Does The Art World Know What Social Responsibility Means?

This article was originally published on CoBo Social on 11 June 2020. 

Note: Most of the examples cited below are based in the US as it is one of the few places in the art world where these issues are discussed publicly on the record and reported by professional journalists on the ground. It does not mean similar challenges are not being faced elsewhere.

In times of crisis, social responsibility becomes a pressing issue. Yet, the art world’s idea of this concept is often arbitrary and superficial with a disappointing lack of self-awareness.

petition by New York City art workers from the Dia Art Foundation, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New Museum, Smithsonian Museum, and Studio Museum in Harlem described this phenomenon best.

Garnering more than 3000 signatures to date, the petition described moves such as announced pay cuts for top managements at cultural institutions as “empty gestures of financial solidarity” that “[do] nothing to mitigate the devastating effect of job cuts on the livelihoods of those affected and on the cultural landscape.”

From art fairs to auction houses to museums and art galleries, staff have been furloughed or laid off or given pay cuts consistently over the past few months amidst cancellations and postponements of events and exhibitions as well as closing of physical premises due to global pandemic COVID-19. In fact, the economic inequalities and failings of the international art industry are being laid bare by the pandemic with issues such as art handlers reporting a lack of support system as their work came to a halt and they resorted to meal stamps.

It definitely seems paradoxical that major galleries, museums, auction houses and art fairs comprising a multi-billion dollar industry are the very same organizations resorting to layoffs and furloughs so quickly. Surely, ensuring staff, especially those working part-time and in positions below senior management, are paid and retained should be considered basic social responsibility during a crisis.

The art workers in New York museums certainly think so. According to their petition, “We have a simple demand: before a single museum worker is laid off, let every mid-six- or seven-figure museum director draw a salary of zero. Let our wealthy trustees, who so expertly raise money for council field trips and directors’ first class-flights, fundraise instead for staff retention. Let the conversation around deaccessioning artwork and dipping into endowments start if it means saving jobs.”

Currently, it does not seem that major players in the art world are remotely ready to have this conversation, preferring to sink into their own oblivious sense of doom and gloom holed up in their wealthy real estate.

On 20 April, the Financial Times published an article examining how contemporary art is changing in the COVID-19 era with a quote from “uberdealer” Larry Gagosian speaking to the reporter from “his East Hampton home,” describing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the art world as a “sobering” and “terrifying” experience. A few days prior, the gallery had furloughed part-time workers and interns. Employees making less than US$150,000 received a 10 per cent pay cut, while those making more than US$200,000 received a 20 per cent cut.

Laying off part-time workers and interns might seem like a minor inconvenience in terms of long-term sustainability but the fact is it has potent implications in terms of diversity and representation in the art industry. Focusing solely on retaining senior management essentially means keeping the already powerful and wealthy safely ensconced in their privileged socioeconomic strata. Besides, after all the discourse and emphasis on identity politics and representation over the past few years, isn’t it time for the art world to put its money where its mouth is and support diversity during these turbulent times?

Yet major cultural stakeholders continue to step up mostly when they are compelled to do so or in ways that ensure the continued recognition and self-importance of the parties doing the giving. A glaring example is British blue-chip artist Damien Hirst creating Rainbow Art to support the UK Health Service, and donating the proceeds from an upcoming edition to the National Health Service.

Then there is the J. Paul Getty Trust, one of the richest arts funds in America, with an endowment of US$7 billion, as of last year. Towards the end of March, many called on the Getty to support art spaces and organisations in its surrounding Los Angeles community affected adversely by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m singling out the Getty because of its enormous wealth, experience, and commitment to philanthropic activity,” wrote American art writer Jori Finkel in an op-ed in the Art Newspaper. A few days later, the institution announced that it would be setting aside US$10 million to fund art museums and organizations in the city.

It is worth noting that there are more than a few good apples acting on their own volition and giving help to those who are most vulnerable in the art scene such as small arts organizations and artists. For example, the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation is committing US$5 million in relief for artists in general and artists who have lost income over cancelled exhibitions and programmes as well as supporting operating costs of 15 New York–based non-profit arts organizations working with living artists while they are closed. In an even more rare move, the Smithsonian decreased the pay of top executives to cut costs and avoid furloughing employees.

However, such spurts of support were barely enough when the art world was getting by. Now, in times of crisis, these efforts clearly do not suffice. Even worse, many cultural stakeholders in US, Europe and Asia are acting as if COVID-19 is merely a crazy phase or period of adaption before everyone comes out of it stronger. This positive whitewashing borders on toxic and destructive because it avoids facing the far more exacting and unfathomable truth.

Most people who spent their lives working in the arts and have no assets, investments and savings will not come out of this stronger as the financial burdens of furloughs, layoffs, reduced income, cancelled and postponed events take a long-term toll. How do we soften this blow, beyond relying on government aid? All the content we see online such as artists creating works at home and various arts programmes on Zoom and social media—how much of it pays enough to ensure sustainability now, and in the months ahead, for all parties involved? How do we ensure the most vulnerable in the art world such as artistssmall galleries, non-profit and independent art spaces, art educators and more do not get financially and creatively crippled the worst?

If the art world intends to be as socially responsible and inclusive as it claims to be, these are the questions that need to be discussed and dealt with, especially by those who possess privilege and power.

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