The pandemic forced a reckoning — is the art industry listening?
You know the drill: Go to college, get a job, pay your dues, and hope you’re able to climb the ladder. But this past August, 4.3 American workers, or 2.9 percent of the workforce, said “goodbye” to their employers as they quit their jobs. September was even worse, with 4.4 million people leaving the workforce. All in all, one in four people quit their job this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
What’s been deemed “the Great Resignation” is upon us — and it shows no signs that it is slowing down. What are the driving forces behind us becoming a nation where workers realize their worth? And how is this impacting the art world? Let’s explore.
A Reckoning Even Before the Pandemic
Even before the pandemic, the art world was facing a reckoning. In 2018, Artsy reported how “art galleries operate in a universe largely untethered from the canon of modern business management theory.” In other words, the same social intimacy that sells art also can lead to misconduct, such as abuses by powerful men and wealthy gallery owners lording over the ecosystem.
Wage disparities were (and again, arguably still are) also a gross problem. Museums raised money and spent billions on expansions while some workers’ salaries were only a meager $35,000 per year. And many art handlers and other workers suffered conditions such as long hours or even a lack of heat or food as they worked at art fairs.
Racial inequity was (and still is) also a giant elephant in the room. Art museums have made some strides to increase gender equality, but according to a 2018 survey by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, only 28 percent of staff were underrepresented minorities. While this number may not seem too dismal, it’s important to note that most of these individuals worked in security, finance, or other areas not related to art — while museum leaders, curators, educators, and other people who interact directly with art were 84 percent white.
Today, art workers of color earn 35 percent less in wages than their white peers, while entry-level workers, in general, are paid below the living wage.
Staff Morale Hits Bottom
The art world was already primed for change when the pandemic hit — the deadly virus simply exacerbated what workers already knew: They were being treated unfairly.
First came the layoffs as the pandemic took hold. People who had worked decades were discarded by the institutions they had faithfully served. Between April 1 and July 31 of 2020, the Brookings Institution estimated that the fine and performing arts sectors had lost 1.4 million jobs. Researchers at the University of Chicago estimated that 42 percent of layoffs would result in permanent job losses.
Yet it’s not only because of the layoffs that workers aren’t returning. In the artworld, there’s a cornucopia of highly-educated individuals with masters and legal degrees and PhDs, but many of them are relegated to administrative or entry-level work and very low wages.
Consider art historians, who, after years of training, are forced into something akin to a gladiator pit filled with other educated job seekers to fight for the few existing teaching jobs — most of them adjunct positions. Is it any surprise that during a country-wide “Great Resignation,” these arts workers are also leaving the fields they trained in?
What we need is to improve staff morale, retention, and productivity. We need to build better team dynamics and attract the best and brightest workers. We must give them living wages and provide fair treatment. We must also recognize that increasing diversity is essential and expected by newer generations. The art world also has a broad range of ages among workers — everyone from people in their 20s all the way into their 70s (and even their 80s and 90s!).
Technology — ArtTech, specifically — that creates connectivity is important in the art world — it can help create bridges between demographics and also desilo people working in different departments and across functions. ArtTech refers to technologies that help manage administrative functions. For example, rather than forcing highly-educated art workers to do repetitive, demeaning manual data entry (turning them into nothing more than glorified clerks), the ARTERNAL platform arms art gallery teams with tools that free them up to excel at their jobs at a high level.
Critically, investing in ArtTech now can not only help save money over time, but it can also leave more room in operating budgets for increasing wages. It also speaks to another primary issue: Even more than higher pay, workers want a better work-life balance — many of them are willing to leave their careers to get it. In the midst of the Great Resignation, they want flexibility and a lot more of it. And they want to avoid the dehumanizing, boring tasks that force great people to leave their careers in the arts.
Workers (who should be viewed more as stakeholders) are demanding change. Is the art world listening?