Cancellations, unpaid bills, eviction threats: Inside the grim reality of being an artist right now
Moira Ness details some of the immediate challenges she's facing as COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the art world
Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.
The last time I drove over to my shared studio space was my final trip to pick up art supplies. Since COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, our studio managers closed the attached gallery and stressed that we should only be at the studio through absolute necessity. I walked by our annual showcase, currently hanging in the now-closed gallery. I had skipped the opening (I was already physical distancing), and as I stood alone with the pieces, I realized that this would be the last event held in the gallery space for many months to come. Left behind, symbols of all 27 displaced Northern Contemporary artists, without witness and denied agency. I noticed dust forming on my in-progress wood panels. Had it been that long already? I quickly grabbed some art supplies and a few notebooks and left.
During my current distancing, I have taken pause to think about the repercussions COVID-19 will have on my art practice. The CONTACT Photography Festival (May 1st–31st) show I am a part of will probably be cancelled. It has been postponed twice already, the latest email extending the wait by a whole month until the next proposed opening date. Currently, we stand at a May 31st opening, the last day the actual festival is planned to run. This would have been my first exhibition through a commercial gallery — something I have worked toward for the entirety of my art career. There is no flexibility to postpone any further, either; the shows that succeed this annual CONTACT group exhibition were booked years in advance and understandably won't be cancelled to accommodate us.
With the likelihood that the festival will be called off entirely, CONTACT has suggested the idea of presenting shows and works online. Yes, any opportunity or platform to present work is better than none at all. But unfortunately, online exposure removes the accolade that comes with being a part of such an important event — a detail so crucial for future art sales and CV additions. I am quickly becoming acquainted with the reality that my newly framed photographs may never actually hang in the commercial gallery CONTACT show, or any show, for a long time. Up until this pandemic uprooted daily life, I had still been making sales from my 2019 CONTACT show at The Gladstone. In-person viewing is imperative to the full experience of art. Something can catch your eye and immediately move you. Then, that same art can haunt you. You remember or are reminded of it, and sometimes, after all that, you buy that art. People are already growing tired of the plugged-in monotonous screen-staring sessions during isolation, so I worry that the urgency to view the festival online will stale. These are the unseen losses that artists are experiencing right now: that their hard-earned and timely career momentum might not continue in the post-COVID-19 art world.
I currently have six pieces being framed at Superframe for the postponed CONTACT show, and I suddenly have no way to pay the $2,000 bill out of pocket. In a matter of days, all of my previously secured part-time and occasional work outside of art was cancelled indefinitely; this includes nannying, dog-sitting, house-sitting, and property checks. My employers no longer require someone else to attend to their children, dog, or house — they are now homebound, able to do it themselves. The delicate financial balance of being an emerging artist living and working in Toronto has been thrown off; paying my Visa bill over the course of a month as money comes in is no longer an option. The flexibility in schedule my jobs offered me as an artist is now being labelled by many as precarious, and with the newfound hindsight of my current circumstances, I am inclined to agree with them.
Studio rent still has to be paid, even though I no longer have full access. (While working on this article, I learned that Northern Contemporary's landlord has refused all requests of rent discount or deferral; if all 27 artists cannot pay their rent for April, we will be evicted at the end of the month.) I don't qualify for most art-related relief funds because I don't specifically have any upcoming talks or workshops that have been cancelled due to COVID-19. I am a multidisciplinary artist, and because of this I cannot qualify for relief funds aimed to help artists within a single medium. My life expenses separate from my art practice also must be kept up with. How much further into debt can I go without a remaining way to pay it off? How can I even manage to pay the minimum interest payments I owe? These frantic internal narratives enter my head multiple times a day now. They do not leave.
What about art sales during and beyond COVID-19? One of the recently trending art-related conversations is about how important it is to have art in your home. Now, while everyone has time to spend staring at their empty walls, are people actually seeking out to buy? How will COVID-19 affect the upcoming outdoor summer art fair circuit where many of those purchases are made? I, among the rest of these fair participants, rely on these events for basic income. Will these fairs happen — and if they do, will people even want to attend? Will newly educated fear discourage attendance at such large public events? The Toronto Outdoor Art Fair, held annually at Nathan Phillips Square, has over 100,000 attendees over the course of three days. Then, if the fairs do happen and people do attend, will they have their previous disposable income to spend on art? Despite the ongoing cute conversation about the necessity of art, I worry that buying it will take a firm backseat for the unforeseeable future.
A curious feeling is forming in the online art world. However fragmented, our community realizes the urgency to connect right now, both through our art and through our projected losses.- Moira Ness
All of these questions made me wonder about how COVID-19 might be similarly affecting my peers. I spoke with my studio mate, paper artist Cat Lamora, who told me about their two major commercial contracts and a solo show that had been cancelled due to COVID-19. Their solo show couldn't be rescheduled, as the rest of the gallery's 2020 schedule was already booked. "It means I won't be earning anything until July, minimum, even if the isolation time ends sooner."
Linds Miyo, a painter at AKIN's MoCA Residency program, told me she had to decline her first international art fair participation due to the growing concerns of healthy safety while travelling. She hasn't painted since this decision. "I'm home with my kids, just trying to keep them safe," she says. "My daughter is immunocompromised because of her arthritis medication. I don't even know when we will be 'allowed' back into our studios at MoCA."
My old studio mate, Johana Cordero, is a textile artist who owns the weaving studio Loom Studio. She said that a few of her students chose to reschedule their upcoming weaving classes, but the majority simply cancelled. This meant losing money she had already accounted for the month, as well as no longer being able to employ her other instructor. "I am very scared at the moment of the future of Loom Studio," Cordero tells me. "I have no way to predict at what point people will feel comfortable again booking me for classes and events, and I fear by the time maybe things go back to normal I will have had to leave my studio space."
Designer Emily Woudenberg had an international show cancelled, as well as a local show at Launchpad Studio; design work for a future show with Myseum has also been postponed indefinitely. "Mostly I've been compensated but I haven't bothered to press for money from some of the art clients because I know it is the same situation for them, too," she says.
The status of these artists' experiences changes daily. By the time this article is published, these same people will be even further affected with new losses and blowbacks from the COVID-19 effect. I urge others to read over the ever-expanding list of cancelled and postponed arts and culture events collected by AKIMBO and NOW Magazine. Jobs surrounding artist support are also in a current state of limbo. Art handlers, art festival/exhibition staff, gallery workers, and residency workers are all having their contracts cut short, postponed, or terminated altogether. (The Banff Centre for Arts recently announced 400 temporary layoffs due to COVID-19, while the Stratford Festival did the same for 500 employees.)
Thankfully, there is some respite in this dreary tale of financial devastation. The arts community has banded together and a surge of online initiatives to help artists grapple with the widespread loss has emerged. Different artist relief funds are also being started and circulated online, offering small equal payouts to artists in need as money is donated. (CBC Arts is keeping an updated list of resources for artist and freelancers, and I'll highlight some other initiatives at the bottom of this article.) Do you currently find yourself with disposable income? Consider donating to a local artist relief fund. Are you an artist that is worried about the loss of funds due to a job or show cancellation? Consider applying!
This is just the beginning of the COVID-19 timeline, but a curious feeling is forming in the online art world. However fragmented, our community realizes the urgency to connect right now, both through our art and through our projected losses. Please do your part and practice strict social distancing, and let's keep this momentum going.
Here are a few organizations creating new content and resources for artists:
- YNGSPC is offering online critiques and free access to lists of rounded up artist resources
- Partial Gallery hosted an art challenge, #14dayslater, where participants were tasked with highlighting a different artist every day for 14 days on their Instagram account
- The Gathered Gallery is pitching in by featuring an online showcase, "The Class of 2020", of upcoming Canadian art school graduates who have been affected by their respective school's cancellation of graduation shows
- Online art directory Artifier has started a series of daily Remote Art Talks to learn more about artists' current experiences and how they are keeping inspired as they navigate self-isolation
- An Instagram account called Social Distance Gallery was created and has already begun furiously posting digital exhibitions of cancelled BFA and MFA thesis shows
CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.