Despite facing increased costs, many voluntary creative groups are finding new ways to support their communities.

Creative Lives’ fourth large-scale survey of creative participation across the UK and Ireland found that: 

  • A majority of volunteer-led creative groups are struggling with increased costs, although around half are also doing something to help their communities with these difficulties, e.g. providing warm spaces, free hot drinks and waiving costs.
  • Despite the increased cost of living and the lingering effects of the pandemic, optimism about the future of voluntary creative activity is now at the highest level since 2017. 

Creative Lives ran its fourth biennial Big Conversation survey in late 2022, seeking to undertake a detailed analysis of the voluntary-led creative groups which operate across the UK and Ireland. We wanted to compare the current attitudes to creative activity with those during the pandemic in 2020, and with the views from our pre-pandemic surveys in 2018 and 2017. 

In total, the survey attracted 450 responses from England, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. 91% of respondents reported that they were currently involved in a creative group or a national network of creative groups, with a diverse range of artforms represented, from visual arts and crafts, through music, singing, drama and dance, to writing, photography and film. 

We’re incredibly grateful to everyone who submitted such thoughtful responses. 

The benefits of participating in creative activity  

As ever, the benefits of taking part in community creative groups were many and varied, but common responses included a feeling of connection with others in the community; maintaining or improving mental health and wellbeing; and learning or sharing skills. 

“It helps me in terms of emotional and physical wellbeing. Helps us all to form connections and friendships, to share our lived experience, and to learn new skills.”

  • “I love being able to share my joy of crafting with other people and watch them flourish and grow in confidence.” 
  • “Having something to look forward to each week to get away from the stresses in life.” 
  • “Seeing people embrace their creativity in ways that aren't often enough encouraged by the mainstream.”

The challenges facing voluntary creativity 

The biggest challenges facing creative groups were increased costs; funding; improving diversity of group/participants; recruitment of new members; and gaining support or recognition. 

  • “I love being back. It's so important to my sense of wellbeing and I missed it so much during the pandemic.”

We asked if there was still reluctance of group members to come together following the Covid-19 pandemic, but 65% of respondents said ‘no’. In part, we believe this demonstrates a renewed enthusiasm for in-person activity, as some reported that group members had had enough of trying to meet and practise their creativity online. 

However, some people reported a continued uncertainty from some demographic groups, with respondents citing new mothers, older people and people with autism as being hesitant about returning to regular in-person activity.   

Spaces for creativity 

We know that voluntary creative groups meet in a variety of different venues across the public, private and voluntary sectors, and this year’s responses reflected this diversity, with activities taking place in libraries, community centres, church halls, village halls, shops, cafes and pubs; with a few groups meeting in their own homes or outdoors. Just under a fifth (18%) of groups still had an online element to their activities. 

Volunteers’ time 

Our survey found another increase in the number of hours that people contribute for free to creative groups. Of those that volunteer their time each week, the average number of hours was 9. This is an increase from 2020, where the average was 7.05 hours per week, which in turn was up from 6.3 hours per week in 2018. 

Coping with increased costs 

  • “We were providing a free space with refreshments, before 'warm spaces' were an actual thing. People can fetch a craft project or we will provide one, then people don't feel like they are just sitting in a space with no reason.”

It is no surprise to find that, like the rest of society, creative groups were struggling with increased costs in fuel, food and other items. A majority (74%) reported that they’d experienced increased costs, with increases in costs for materials and equipment the most common response, followed closely by venue hire, utilities and insurance. 

We wanted to ascertain what measures groups were taking to deal with these increased costs, and if they were able to offer any support to those who might be struggling in their neighbourhoods. 

Unsurprisingly, finding appropriate and affordable venues is an increasing challenge, and some groups have found that they have had to increase their subscriptions, although many groups feel that they’re unable to charge their members any more. Some groups are having to come up with new ways to raise funds, such as seeking new sponsorships or donations; holding paid exhibitions or online art sales; or selling second hand items on eBay. 

Some groups highlighted how small amounts of funding can make a huge difference for their continuation, once again demonstrating the vital importance of micro-grant schemes. 

  • “Creative Lives have funded our group with a micro-grant which pays for a shared lunch each week.”

We knew from the pandemic that because of their deep connections in communities, some creative groups mobilised to assist people who were isolating, by providing remote activities, supplying art and craft packs, etc. We wanted to see if a similar response was possible in the context of increased costs of living. 

Nearly half (49%) of groups are doing something to help their community with these difficulties. Many groups were providing warm spaces and free hot drinks; collecting for foodbanks and knitting hats and gloves; and others have moved to a pay-what-you-can model or were waiving costs entirely. 

Continued optimism in the sector 

The Big Conversation survey always tries to ascertain how optimistic creative groups are feeling about the continuation of their activities. We have found before that voluntary creative groups are characterised by their positivity, scoring on average over 4 on a scale of 1 to 5 when asked about how optimistic they felt about the future of their groups or activities. 

Despite the cost of living crisis and ongoing concern from the Covid-19 pandemic, this year the figure was an encouraging 4.4 out of 5, which is up a little from 2020 (4.2) and a pre-pandemic survey in 2018 (4.35). The continued resilience and positivity of creative groups is itself a cause for optimism. 

Robin Simpson, Chief Executive of Creative Lives, said:  

"Our last Big Conversation survey, at the end of 2020, showed how voluntary arts groups had risen to the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Big Conversation 2022, conducted as the cost of living crisis is presenting further serious challenges to communities, reinforces the value of voluntary arts groups as a naturally evolving community self-support mechanism. The survey shows that, although voluntary arts groups are themselves struggling with increased costs, many are doing something to help their communities with these difficulties.

The Big Conversation 2022 also shows further increases in volunteer hours and optimism about the future of voluntary arts groups and their activities. Ours is a sector that uses creativity to generate practical support, happiness and companionship, even at the most challenging of times. Creative Lives is proud to celebrate the remarkable achievements of many thousands of volunteers across the UK and Ireland."

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