The Art World’s Blind Spots In Dealing With Unemployment

This analysis was originally published on HK art media CoBo Social on 12 October 2020.

Over the course of 2020, COVID-19 has made its presence known across the world, driving billion-dollar industries to a standstill and making it near impossible for vulnerable communities to sustain themselves without aid. In fact, the “sharp recovery,” which took place when businesses resumed following the easing of lockdown measures in various parts of the world, is not at all reflective of long-term economic trends. During the last few weeks alone, mega corporations such as Shell and Disney cut 9,000 and 28,000 positions respectively.

The art world is no exception in experiencing such widespread job losses. According to the first bellwether report exploring the impact of the global pandemic on art galleries in the first half of this year, presented by UBS and Art Basel, galleries all over the world reduced their staff on average by 33 percent. For example, David Zwirner cut nearly 40 jobs across its six locations worldwide, in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong. This trend is unlikely to abate as more galleries, even in Asia, close their brick and mortar spaces and focus on online sales and programmes.

“Lost art: Measuring COVID-19’s devastating impact on America’s creative economy,” a report released in August by the Brookings Institution, an established US research group in Washington, D.C., details that between 1 April through 31 July, approximately 2.7 million jobs in the US creative industries were lost. According to Ilostmygig.sg, a website collecting information submitted by Singapore creatives whose jobs have been impacted by the pandemic, the total amount of lost income for those working in media, arts, design and entertainment as of 6 October stands at over SG$30 million.

Since April, museum workers in the US, UK and Europe, from full-time staff to freelancers, have been facing the constant drumbeat of layoffs and furloughs, despite calling out publicly for senior management to take pay cuts or adapt “new imaginative measures to save jobs.” Museum workers on our side of the world are also facing similar pressures. At the end of June, it was reported that the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra would lose 10-12 percent of its staff, starting with a voluntary redundancy and possibly further layoffs.

There are two far-reaching, entwined implications behind the ongoing waves of global unemployment in the art world that are worth examining. The first major consequence is the widening socioeconomic gap, which is largely rooted in pay inequity between senior management and the rest of the staff, an issue even before COVID-19, but now a major point of contention for cultural institutions.

In a letter to the board in June, Asia Society New York staff members pointed out that the 50 percent pay cut taken by Josette Sheeran, their president and chief executive, who earned US$937,000 in compensation last year, was not enough. During the same time, furloughs were also being considered which were later taken off the table. Solomon R. Guggenheim museum director Richard Armstrong, who earned a compensation of US$1.4 million in 2018, took a 25 percent pay cut, which seems a rather modest amount given that the institution is “continuing to target the museum’s most vulnerable staff” with furloughs.

These are just two examples of entrenched fiscal and employment practices in the art world, rampant across sectors and countries. This habit of ensuring the financial security of senior management remains top priority over the welfare of all other staff can only be dubbed the “Ebenezer Scrooge mentality.” Such an approach is truly damaging in its capacity to increase socioeconomic inequality, especially because it intrinsically engenders a lack of social mobility as well as diversity and representation beyond tokenism.

Just last month, artists such as Hito Steyerl and Forensic Architecture added their signatories to an open letter appealing to the Tate to reconsider cutting 313 jobs in its shops, cafés, and restaurants, stating that the affected workers are among “the lowest paid and most diverse section of Tate’s workforce. They are often working-class creatives and they play an integral role in promoting art and culture within the organization.” According to the American Alliance of Museums, people of colour are disproportionately affected by furloughs and layoffs.

The second implication is the pervasive and corrosive culture of fear. There is fear amongst those who are suddenly unemployed as they face tremendous uncertainty regarding financial stability and the challenges of continuing to be a productive and engaged member of their industry, let alone society at large. This is especially the case for staff who were previously full-time and not used to making a living in the volatile wilderness of part-time and freelance work that largely comprises the gig economy.

Then there is the fear faced by middle management, junior and frontline staff who still have jobs but have no way of knowing how long their stability will last. This fear is also heightened by the grim drop in available employment opportunities. For example, New York Foundation for the Arts’ (NYFA) job board observed a 59 percent decrease in job listings compared to the same time last year.

Fear always produces a flight or fight response. Hence, droves of cultural workers, whether they were laid off or decided to leave on their own, saw the pandemic as a confirmation of pre-existing suspicions that there was very little future growth for them in the art world. Instead, they decided to explore alternative career paths in industries that have nothing to do with the arts.

A brain drain in the art world, which is already struggling with a dearth in terms of diverse talent and perspectives, is definitely detrimental; it also compounds the fear driven inertia amongst those who are doing all they can to cling onto their job security. Most often, people trying to keep their jobs tend to be gatekeepers of the status quo, in their willingness to do whatever it takes to please whoever signs their pay checks, innovation be damned.

Yet innovation and risk taking are quite possibly the only ways of dealing with the economic uncertainty sweeping across art fairs, art media, museums, auctions houses, galleries and more. According to a study by Columbia Business School, entrepreneurship and new business creation are critical to COVID-19 economic recovery. The research noted that, “It’s not enough to have a relief program just focused on saving existing businesses and streamlining bankruptcies…A real recovery will be spurred by entrepreneurship.”

We are failing to enact this spirit of innovation today, even in the art world, because we are caught in a state of urban horror, best described as “a more diffuse emergent anxiety that arises from our inability to fully grasp the overwhelmingly complex systems of a globalized economy… a gap in cognition, in which our perceived interiority is at odds with an overly complex external world.”

In our interior landscape, we remain essentially convinced we can go back to the way we used to live once the dust settles, but each passing day shows us an external reality that is mutating and evolving far beyond our recognition. Yet, the pandemic alone did not systematically dismantle integral aspects of our lives, such as the way we work and make money. These changes have been in the works for some time now. COVID-19 is merely quickening the inevitable transition.

According to UBS chief economist Paul Donovan’s weekly update on 2 October, “…the pandemic has accelerated structural change in the economy. A period of gentle decline has become a plunge toward insolvency. People have changed how they work and how they consume, and they are not likely to change back. Large-scale job losses are unfortunately only too likely as firms face abrupt structural change…. economies will have to face up to the structural unemployment of workers left behind by the abrupt arrival of the fourth industrial revolution.”

Confirming Donovan’s analysis, University of Chicago researchers approximated that 42 percent of pandemic-era layoffs will result in permanent job losses while the New York Times reported that even industries theoretically unaffected by the pandemic were seeing signs of severe recession.

All this year, most of the art world has failed to see that the future is revealing itself right in front of us, right now. The gig economy is the future, flexible working hours are the future, diverse hiring practices are the future, inclusive organisational practices are the future, individuals and communities calling out toxicity and injustices on a daily basis are the future, empathetic and visionary leadership is the future, constantly adapting and innovating to volatile and uncertain surroundings is the future.

We have not acknowledged this future, beyond the superficial commentary, and we have failed to grasp the two most crucial aspects requisite to take on this accelerated economic transformation—the need to innovate and be inclusive. This blinkered vision is going to cost dearly in the decades to come, if not sooner, as we fail to come up with the necessary mechanisms and support to make the aforementioned future viable for all.

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