Cultural crossroads - UK sector at crisis point after Covid-19

New research has revealed the profound impact of COVID-19 on the UK cultural sector’s organisations, workforce and audiences.

The sector is at a major turning point and facing imminent burnout alongside significant skills and workforce gaps, a report from Leeds’ Centre for Cultural Value shows.

The UK’s cultural sector urgently needs to work together… to adopt more equitable and regenerative modes of working.

Professor Ben Walmsley, Centre for Cultural Value

Published this week, “Culture in crisis – Impacts of COVID-19 on the UK cultural sector and where we go from here” is a major study into the impact of COVID-19 on the cultural industries. 

Key findings


  • The pandemic held a mirror up to a deeply unequal cultural sector. 

  • Its impact was not experienced evenly across the sector, with younger workers, women and workers from ethnically diverse backgrounds among the hardest hit in terms of losing work and income. 

  • For freelancers, who make up a significant part of the cultural workforce, the impact was major and sometimes devastating. Freelancers constituted 62% of the core-creative workforce before the pandemic and only 52% by the end of 2020.

  • The most dramatic decline in the cultural industries workforce was observed in music, performing and visual arts, where the professional workforce fell by around a quarter between March and June 2020, with no signs of significant recovery by the end of 2020, in comparison with other sectors.


  • Places with a history of obtaining public investment – and the arts and cultural organisations based in those places – benefited most from the Culture Recovery Fund. 

  • Networks played a key role in building resilience and, in light of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, many cultural organisations re-evaluated their relevance to local communities. This was complemented by an increase of hyperlocal engagement due to lockdown restrictions on travel and behaviour.


  • Despite the rapid take-up of vaccines, the population’s confidence in returning to cultural venues has remained stubbornly low throughout 2021.

  • While the shift to digital transformed cultural experiences for those already engaged with cultural activities, it failed to diversify cultural audiences. 

  • 80% survey respondents said that taking part in arts and culture was important to their wellbeing, positively affecting their mood and helping them to manage anxiety. 

Centre for Cultural Value Director, Professor Ben Walmsley, is one of the editors of the report. He said: “Although the pandemic is still very much a part of our everyday lives and the longer-term implications of our research are still emerging, it is already clear that the pandemic has had a significant impact on the arts and cultural sector in the UK. 

“We’re at a major crossroads. Policy makers now have an opportunity to learn from the experiences and challenges faced by the arts and cultural sector during the pandemic. The UK’s cultural sector urgently needs to work together and seize this moment to adopt more equitable and regenerative modes of working and create positive and lasting change.” 

The evidence gathered by the report’s authors during the height of the pandemic was a vital source of insight for civil servants, cultural organisations and policy makers. The report also includes an analysis of the effect of the pandemic on the cultural sector in the Greater Manchester City Region and case studies from a range of arts organisations in the UK, offering insights into how different organisations coped with the challenges of an unprecedented crisis. 

The authors believe policy makers and others should examine the report’s findings and seize the opportunity to transform the bruised cultural industries as they recover from the pandemic’s effects.

The study was led by the Centre for Cultural Value, based at the University of Leeds, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19, and undertaken in partnership with the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre and The Audience Agency.

Anne Torreggiani, Chief Executive of The Audience Agency, said: “As a partner in this research programme, we’ve generated crucial primary evidence to help the arts and cultural sector understand the impact of the pandemic on audiences and how behaviours and attitudes have changed at different stages of the pandemic.

“The real-time data that emerged from the audience monitor survey means that policy makers and leaders in the cultural industries had access to the best possible information on which to base key decisions in a rapidly-changing environment.”

Eliza Easton, Head of Policy Unit at the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre, added: “We were pleased to be a policy partner on this major programme of COVID research, shaping policy recommendations that supported the sector through the pandemic.”

As we begin the pandemic recovery phase, the findings from the research will be a vital tool to help cultural sector professionals and policymakers to navigate the way ahead.

Eliza Easton, Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre

And Arts and Humanities Research Council Executive Chair, Professor Christopher Smith, said: “We invested in this UK-wide research programme, led by the Centre of Cultural Value, because we believe in the vital role of research in supporting the recovery of the creative and cultural sector. 

“We look forward to working with partners across the research ecosystem, the creative industries, and policy, to help develop the innovative solutions that will enable the UK’s cultural sector to recover and thrive.” 

Next steps

The Centre for Cultural Value is now working with policy partners to test and refine a set of policy recommendations based on the research findings, at a time when the critical importance of the cultural industries in supporting the Government’s Levelling Up agenda is becoming clear. 

Immediately evident is the need for national and local governments to communicate clear public health and safety guidance to all cultural organisations at the onset of a future crisis or pandemic.

The Cultural Recovery Fund was critical in assuring the immediate future of cultural sector organisations. However, the report highlights the need to better map and understand the vital role that freelancers play in the cultural industries so that they cannot fall between the gaps in emergency support in any future crisis.

Further information

The Centre for Cultural Value works alongside cultural practitioners, organisations, academics, funders and policymakers to:

  • make relevant research more accessible;

  • support the cultural sector in developing research, evaluation and reflective skills and practices;

  • convene discussion around cultural value;

  • shape policy development.

The Centre for Cultural Value is a UK-wide research centre based at the University of Leeds. It is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Arts Council England

For more information, contact Communications Manager, Tamsin Curror via email:

Main image: The Lowry in lockdown. Credit: Nathan Chandler.