Next week, galleries all throughout Melbourne will open their doors. The community at the core of Australia’s cultural capital, on the other hand, is fatigued – and many are bankrupt.
The exhibition at West Space by artist Fayen d’Evie was the product of six years of labor — yet it was only open for 11 days.
The presentation, fittingly titled “We get in touch with things at the point they break down,” was about coming up with new methods to produce art and collaborate.
“Almost as soon as it opened, the show closed,” d’Evie explains. “To spend six years working on something so ephemeral that it almost didn’t exist.” I had a nervous breakdown thinking about it, and I’m not sure what the purpose is.”
According to study from the National Association for the Visual Arts, four out of five Australian visual artists earned less than $25,000 in the previous year, which is $100 per week below the poverty level (Nava).
One in every two visual artists had a 20 percent to 100 percent drop in revenue as a consequence of the epidemic, with 18 percent of artists making no money from their work last fiscal year.
And almost all of them – 86 percent – claimed the epidemic hampered their capacity to create, exhibit, and earn money.
Andy Butler, the acting creative director of West Space, says, “We have survived, but we are still in survival mode.”
Galleries such as West Space serve as incubators for the country’s up-and-coming artists. They’re tiny, have little resources, and are sometimes overshadowed by larger institutions like the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. They are, nonetheless, crucial to the city’s cultural composition.
The epidemic has worsened financial constraints that have been in place for some time. The budget for the Australia Council, Australia’s arts funding organisation, was slashed by $100 million in 2015 by then-arts minister George Brandis. The effect was immediate: 65 arts organizations went bankrupt, and 70% of artist funds were withdrawn.
It’s a recurring pattern. According to Ben Eltham, a Monash University professor and Guardian Australia writer, Commonwealth investment per person has decreased by 19% since 2007-08.
These galleries, tasked with helping to “bring the city back,” are now surviving thanks to state and municipal government financing.
However, Butler claims that the pandemic lockdowns brought the business to its knees because of years of declining financing.
“A generation of artists’ work has been lost,” he argues.
According to Butler, galleries have less resources for exhibiting artists, and artists have less opportunity to put on exhibits.
“We just put out a call for a significant opportunity to work with an artist over the course of 12 to 18 months to develop an exhibition, but due to our delays, we only have two spots available in 2023.”
The gallery got 80 applications, significantly less than usual, from artists in their mid-career to those just out of art school.
But the desire to create remains – and the quality of art produced, he claims, is what keeps everyone going.
“At the moment, there are so many incredible Australian artists,” Butler adds.
“We’ve been working nonstop for 18 months and are coming into the open period with enthusiasm and excitement because of how amazing these artists are.”
Australia’s creative and cultural industries provide $111.7 billion to the economy, or 6.5 percent of GDP. The arts employed 600,000 people throughout the nation before to the epidemic.
Mimi Crowe, the Nava co-director, claims that many artists are willing to forego proper wages in order to pursue a career in the profession.
“We need to rethink our national understanding of how artists make a living,” Crowe argues, adding that “our industry standards must reflect a respected and thriving arts sector.”
For the years 2021-22, the Morrison government says it would spend $1 billion in the arts.
Part of it is the RISE emergency financing, which has so far invested $160 million in 387 projects, with about $14 million going to visual arts programs.
Diego Ramirez is the director of Seventh, a non-profit gallery that was forced to relocate during the epidemic, along with many other smaller galleries.
They moved to Richmond, and he admits it’s been difficult for the gallery, but he has lost relatives in Mexico to Covid, and he’s willing to pay the price of living in “the world’s most lockdown city” to keep his community alive.
“There’s a trend toward getting involved in communities [beyond the arts].” We are a part of that trend in terms of prioritizing communication with the individuals who reside in our immediate vicinity… “How can we communicate experimental art to them in a way that they can comprehend?”
Blak Dot, Melbourne’s sole Indigenous-run gallery, is located in Brunswick and exhibits modern and traditional First Nations art.
Kimba Thompson, the gallery’s creative director, claims the gallery provides a platform for artists who may not yet have the chance or financial means to display their work at the NGV.
“This year marks our tenth anniversary, and we haven’t had the opportunity to celebrate,” Thompson explains.
“We literally opened the exhibition and closed it two days later for the last four shows.”
The gallery has received some money and has been able to maintain its site after negotiating with Moreland council.
“Why can’t you throw money at us whenever you want?” “The art community is under pressure to bring Melbourne to life,” Thompson argues.
Blak Dot also offers a communal garden, an outdoor space, and a stage for live performances.
“We’re here for our community as much as we are a gallery,” Thompson explains.
Carlton writer Zara Sigglekow took a risk during the epidemic by opening her own gallery, Futures, with friend Steven Stewart.
The number of days the gallery has been open in the previous two years can be counted on one hand, according to Sigglekow.
“It’s like a game of whack-a-mole,” she explains.
Non-profit galleries have fared far worse than commercial galleries. Many galleries have reported significant online sales as affluent collectors have apparently purchased art instead of taking vacations abroad.
Moving $100,000-plus artworks has become routine for many commercial galleries in recent months.
Matthew Harris, who boldly identifies as a blend of “white bogan” and Yorta Yorta, will begin Futures with a solo act.
Despite the fact that no one has seen it, half of the show has already been sold.
“But it’s still important that it be seen by the public,” Sigglekow argues.
She said the couple is more pleased to have people come in off the street.
“Having a gallery, having a space where people can come and meet,” Sigglekow adds, “has reinforced the community side of having a gallery.”
“Just being a sales exchange isn’t enough. We’re pretty excited about being able to accomplish that.”