POV: The UK is losing its creative spark

A recent report by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre’s reveals alarming disparities in class representation across the UK’s cultural sector. In hope of change, we speak to resource sharing network Common People on how class representation is more than just a moral issue.

The United Kingdom’s creative spark has long been heralded for its talent, storytelling and innovation, yet our government appears hellbent on extinguishing it. Remarkable visual work aside, the creative industries are a growing, key contributor to the UK economy; with its overall contribution reaching £124.6 billion in 2022 – more than 50 per cent larger than its contribution in 2010.

Yet under the Conservative government, the creative industries are a constant target of hypocritical cuts. Take current prime minister Rishi Sunak’s focus on mathematics in education, advocating for young folk to study maths up to 18, while arts enrolment at GSCE level has declined by 47 per cent since 2010. Higher education in the arts is also in a vulnerable position. Just yesterday (29 May) the Conversatives pledged to scrap the “worst-performing” degree courses – “worst-performing” defined by “drop-out rates, job progression and future earnings potential” – in order to fund 100,000 apprenticeships, a move likely to affect creative leaning subjects. Opportunities to engage with the arts outside of education are also under threat, from Suffolk County Council announcing a 100 per cent cut to arts funding in January of this year, with Birmingham, England’s second largest city, following suit in February.

Unsurprisingly, such decisions are already impacting access to opportunities across the creative sector. Most recently, a report by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre reveals alarming disparities in class representation. Of arts and culture workers in the UK, six in ten are from a middle class background, “And while 23 per cent of the UK workforce is from a working class background, working class people are underrepresented in every area of arts and culture,” reports The Guardian. Broken down by industry, working class individuals make up just 8.4 per cent of media roles, from TV to radio and photography, and just 5.2 per cent of people working in museums, archives and libraries. The report dually reveals the imbalance of regional opportunities. Areas such as Darlington and Blackpool reported less than 1 per cent of people working in arts and culture – a statistic only more likely to reach zero given increasing council cuts. Not to mention how the culture sector is “falling short on other measures of diversity too: 90 per cent of workers are white and only 20 per cent are disabled.”

To say the least, these statistics are alarming for the future of creativity in the UK. However, even though we are unable to expect justifiable change at a governmental level, there are a number of industry-built initiatives laying the groundwork for progress. Take Common People, a resource sharing community and network of working class creatives.

In 2021, against the backdrop of a similarly alarming report, Jed Hallam, co-founder and managing director of CultureLab, invited creatives from similar backgrounds into a WhatsApp group to discuss possible initiatives. Individuals were encouraged to invite a friend, who then invited another “and within 48 hours we had 300 members,” creative strategist Tom Armstrong, one of the first co-founders to join, tells It’s Nice That. Over the past three years, Common People has grown in contributors every day, encompassing a thriving WhatsApp group, monthly Substack, events and consultancy arm.

An emblem of hope, the network takes a “celebratory approach to diversity, highlighting the incredible array of skills a working class background gives you that are vital to the creative workplace,” outlines Tom. “It means we all get to enjoy a broader range of storytelling, power is held to account, and we become a better, more empathetic society for it.” Although its focus is often on sharing resources to open pathways into the industry, Common People keeps the end output of creativity front of mind. For instance, the group holds the belief that increasing class representation is more than “just a moral issue”, but actively affects the communicative storytelling the creative industry prides itself upon. After all: “A monocultural creative industry produces bland, ineffective work, especially when it excludes the very people and communities who’d given Britain its creative spark over the last few decades.”

The positive outcomes of fuelling this spark also reach far beyond the creative industry itself. “By the government’s own admission, our creative industries are an economic success story,” adds Tom, not to mention the “positive image of Britain on a global stage” its output provides. And although senior ministers push society towards other subjects in favour of boosting the workforce, “the arts teach critical thinking, creative problem-solving and a whole array of other skills vital to future-proofing the workforce.” An added bitter pill to swallow is the underfunding of arts in state school education, while “private schools, much like the ones politicians send their own children to, actively sell themselves on their robust art programmes,” adds Tom.

The aftereffects of these funding decisions, educational focuses and lack of appreciation for the arts shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of working class creatives to fight against. But in Tom’s view, “waiting on the creative industries to fix themselves, and for gatekeepers to offer enough opportunities to make a difference, will take a long time, and may never even happen.” In terms of active change, he therefore advocates for “underrepresented groups to simply create their own infrastructure – start companies, brands and agencies, explore alternative funding models, and support each other. We have the talent, after all.”

On a studio or agency level, this may be advocating for socially inclusive changes at your company, “like adding class and/or socio-economic status to their diversity programme, or making sure their invoicing and expenses processes aren’t putting unnecessary financial strain on staff,” Tom advises. Even if hiring isn’t possible during this current period of economic uncertainty, donate time. “Maybe you or your team could spare some time to mentor people, or offer up some desk space to a freelancer or small business, or help somebody monetise their idea.”

While change falling to the individual isn’t a reasonable solution to such infrastructural damages, if talent is the heart of the creative industries, perhaps the same talent has the potential to forge a path for improvement. Because, at the end of the day, “Nobody wins in this current situation,” concludes Tom. “It’s important that society feels energised and inspired by its artistic output and I don’t think we’re seeing that in Britain right now. The people making the decisions just aren’t up to the job.”

Bespoke Insights from It’s Nice That

POV is a column written by It’s Nice That’s in-house Insights department. Published fortnightly, it shares perspectives currently stirring conversation across the creative industry.

As a column, POV is an editorial reflection of our wider work on Insights, digging deeper into industry discussions and visual trends, informed and inspired by creatives we write about. To learn more about visual trends and insights from within the global creative community through our Insights department, click below.

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.


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