COVID-19 Response: Impact on the visual arts and hopes for the Inquiry

NAVA will be making a submission to the inquiry into the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and encourages you to add your voice.

The Federal Government recently announced an independent inquiry into the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The terms of reference have been released and submissions are due on Friday 15 December 2023. This inquiry aims to review what went well, what went wrong, and how national systems can be improved to better handle future pandemics. 

The visual arts, craft and design sector faced significant challenges throughout the pandemic, and it is imperative that the inquiry acknowledges these struggles and provides practical recommendations for a more robust response to future crises. 

NAVA strongly encourages artists, arts workers, and organisations to make a submission to the inquiry. Firsthand experiences are crucial for documenting impact and shaping the inquiry’s recommendations. A handful of responses from peak bodies will not have the same impact as thousands of first-hand accounts from artists, arts workers, and organisations that make up the sector.

COVID-19 impacts on the visual arts

The COVID-19 pandemic posed several challenges for artists, arts workers and organisations including:

  • Inadequate access to financial assistance: Many artists, arts workers and organisations had no access to JobSeeker, JobKeeper, and the cash flow boost. Others had difficulty proving they were eligible for these programs due to irregular incomes. Further, the Federal Government boosted funding and directed Support Act to expand its crisis relief fund to all artforms except the visual arts.
  • Unrecognised occupations: Even though the Government temporarily expanded the eligibility criteria for the JobSeeker Payment to support sole traders if their income was negatively affected by the economic impact of the coronavirus, artists and arts workers still found it difficult to demonstrate eligibility to Centrelink, which made it hard, sometimes impossible, for them to access support programs. 
  • Superannuation Depletion: The early release of superannuation allowed individuals to access their retirement savings. For many in the arts sector this was the only way to access support, but it has significant ongoing repercussions, affecting the long-term financial security of many artists.
  • Lack of Insurance: The changing public health rules during the pandemic led to calls for an insurance scheme to support artists when exhibitions and events were cancelled due to COVID-19. Without insurance, galleries were hesitant to commission new work, leading to a limited number of opportunities for artists. This had a cascading effect on the careers of artists, particularly early career artists, and on the health of the industry as a whole. A national insurance scheme would have helped the visual arts sector shoulder some of the unexpected costs incurred by business interruptions due to public health orders and border closures such as diverting programs online, putting artworks into storage and rerouting pre-planned interstate and international travelling exhibitions. 
  • Delayed access to the $200m Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand (RISE) Fund: Criteria originally excluded individual artists and approximately 75% of all art galleries due to their connection to local government or universities.
  • Lockdowns and border closures in one state affected artists nationwide: An artist in Perth may work years to prepare for a show in Sydney only to have it cancelled completely, or for most of its run, or for the artwork to not be able to get to the gallery due to border closures. Artists were only eligible for state support programs in the state they live in, not in the state where they had work cancelled.

Throughout this period, NAVA undertook several snap surveys revealing:

  • Over 80% of visual artists earned less than $25,000 in the 2020-21 financial year, with half experiencing income declines of up to 100%.
  • With 44% of visual artists generating their income from art sales, gallery closures had a huge impact on livelihoods, with sales falling 72%.
  • Art making dropped by nearly 40% as artists had to find work in other areas to survive.
  • 50% of the sector reported concerns about their future.
  • Career momentum for early and mid-career artists was severely derailed.
  • Of those working in arts organisations, 44% reported reduced working hours, 38% lost contracts and 73% of arts organisations across the country experienced exhibition cancellations or postponements. 
  • The impact on mental health was devastating, with 49% of artists and 51% of art workers reporting significant or extreme impact.

Ongoing Impacts

Following more than six years of debilitating policy shifts and funding cuts to the arts, the sector was hit by the pandemic, already tired and under-resourced. Lockdowns, cancellations, and a lack of financial support had devastating, long-lasting consequences. 

Support is near:

Image credit

Behind the scenes of NAVA's Sit For An Artist campaign, 2021. Photo: Lauren O Photography. Location: National Art School.

[ID: Photo of five people in an art studio, two are wearing face masks and talking to a person sitting on a stool, their back to the camera, one is walking across the frame wearing overalls and a facemask, in the top right of the frame is a large photographic fill light.]

COVID-19 Response: Impact on the visual arts and hopes for the Inquiry