Voluntary Arts' major survey demonstrates the resilience of everyday creativity in difficult times. 

Voluntary Arts’ third large-scale survey of creative participation across the UK and the Republic of Ireland found that: 

  • Despite the extreme difficulties caused by the pandemic, voluntary creative groups remain optimistic and resilient 
  • The amount of time people contribute to their creative groups has increased during 2020
  • Taking part in creativity is hugely important for wellbeing and social connection 

Voluntary Arts – the voice for participation in creative activities – ran its Big Conversation survey in late 2020, seeking to undertake a detailed analysis of the voluntary-led creative groups which operate across the UK and Ireland. This gave us the opportunity to compare the attitudes to creative activity during the pandemic with the views from our previous surveys in 2017 and 2018. In total the three surveys attracted about 2,000 responses. 

Big Conversation 2020 Results Wordcloud

Despite the distress and challenges caused by the pandemic, it is clear that being involved in the process of creating with others brings pleasure to participants: ‘happiness’, ‘enjoyment’, ‘uplifting’ and ‘escapism’ were frequently mentioned. We regard this as a point worth reiterating, being so self-evident that it is often assumed: that taking part in creative activity is fun.

Feeling part of a group. I look forward to our weekly meetings, where we discuss our work. Having a purpose each week by creating artwork, and a feeling of wellbeing and using my time positively.” 

The other main reasons cited for taking part in creative activity included friendship, connectedness, belonging and sense of community. Many respondents also talked about benefits to their mood, wellbeing and mental health. The personal benefits arising from creative expression were also frequently cited, such as ‘satisfaction’, ‘accomplishment’, ‘sense of purpose’ and ‘sense of achievement’. 

One of the main findings was that the amount of time given by volunteers to their creative group has risen during 2020. While these figures may not capture those groups who were in abeyance during lockdown, the average score for those who volunteered was 7.05 hours per week, which is up from 6.3 hours per week in 2018. 

The impact of the pandemic on the arts and cultural sector has been devastating. A research programme seeking to understand the implications on the UK cultural sector found, for example, a 30% decline in the number of jobs in music, the performing arts and visual arts, raising questions about the sustainability of many organisations in the sector.

But despite the extreme difficulties posed to institutions and individuals in the arts, including threats to the livelihoods of creative practitioners, in particular freelancers, one striking point is that respondents to the Big Conversation 2020 survey were optimistic about the future of their group's activity, demonstrating the resilience and sustainability of this activity.

We had found previously that voluntary creative groups were characterised by positivity and resilience, 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 (4.5 in 2017 and 4.35 in 2018). In 2020, the average score was still above 4 out of 5 (4.2), meaning that despite the dire situation, there was only a small overall dent in confidence from participants and group leaders about the continuation of their creative activities.

Big Conversation 2020 Results

Unsurprisingly, the effect of the pandemic was the greatest challenge facing creative groups. And overwhelmingly, participants in creative groups are looking forward to an end to Covid-19 and reconvening regularly in person again. When asked about the one change that would make the future of their group brighter, three of the top five answers were: ‘Meeting as a group again’, ‘End of Covid-19’ and ‘Vaccine’.

The most common challenge unrelated to the pandemic was regarding finding suitable and affordable space to convene, practice and perform. This is a perennial issue for creative groups, and was one of the findings from Voluntary Arts’ recent report: Common Ground - Rewilding the Garden (Nov 2020), which identified ‘space’ as one of three key requisites for creative activity to thrive, and is therefore a key priority for Voluntary Arts. The Common Ground report asks arts and cultural policy makers and influencers to join us in making pledges, one of which is ‘To open up more public spaces for creative cultural activity’. 

During 2020, when our lives were constrained by the Covid-19 pandemic and there was an unshakable ambient level of anxiety, it seems that many people turned to creative activity for escapism, purpose, community, enjoyment and as a means of coping. We know that creative groups play an important role in supporting community cohesion and wellbeing, and the appetite for reconvening in person, as demonstrated by our survey, suggests that they will be vital in helping recovery from the pandemic. We must do all we can to ensure that these invaluable activities are adequately supported so that they can benefit all communities as we eventually emerge from this difficult time.

Robin Simpson, Chief Executive of Voluntary Arts, said:  

“I continue to be amazed by the determination, ingenuity and resilience of voluntary arts activity. In the most challenging period most of us have lived through, voluntary arts groups have demonstrated the valuable role they play in the social fabric of their communities. The importance of their activities to the wellbeing of participants and communities, and their optimism in the face of ever-changing restrictions, are clearly evident in the results of the Big Conversation 2020. And the fact that the amount of volunteer time people have given to their creative groups has actually increased this year is a tribute to the dedication of the tens of thousands of creative citizens across the UK and Ireland.”

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