (Corlett and Try, 2022, Brewer et al, 2023). The causes of this ongoing cost-of-living crisis are multiple, and its effects are unevenly distributed. Work from the Resolution Foundation’s most recent Intergenerational Audit suggested that younger workers, for example, confronted the cost-of-living crisis with ‘low levels of financial resilience’ (Broome et al, 2022).

This more general trend is important as it is likely to increase inequality in the arts workforce. Existing research on the arts workforce demonstrated that those with economic, social, and cultural resources are much more likely to be able to sustain the low pay and insecure working practices that characterise early-career creative occupations (Brook et al, 2020). At the same time, labour market data suggested there has not been a strong recovery in numbers of artistic and cultural jobs since 2020, with evidence of longer working hours for existing workers rather than new jobs being created (O’Brien et al ,2023).

Summer 2023, against this uncertain context for cultural policy, saw DCMS publish the first significant cultural policy intervention since the industrial strategy sector deal for the creative industries in 2018. The Creative Industries Sector Vision sought to re-orientate creative industries policy, as the central part of the UK’s cultural policy, towards economic growth based on successful ‘clusters’ of creative industries; better working conditions and more people employed in the sector; and creative industries contribution to diplomatic, environmental and wellbeing objectives. These broad objectives were complimented, and made visible, by a commitment to a data collection regime, spending evaluations, and policy-orientated research projects (DCMS, 2023).

As part of the sector vision DCMS co-funded a new framework for measuring job quality in the creative industries based on a variety of existing data sources, including the ONS LFS (Carey et al, 2023). This demonstrated how creative work provides fulfilment, identity, and potentially high levels of job satisfaction. Yet, low pay, lack of career development, precarious contractual relationships, and evidence of poor health outcomes and exploitative employer and commissioner expectations, are also key aspects of work in the sector.

Precise government actions across all sections of the Sector Vision remain to be seen. There is little to address the impact of Brexit, which has seen uniformly negative impacts on the cultural sector and the broader economy. Indeed, the lack of economic growth associated with austerity, the pandemic, and Brexit are likely to mean little to no growth in the state’s support for culture in the coming years.

It is also worth remarking here on the tension between the push for growth in jobs and the potentially negative aspects of the creative economy. To return to the theme of this paper, the often-poor working practices and working conditions that characterise several occupations in the cultural sector are well known from a variety of academic research (see Brook et al 2020 for a summary). Any growth of poor quality jobs in the sector is unlikely to do much to address issues of workforce inequality.

Conclusion: How diversity and inequality became central problems for UK cultural policy

Writing in 2021, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Creative Diversity challenged and demanded new, bold and visionary leadership from organisations and policymakers to support diversity in the cultural and creative workforce. This call reflected how a range of cultural and creative organisations were keen to see more progress on making their workforces and their audiences more diverse. It also reflected the perceived (and actual) lack of progress on equity, diversity, and inclusion in the creative sector.

The lesson from interventions designed to shape the policy discourse is twofold. On the one hand, it shows how the sorts of data regimes present in British cultural policy have made the issue of inequality clear. In doing so, it has allowed the problem of inequality to become a problem that cultural policy seeks to address. Race, gender, disability, and geographic inequalities could all have served as case studies alongside social class in this paper. Social class is especially useful as it is the most recent example of the intersection of data collection, policy salience, and then policy failure.

This is the second lesson from interventions designed to shape the policy discourse: that only making a problem visible is unlikely to lead to much in the way of policy that is effective in addressing that problem. For this, much greater and much more direct policy approaches are needed, most of the sort that are not possible under a public administration regime that seeks to have the state steer, but not row.

As a final point, it is worth reflecting on the peculiarities of the British context that has given rise to both knowledge about, and inertia in the face of, inequalities in cultural policy. Class is a great British obsession, meaning technical data on the social origins of individuals derived from family positions within the NS-SEC translates readily into policy discourses. There are few prohibitions on demographic data collection in administrative data and national level surveys, a key difference with many Continental European countries. The UK has an emerging cultural policy research culture that is keen to engage with both sociological and economic approaches to quantitative data (Selwood 2021), and the keenness of this academic community has done much to drive the policy agenda. Indeed, British academics are now incentivised, as part of research funding allocations, to have demonstrable policy ‘impact’ (Pardo-Guerra, 2022) in ways that are highly distinctive to other nation’s academic systems (Benneworth, et al 2016).

The British context also reflects a particular insistence by the British of their own peculiarity (Edgerton, 2018). Much of the research on inequalities in cultural audiences discussed in this paper is a direct descendent of Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of cultural consumption in France (Bourdieu, 1984). Research on workforce inequality owes much to the insights of German cultural and media studies (McRobbie et al, 2023). This suggests that, although the statistical regimes are very different, academic knowledge of cultural policy inequalities is well established. Thus there may be very different, distinctive, routes to establishing the extent of inequalities in cultural audiences and cultural workforces elsewhere – ones that avoid the dead end of data collection with no discernible change. 

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