Hardship Fund for Creative Freelancers: how do we continue to support Scotland’s rich visual arts ecology?

Writer Chris Sharratt joined us for our Online Member Meet Up about the Hardship Fund for Creative Freelancers on 22nd October. Below he shares details of the fund, alongside some insights from artists that attended on the day.

UPDATE: On 3rd November 2020, Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture Fiona Hyslop MSP announced an additional £3 million available for this fund. More details here.

‘The need is greater now. People have used up their savings and no new work has arrived.’ Artist Jacqueline Donachie is unsurprised by the flood of applications to Creative Scotland’s Creative Freelancers’ Hardship Fund, which took just a couple of hours for requests of support to reach 60% of its total budget when it opened on 26 October. This ‘one-off monetary contribution’ is targeted at those ‘most deeply impacted and disadvantaged by the cancellation of work as a result of the emergency situation’. And with Covid cases rising and the financial pain of the March lockdown still being felt, there is clearly no shortage of artists who could benefit from the funding.

Applications to the fund are now paused until 12noon on Tuesday 10 November so that those who require more time have an opportunity to apply for the £500-£2000 grants. Funded from a £5million grant from the Scottish Government, £700,000 has already been distributed by Screen Scotland leaving £4.4million for this latest fund which covers the rest of the creative sector. The pot for visual artists – which is being distributed through Visual Arts Scotland –  totals £440,000. A further fund directly distributed by Creative Scotland is available for other freelancers working in the visual arts. All applicants must first register on the Creative Scotland online application portal in order to get a Unique Reference Number.

As the fund’s title suggests, the money is meant to alleviate immediate hardship. The grants are non-competitive and do not cover a set period. However, artists should treat any money they receive as income, which means that for those claiming Universal Credit there is likely to be some impact on benefits. When contacted for this article, a spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) suggested artists should read the GOV.UK page ‘How your earnings affect your payments‘ and make use of its Benefits Calculators. Citizens Advice Scotland advised that it is likely that any Universal Credit payment will be tapered by the grant amount in the month it is received.

The new Hardship Fund follows on from March’s rapid response ‘Bridging Bursary’. Like the application process for that, the latest grants require minimal form filling, asking only for proof of activity as a practising artist via a CV/biography. It’s a considerably simpler process than applying to Creative Scotland’s Open Fund, which remains another key funding route for artists. At a recent SCAN members’ Zoom meeting to discuss the Hardship Fund, Creative Scotland’s Head of Visual Arts, Amanda Catto, strongly urged artists to also use the Open Fund as way to support the continuation of their practice. She promised support and advice for artists unfamiliar with the application process.

Donachie is encouraged by this, and also the language being used for the Open Fund. The talk is of ‘sustaining creative development’ and enabling ways of working that will help artists ‘to adapt and respond to the current changing circumstances’. However, Donachie maintains that applying to the fund remains a daunting prospect, and that more should be done to make artists feel able to take this on: ‘I think they need to reduce the number of forms that have to be filled in by artists, and also publicise the Open Fund more. It should be much more readily open for artists [as a way] to enable them to keep their studio practice going.’

Central to the Hardship Fund is that it is quickly administered – the aim is within six weeks – short-term support; an emergency response in an ongoing crisis. While that’s welcome and helpful for now, Donachie believes that what artists really need is the kind of support that allows for meaningful forward planning. It’s a need that has always been there, but in the next few years is likely to be more essential than ever. Donachie, who is a member of the Scottish Government’s Creative Industries Advisory Group, argues that this more long-term approach should be along the lines of a two-year Universal Basic Income for artists: ‘It should be funding that’s based on your status [as an artist] rather than your ideas. Something that allows artists to know they can still pay for their studios, still pay their mortgage, that they don’t need to panic and retrain.’

One of the key criteria for being eligible for the Hardship Fund is that you were ‘working and making income as a freelance creative professional before lockdown began’ in March. While on the surface this might appear straightforward enough, the reality for many artists is that much of their income is from work that isn’t art-related (and may also be PAYE), while their art practice largely involves spending rather than making money, with regular outgoings such as studio rent and materials, and income from art that is erratic and uncertain. The extraordinary situation created by Covid-19 means that in many cases it isn’t just the possibility to earn money from being an artist that has been affected – it’s earning full-stop.

SCAN member Michele Marcoux, for example, is currently self-employed but wasn’t prior to lockdown. For many years she has supported her practice through part-time employment, but shortly before Covid-19 she lost her day job at Edinburgh Napier University. That means she can’t apply for the Hardship Fund and she also falls through the cracks in terms of the the UK Government’s Self Employment Income Support Scheme. (Artists who have been supported through this scheme can only apply for the Hardship Fund if they have received less than £10,114, pro rata – the UK living wage – since 1 April 2020). Marcoux believes that the multiple and complex models that exist in order for artists to get by means that there will always be those, like her, who don’t fit the funding criteria. ‘I understand that Creative Scotland has to know what the income is from art. But art sort of falls through the cracks; it’s not considered a ‘business’, but then when you’re trying to evidence a career you have to show earnings from your art.’

Marcoux believes that the stark economic realities exposed by Covid-19 have, however, shifted the narrative around artists’ pay. She notes that even being described as ‘creative freelancers’ could be seen as part of a growing recognition that, yes, artists do need to earn a living; that money should be discussed more openly. She also believes that the need to sell work has come to the fore since the March lockdown. ‘Sales are completely out of the closet now,’ she says. ‘People are like, I’m not even going to pretend anymore that I don’t want to sell my work. Artists’ Support Pledge has really helped that. Artists are saying, hey, I’m not making any money, I’m just spending money now, and it’s really hard.’

This openness around the economics of being an artist of course pre-dates Covid, with campaigns like a-n’s Paying Artists and the work of organisations such as Scottish Artists’ Union (SAU). The SAU has just launched Seeing Red, a new campaign to highlight the issues facing artists due to Covid-19. It states that 52% of its members didn’t qualify for government support schemes during the pandemic. ‘We have to make a living. And it’s really difficult to make a living as an artist just from your art,’ says Marcoux. ‘I think there’s an opportunity to redefine the terms a little bit. I think artists need to take control of the means of promotion… and actually be honest about, for example, that most of us aren’t going to get galleries but we need to make a sustainable way in the world.’

Looking beyond the next couple of months, it’s clear that, although welcome, one-off grants of between £500-£2000 are not going to be enough to sustain Scotland’s rich and varied visual arts ecology, particular as many artists don’t even qualify for such funding. But finding ways to enable artists to continue their practice is the absolute bedrock of the country’s art infrastructure, from galleries to studios, art colleges to community projects. As Donachie points out, if artists can’t afford to make work, if they can’t pay for their studio spaces, then the fragile, interlinked network of organisations that don’t just support artists but rely on them to exist, will also be threatened. ‘The biggest structural resource that the art world in Scotland has is the people that are in it,’ she says. ‘If you fund the people they will keep that structure going. So we need to look at how to support people to get through the next few years.’