Daniel Herr was planning on a busy spring. After more than fifteen years as an art handler, he had built a list of trustworthy small businesses and galleries that supplied him with enough work to support his painting career. Herr expected to make around $3,000 this month, the majority of which would go toward essential costs like rent. But the promise of a steady paycheck vanished when coronavirus put the art world on lockdown.
Lucia Love was also getting nervous, traveling across state lines with a truck full of art. The art handler was having trouble getting in touch with her superiors at the delivery company, leaving several voicemails asking what she should do as cities across the East Coast shut down because of Covid-19. Would she still have a job when she returned to New York? For days, she received no response from her employers.
“The bottom has fallen out of everything,” Aaron Zimmerman, an art handler, told ARTnews. “I’m reaching out to the museums and galleries that regularly hire me and getting the same response: they’re closed.” Zimmerman had work lined up for the next two months and expected to earn upward of $7,000. But because of the Covid-19 outbreak, Zimmerman is now relying on his wife to shoulder more financial responsibility as he tries to make up for lost income through painting commissions and handyman jobs for friends.
A harsh new economic reality faces thousands of workers in the art industry’s gig economy as museums postpone exhibitions, art fairs delay openings, and galleries close their doors to stop the novel coronavirus from spreading. The situation has created a ripple effect that has been immediately felt by hourly workers who lack the safety net of full-time employment. And many of these professionals say that, in their rush to address a public health crisis, many arts organizations have ignored workers’ need for security. Suddenly, many art handlers, educators, and gallery attendants find themselves facing a pandemic without the financial support of a job.
“We want the huge contribution made by freelancers to the economy of the art world to be acknowledged now more than ever,” said a spokesperson for the Art Handlers Alliance of New York, a group that advocates for those in the profession. “Freelance staff who continue to go to work risk being exposed to Covid-19, but may have no economic alternative.”
Several art handlers interviewed by ARTnews described themselves as housing-insecure. Others said that they lived paycheck-to-paycheck, like nearly 80 percent of all Americans, according to a 2017 survey by the jobs website CareerBuilder. And as the coronavirus spreads and the economic slowdown continues, more manual laborers will face a difficult decision: risk exposure by working or forgo pay.
“I know we are wrestling with the uncertainty of this global pandemic,” Marc Glimcher, president and chief executive officer of Pace Gallery, told staff last week in an email reviewed by ARTnews. “Worry about our health and the health of loved ones is compounded by the economic disruption that has descended so quickly.”
He continued, “While this crisis will challenge us economically, we have already seen the will of the Pace Family to rise to the occasion!!! I am so impressed and moved by everyone’s resilience and commitment in the face of adversity!!!”
But the concept of family is complicated when it comes to business. Pace, which is one of the world’s largest art dealers, initially told freelancers last week that they would not be paid during the temporary shutdown. Hourly staff were guaranteed pay for only the first week of closure.
In a statement to ARTnews, a Pace spokesperson clarified the gallery’s policy. “At this time—and for as long as possible—we are offering wage continuation to all of our full-time and part-time employees,” she said. “In accordance with Pace’s usual procedures, any freelancers who are working, either at the gallery or offsite, will be paid. Freelancers who were scheduled to work will be receiving compensation.”
Many galleries and museums are still in the process of calculating a way to stretch their budget to pay staff salaries during coronavirus without going broke. Earlier this week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York emailed staff to say that they would commit to paying salaries through April 4 closures. Following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, the Met has canceled or postponed all programs and events through May 15. (In a prior statement, a Met spokesperson said it would continue paying all workers during the course of the museum’s temporary closure.)
Across the country, museum leaders have been working around the clock to ensure a future for their institutions after the coronavirus pandemic. Some institutions have business interruption insurance and are working with brokers to see what costs can be recouped because of mandatory or requested shutdowns. Others are lobbying board members for assistance, asking for cash infusions to keep their budgets from imploding under the stress of closures.
Arts organizations are also waiting to see the impact of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed this past weekend by the House and currently in the Senate, which would provide support for additional paid sick leave to small and midsize businesses. But the bill does not mention companies with more than 500 employees, who would have to rely on internal policies from their employers. Gig workers and people who are self-employed would only get benefits in the form of a tax credit.
The growing air of uncertainty has generated alarm among many workers, who fear that their field could be permanently impacted. “There is anxiety among staff,” said one Met visitor services employee. “Museum [positions] are ultimately customer service and entertainment jobs. If people aren’t coming and paying for that experience, it’s going to eventually put a dent in the industry.”