As the world acclimates to isolation and an economic shutdown in the midst of a pandemic, freelancers and hourly workers are finding it difficult to make ends meet. The rapid closure of galleries, schools, studios, and museums has taken a toll on the art industry, which was already known for comparably low salaries and precarious employment. Releasing today, a new report by Art Handler magazine indicates that the coronavirus shutdown has sent many arts workers into crisis mode.
The survey found that more than two-thirds of respondents are concerned about their ability to pay rent and do not have the ability to complete their work from home. Nearly three-quarters of all those who answered the questionnaire lack access to paid leave.
“As a small organization with a focused audience of art workers, we decided that a survey could be our contribution in the early stages of this crisis,” said Clynton Lowry, the magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief, who collaborated on the project with his managing editor, Lucy Hunter.
Results were compiled from the responses of more than 1,000 people who represent a variety of arts organizations like commercial galleries, auction houses, warehouses, charities, universities, museums, and framing stores. Responses were more or less distributed evenly between salaried, hourly, and freelance workers. Alyssa Harlow, a doctoral student in epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, analyzed the data.
“Art workers face a precarious labor market that relies on contingent and 1099 jobs, which can minimize access to safety-net programs. What’s more, this population is often not well defined or measured in labor statistics,” Hunter told ARTnews. “While our survey is in no way comprehensive or representative of the entire art world, our goal is to provide some quantitative, easy-to-reference figures as proposals emerge for supporting art workers during this crisis.”
The survey reveals that freelancers have been greatly impacted by the coronavirus closures. Compared to other workers, 58 percent of freelancers said that they would lose more than half of their income in the next two weeks. 80 percent of the demographic are worried about affording rent; for salaried workers, the number was closer to 49 percent. (The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act—passed by the Senate yesterday—could provide access to unemployment benefits to previously ineligible groups like gig workers and freelancers.)
Art Handler magazine’s survey highlights the precarity of the culture sector’s workforce when compared to the general population. According a YouGov poll last week of a comparable sample size, nearly a third of all Americans are worried about paying rent if a recession hits. And, according to recent estimates 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment last week.
For the survey’s organizers, the data reflects their own experience with the shutdown. “Clynton and I are both out of work. My husband is out of work,” said Hunter. “Meanwhile, the majority of my annual income derives from a yearly three-month project that has been postponed indefinitely.” Messages have poured into the publication from other workers who say depression is setting in.
Small businesses in the art world are hurting, and many have already been forced to temporarily close. Earlier this month, the New York–based art installation company iLevel laid off more than a dozen workers—its entire staff—after revenue dropped to zero. By comparison, last March was iLevel’s best month on record.
“I am profoundly sorry, upset, scared, and confused by the rapid turn in events,” the company’s founder, David Kassel, wrote in an email to employees. “I wish I could have offered a severance package that you all absolutely deserve. There simply is not the funds to do that.”
On the phone, some employees broke down crying as they heard the news. Kassel said he intends to rehire them when the economy settles. “Keep the tools. Keep your hardware. Keep the keys to the office,” he said. “These are not normal times.”