Worker co-operatives operating in the cultural sector are collaborating to offer mutual support and advice through a UK-based cultural co-ops website, cultural.coop.
The project is the result of a collaboration between Dr Marisol Sandoval, lecturer at City University London who researches the politics of cultural co-ops, and the co-operatives Altgen and Blake House Filmmaker’s Co-operative, and has been supported by City University London.
We do not want to be too prescriptive […] anyone who identifies as a cultural co-op and wants to be part of this community can be part of it
“For me, culture refers to those parts of society that are concerned with the production, distribution and consumption of information that helps people to create meaning and make sense of the world,” says Dr Sandoval. “That includes various forms of artistic expression, design, the media, film, music, online platforms and software etc. But most importantly, we do not want to be too prescriptive about defining cultural co-ops – anyone who identifies as a cultural co-op and wants to be part of this community can be part of it.”
The lives of cultural workers – including those in cultural co-operatives – are complex and contradictory, with precarious freelance work, high competition, low pay and long hours often sitting in tension with the pleasure and autonomy of working in creative sectors. In this context, principle six – co-operation among co-operatives – has a special resonance.
“I think principle six is important for all co-operatives if they want to contribute to broader progressive social change that goes beyond the level of individual co-ops. Co-ops have positive impacts on the lives of their members – but they can do that better and do much more if they work together,” says Dr Sandoval.
“We can only change the exploitative, precarious, unequal and competitive structures of cultural work if we work together. It is hard to make a living in the cultural industries, so co-ops working together and supporting each other is essential.
“Together, cultural co-ops can also start thinking about political demands and reforms that would make it easier to start and run a co-operative – an unconditional basic income, for example, or free universal childcare, free education, public funding for arts and culture etc.”
Dr Sandoval had the idea for starting cultural.coop after interviewing members of cultural co-operatives across the UK. Many expressed the desire to co-operate more with other cultural co-ops but said they often did not have the time and resources to establish these contacts.
“So the idea was to create a directory of cultural co-ops to make it easier for co-ops to find each other. And from there the idea grew and members of various cultural co-ops were extremely supportive and helped to put together the website.”
As well as increasing the visibility for cultural co-operatives, the website also aims to show how the model can work in various cultural industries, and provide information and resources to anyone interested in the co-operative model.
“Many cultural workers are frustrated with precarious work, low pay, long working hours, stress, work pressure etc. Cultural.coop is important to create visibility for co-ops as a possible alternative where people refuse to accept competitive work cultures and exploitation. Existing cultural co-ops show that a radically different way of working is possible, one that is built around solidarity and co-operation.”
There are currently 19 co-operatives listed in the cultural.coop directory, covering designers, printers and publishers as well as co-ops working in art, sound, fashion, and digital. It also includes films introducing two of the directory’s cultural co-ops – Ceramics Studio and Calverts – produced by another, Blake House film co-op.
The website also hopes to facilitate opportunities for cultural co-ops to meet in person. “We held a first cultural co-ops gathering on May 20 in London, to discuss what it means to be a cultural co-op, what opportunities and challenges this entails, how co-ops can support each other as well as work together with other groups and movements,” said Dr Sandoval.
“But this meeting was just the start.”