Is Government Aid A Stop-Gap Measure For Art World Decimated By COVID-19?

This analysis was originally published on CoBo Social on 8 April 2020.

Let’s not mince words. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the art world is grim at best. Over the past few months, as the virus spread across the world creating one epicentre after another, art fairs and festivals have been cancelled or postponed; museums and galleries have shut their doors; staff have been let go or furloughed; and freelancers and hourly workers, who make up a considerable portion of the art industry, are experiencing major income uncertainty.

Governments all over the world seem to understand the hit that industries everywhere are taking due to the virus. Since January, there have been back-to-back announcements regarding government bailout measures, support schemes, and relief packages across various industries in a bid to soften the blow, including the arts.

In January, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC) initiated the “Support Scheme for Arts & Cultural Sector” for small- and medium-sized arts organisations. The following month, the government also promised US$19 million of the US$3.9 billion Anti-Epidemic Fund to the arts sector. Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture announced, in mid-February, a relief package of US$49.5 million for the arts and culture sector.

The Singapore government promised the cultural sector US$39 million in support, on top of the previous US$1.1 million allocated. South Korea’s cultural ministry announced an injection of US$2.5 million to provide loans for artists who are experiencing financial difficulties following the outbreak. This is in addition to cost-cutting measures for private museums and galleries. The United Arab Emirates government bought more than US$400,000 worth of art by local artists after the cancellation of Art Dubai.

The United States government passed an economic stimulus package including US$307.5 million in support for the arts and cultural sector, while Canada announced CA$60 million in advance funding for artists, and England announced a package of US$190 million in support of the arts.

While it sounds like a lot of money and support, the effectiveness of these schemes and relief packages remains to be seen.

Already, there is criticism that such support is focused on bigger institutions and not directed comprehensively towards smaller players in the arts ecosystem, such as small- to medium-sized galleries or hourly workers, who are facing the brunt of COVID-19’s economic fallout in the art world.

For example, the US stimulus package, which is reportedly less than 5 per cent of the US$4 billion requested by local arts organisations, includes US$75 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities; US$50 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services; US$25 million for the Kennedy Center; and US$7.5 million for the Smithsonian Institution.

In Singapore, there has been feedback that the criteria for a relief scheme for freelancers render part-time and hourly workers ineligible. However, this week, the government announced revisions to the original scheme, namely inclusion of those who earn small income from employment work. For Hong Kong, there has been criticism regarding art educators being ineligible for support. On the other hand, Germany’s aid package, which is being commended widely, provides US$54 billion for small businesses and freelancers, including those from the creative industries.

However, the adverse effect of the pandemic is not remotely near its end. The United StatesAsia Pacific, and most parts of the world are bracing themselves for tough weeks ahead with increasing numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths. The harsh and uncomfortable truth is that the economic toll the aforementioned government schemes and packages are attempting to mitigate has only just begun.

Just last week, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said that “the current coronavirus outbreak is the biggest challenge for the world since World War II,” and it could bring a recession “that probably has no parallel in the recent past.”

Right now, we cannot even begin to fathom the psychosocial impact of what we are dealing with on an individual and collective level. It is important to take this into account because markets and economies are about people: our appetites, lifestyles, demands, fears, mindsets, values, and beliefs. As these aspects of humanity are altered irrevocably, the shape of the economy and other social systems are likely to change as well.

While comparisons to past global wars can put the widespread and transformative nature of our current experience in context, it does not take into the account the nuances of facing a disease, which can enter our bodies and involves treatment and healing. This notion of vulnerability on such a global scale will surely affect us on a fundamental level.

The recent outbreak of 25 coronavirus cases from The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, the Netherlands, a few weeks after a dealer from Italy who attended the fair tested positive, is an example of the kind of vulnerability we are grappling with even in the art world. Now, the fair, which saw strong sales, is facing backlash from dealers for not cancelling or postponing their 2020 edition. Suddenly, art fair stakeholders are valuing responsibility for individual and collective safety and health over making money. This could be the start of a marked shift in mindset.

Given the various layers of our existence being transformed now and in the months ahead, it is obvious that even after the virus abates things will not go back to normal. This makes it even more imperative that the art world does not turn a blind eye to the depth and scale of these changes for the sake of a superficial sense of stability and status quo. Sure, having access to the kind of monetary support being offered by governments worldwide helps, but it is purely a stop-gap measure in the face of seismic long-term changes happening both within and around us.

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