Raising an interest in culture is one thing, but how sustainable is it to make a living in the arts?

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Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Dr Charles Umney, Associate Professor in Work and Employment Relations, is a member of the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC). His main research interests are: artistic labour markets, ‘marketisation’ in France, and international trade unionism.

Film Poster for Northern Soul

Hull’s experience as UK City of Culture 2017 saw large amounts of new investment in the city’s arts and cultural scene. A flagship programme of public events was implemented throughout the year, along with an influx of resources designed to bolster participation and quality in the arts.

This investment did not happen in a vacuum. It was a major culmination the city’s attempts to “rebrand” itself as an exciting place to visit, live, and set up businesses. It was also intended to increase arts participation among people in Hull. The city has long had a small but vibrant cultural scene, but which has struggled to grow in part due to Hull’s relative lack of resources and high levels of deprivation.

There is evidence that Hull City of Culture succeeded in raising interest and involvement in the arts among residents. The Cultural Transformations report, for instance, found large increases in attendance at cultural events during 2017.

But a number of questions remain unanswered. For one thing, we can currently only speculate about the long-term “legacy” of City of Culture in Hull. Will it produce a lasting boost to the city or will its effects fade as the “buzz” shifts elsewhere?

An even more important question of relevance to these kinds of initiatives is: who can make a living in the arts and how? Much recent evidence shows that the arts remain disproportionately dominated by elites. This is unsurprising when we consider the kinds of risks and financial sacrifices that are often required to build an arts career- not to mention the importance of having the right contacts. The City of Culture status sought to counter this effect by trying to direct money outward to communities, in an effort to give new groups of people the “confidence” to purse the arts. To what extent did it succeed, and what problems stand in the way?

On 13 May 2019, the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC) will present a screening of A Northern Soul at the University of Leeds. The film sheds new light on these questions. It follows Steve Arnott, a Hull rapper who hopes to make a success of the Hull Beats Bus- an initiative which aims to inspire schoolchildren through hip hop workshops. Steve is able to channel some City of Culture resources to support this work, but also faces severe challenges due to the pressures of debt, and the constraints of his low paid and insecure warehousing job. The film illustrates the power of cultural investment to improve people’s lives, but also shows the difficulties many people face in benefitting from it.

At the screening we will have a panel discussion featuring the film’s Director Sean McAllister, the Guardian journalist John Harris, and Dr Beatriz Garcia- a leading academic researcher looking at arts investment and cultural policy.

The themes raised in the documentary are very relevant to my research. I conducted a series of interviews with people involved in implementing and delivering Hull City of Culture 2017 and found examples of numerous success stories, where people who had previously been struggling to gain a foothold in the arts were able to get their careers on a sustainable footing as a result of their participation. However, I also found that these kinds of schemes cannot, at present, fundamentally challenge the widespread “precariousness” and insecurity of arts careers. This research is not yet published but is likely to be available to read later in 2019.

To register for the film screening, visit the event webpage. Tickets are free but, if you feel able, the suggested donation per ticket is £5 to the Hull Beats Bus.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.