COVID19 and Class Exclusion in the Arts

Maisie Allen is a third year Liberal Arts student at KCL majoring in English Literature. She is passionate about accessibility within the arts, socialism, feminist podcasts, and her cello.

[Featured Image: A drawing consisting of a wide variety of elements of what is considered “the arts” including a female dancer, painting utensils, ticker stumps, drama masks and much else. Source.]

It is no secret that the current Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light various inequalities that exist across all social relationships. One of these is that of the arts and its accessibility to different audiences. During stricter lockdown times, when our access to the outside world was severely limited, many of us turned to the arts – whether books, music, film, or virtual theatre among other mediums – as a means of finding solace in this unprecedented and confusing time. However, new ways of accessing the arts has reignited the debate of who gets to access them and the invisible power of individual cultural capital. 

Firstly, when we talk about the ‘arts’, we often conjure up certain images in our minds – institutions like the Tate Group, the vast array of theatres that light up the West End, and hardcover books with awards emblazoned across their front cover. That in itself is arguably a visual commodification of the arts, particularly when assessing who is portrayed in those spaces traditionally. The institutionalisation of art in the 20th century led to an exclusion of already marginalised groups, including but not limited to people of colour, womxn, and those from working class backgrounds. Whilst strides towards change seemed to be happening and our outlook towards the arts began to widen, the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been undeniable. Many small independent theatres have been forced to shut, lacking the finances required to re-open once lockdown began to ease in the UK. Even with Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s last-minute £1.57 billion ‘rescue’ package, large scale groups like Tate were forced to make numerous redundancies. 

The people bearing the brunt of these cuts are of course those who have limited platforms in these spaces. Many redundancies within established arts companies have been across those who were on casual or part-time contracts, especially within the retail and catering aspects of these cultural institutions. Additionally, closures of these establishments will adversely affect those who work on a freelance basis within them. Usually, those who have those types of jobs are disproportionately womxn, young people, and people of colour and so the inequality of these spaces runs deep into the business of the arts

It is easy then, in the face of Covid-19 and even before it, to see why stereotypes that the arts and culture world is for a whiter, more affluent crowd. If that demographic is the one making decisions about what plays are commissioned, what installations take over the Turbine Hall, and what books line shop shelves, then they are likely to support works which reflect their experiences of the world – consciously or not. 

This gap doesn’t just exist in adulthood though. From an educational perspective, arts budgets in schools have been struggling for years and are often the first departments to face funding cuts when needed. Subsequently, creative subjects are now in decline regarding the number of students who pursue these pathways at a higher academic level. Covid-19 looks to only worsen this further, as even though in Sunak’s March 2020 budget there was promises for each secondary school in England to receive £25,000 extra to support arts subjects, teachers are now being advised to drop non-core subjects, like Music and Drama. Whilst this is in order to focus more heavily on English and Maths to make up for missed classroom time during the pandemic, it is disturbing to see creative subjects disregarded so quickly. The schools facing these choices however, will disproportionately be state schools, meaning some of the most disadvantaged pupils in the UK will have little opportunity to explore the arts in a manner as in-depth as their more affluent counterparts. As a result, these students will then have less cultural capital to move through the world with, affecting future prospects and aspirations.

This begs the question though, of how did we get to this point? In Laura Waddell’s essay ‘Against Stereotypes: Working Class Girls and Working Class Art’ for the 2017 anthology Nasty Women she writes that ‘despite a history of activism and creativity, the lack of working class people in formal arts education and representation has led some…to believe we are a people lacking in artistic or imaginative culture’. Our perception of art is that the only creative works worth space in mainstream cultural discourse are the ones lining institutions, as a commodity, and we need to change this. Art can be on the streets, in community centres, and on digital spaces. The arts should not have prerequisites for either the spectator or the creator, otherwise our consumption of it will only narrow and that isn’t good for anyone. 

As someone who was able to pick up the cello eleven years ago in school as a result of heavily subsidised music lessons and an equally subsidised instrument rental service linked to my local council, it is deeply saddening to see schemes like these slowly strip away. Fees for lessons now have increased significantly and even my local youth orchestra began charging a small fee to attend whereas when I started it was completely free. Arts should not just be for those who can afford it, and those who do not feel alienated by the prisms in which the arts exist. The arts, and by default the cultural capital that is created, should be accessible for all regardless of circumstances and identity. 

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