Artists' jab plea to help ailing sector

Thea Perkins is among the Australian artists advocating vaccinations to help reopen the arts sector.
Thea Perkins is among the Australian artists advocating vaccinations to help reopen the arts sector.

Four in five visual artists earned less than $25,000 last financial year with half of those working in the field seeing their income fall, new research shows.

Survey results released on Wednesday by the National Association for the Visual Arts indicated artists saw sales slump by 72 per cent in 2020/21 amid COVID-19 lockdowns.

The poll of more than 1200 artists, arts workers and arts managers across Australia found that one-in-five artists was eligible for government assistance through the JobSeeker scheme.

Meanwhile, 44 per cent of arts organisation workers had their hours reduced and more than a third lost contracts.

Launching a new campaign to encourage vaccination take-up to support the country's creative recovery, the association's Penelope Benton said the virus and successive lockdowns had decimated the visual arts sector.

"Art making has dropped by nearly 40 per cent as artists have had to find work in other areas to survive, and over half of our sector is concerned about the future," Benton said.

"The gap in the visual arts sector will be felt for years, and we fear a generation of artists may be lost."

Governmental funding support has largely excluded the visual arts sector due to ineligibility, she added.

"We need to reopen so artists can get back to work and start on the slow road to recovery."

Sit For An Artist comprises four short videos featuring artists Thea Perkins, Dean Cross, Wendy Sharpe and Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran preparing to get their vaccination.

The idea behind the campaign title is that rather than sitting for an artist for a portrait, sitting for a vaccine will accelerate the process by which artists can get back to work.

Perkins, an Arrernte and Kalkadoon woman who makes paintings and installations, believes that the greatest damage the pandemic has inflicted has been on mental health.

"It's tough and demoralising having uncertainty around projects that you have put your heart and soul into and seeing many cancelled," said Perkins, who is currently working from home as her studio is closed.

"There will be a kind of invisible effect. We won't even know the ripple effect that the pandemic has had on the arts," she said.

The survey bears this out, with 49 per cent of artists and 51 per cent of arts workers reporting significant or extreme mental health impacts.

Dean Cross, a multidisciplinary artist of Worimi descent, hasn't been able to access his studio either.

"My practice has had to close down," Cross said.

"I've had to retreat like a hermit crab or a tortoise, pulling into my shell and waiting until I can re-emerge and start swimming around the river again," he said.

"I draw personal strength from knowing that our culture, Aboriginal culture, has survived things like this and worse through community and through engaging in culture."

Nithiyendran, a Sri Lankan-born, Sydney-based artist best known for his wonky, exuberantly decorated ceramic sculptures, feels lucky that he could still access his studio.

"But the actual rhythms and the flows of energy that are needed to create a work have been reduced because of this second wave," he said.

"The connection, the energy, the positivity and the engagement have all been impacted."

For Archibald Prize-winning figurative painter Wendy Sharpe, the first and second waves of the pandemic have been markedly different experiences.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, many commercial galleries found that with an increase of people spending time at home, more people were looking to fill their spaces with exciting, beautiful and thought-provoking art," Sharpe said.

"But with the second wave, as lockdowns extend, there has been a clear shift in thinking, with people unsure of when things are going to end. This has led to more resistance when spending money."

Sharpe is keen to disprove the notion that the arts are only for the elite.

"Almost everywhere you look, it's the arts that everyone has turned to even more during the pandemic," she said.

"We all want to go to galleries. We want to go to concerts. We want to go to museums. We want to go to restaurants. We want to meet other people. We don't want to be locked up forever. So go get vaccinated."

Mimi Crowe, also from the association, said the situation engulfing the visual arts sector was unprecedented in the organisation's 38-year history.

"Getting to 80 per cent vaccination rate and opening borders is an important first step for the visual arts," Crowe said.

"We want to see artists travelling interstate and overseas again, making and exhibiting new work and showcasing the best of Australia's art."

For more information, visit nava.net.au/sit-for-an-artist

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Australian Associated Press