Maverick Life


Art and the pandemic: An industry that desperately needs support

FRANKFURT AM MAIN, GERMANY - MAY 09: Visitors wearing protective face masks visit the 'Kunst der Moderne' exhibition at the Staedel Museum on the first day the museum reopened to the public during the coronavirus crisis on May 09, 2020 in Frankfurt, Germany. Museums across Germany are beginning to reopen as authorities continue easing lockdown measures. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Getty Images)

The livelihoods of cultural workers are especially vulnerable during an economic downturn. They are often left behind by social security measures, despite their necessity to the economy and society. At a time when we are all turning to artistic products to help us through uncertain times, it’s essential for artists to be supported — not put on pause.

The creative sector of the South African economy has been winning in recent years. In 2016, government-backed researchers at Rhodes University estimated that the creative sector earned R63-billion or 1.7% of the national gross domestic product (GDP).

Artistic industries have grown since then and national artistic output is consistently gaining visibility and international relevance. The visual arts are riding this wave, as seen by the splashy arrivals of Zeitz MOCAA and the Norval Foundation, and the expansion of art fairs bankrolled by Investec, RMB and Sandton City.

The visual arts depend on sociality to a large degree. For fairs, galleries, and museums to function, arts organisations need people to gather as gatherings means ticket sales, art sales, book sales and even drinks sales, all contributing to the overall success of the institution.

But social life has changed lately. With the looming threat of Covid-19 contagion, gathering is no more. In turn, the entire economic network that the “art world” depends on has been derailed. This is a network of freelancers, resellers and behind-the-scenes actors, like tastemakers, cleaners, picture framers, guides, security guards, teachers and, of course, art makers.

Things seem dire for the arts even at a time when a stay-at-home nation is hungry for cultural produce. Evidenced by the rise of digital exhibitions, Zoom orchestras, livestreaming documentaries and films that saw their release pushed forward (like The Last Dance with Michael Jordan on Netflix), and Instagram live workshops, people are bringing art and culture into their homes in a new way.

Art is an escape from domestic isolation and a perspective shift away from this year’s chaotic uncertainty, and this is why it’s even more concerning that some artists are potentially going to be out of work and left empty-handed, as the lockdown – even under lesser strict conditions – leaves many without options.

And yet, the situation is not hopeless. Creatives are advocating for themselves and others in response to the economic damage of the virus with artists, curators and administrators organising for labour rights. Front and centre are countless independent artists, freelancers who are now neglected by the state’s emergency efforts.


Refilwe Nkomo describes herself a “slash-person” — i.e. an artist/curator/educator/writer with art/politics/business science degrees from South Africa/the US and experience as a freelancer/civil society member focusing on rural health.

In January 2020, she added another slash to her resume: Director of a 6,000+ member arts organisation, The Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA).

The network advocates for artists, focusing on labour rights and state benefits for freelancing creatives. They work to create inclusive social, intellectual and commercial networks for artists across the country with a model of decentralisation, study, professional access, a sort of NGO.

Nkomo had been director of VANSA for just shy of three months when the lockdown began.

“It’s been a very steep learning curve,” she says.

But this has not affected her ambitions, she has an optimistic spin on the pandemic, saying, “an international crisis is showing that there are many opportunities, particularly in terms of virtual space and development of local economies”.

Within days of the lockdown, VANSA sent out a survey to their members to gauge what challenges artists were facing in real time. Most reported financial losses from cancelled or postponed projects and were concerned about shifting to digital display and what that meant for their audiences. The extra responsibility of social media manager, web designer and curator all in a bid to protect your professional viability in a time of crisis for the entire profession could be daunting.

The non-governmental organisation doesn’t directly provide funding, residencies or exhibition opportunities to artists, but instead connects them with resources. In the past two months, their work has shifted into high gear. Nkomo and her small team of four are responding to the crisis in a timely and considerate way.

These issues were especially pronounced away from the cultural centres of Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Outside of these hubs, resources, especially data and institutional access, are more scarce.

“The inequalities that play out in the physical world are still prevalent in the virtual space,” says Nkomo.

One of VANSA’s key goals is the decentralisation of the arts away from these metropoles. This is in the interest of an inclusive national artistic culture, one that makes space for diverse voices and experiences.

“If you are an artist in Lusikisiki deep in Eastern Cape and you have a cellphone and barely enough data just for WhatsApp, are you now going to put on a whole Zoom show or online exhibition?”

Right now the organisation has decided to focus on short-term material support for artists. They have to be as direct as the losses faced by artists with cancelled projects and vanished incomes who still have studio fees and living expenses.

VANSA is petitioning the government for a monthly allowance to be made available to individual artists; this could be drawn from either President Cyril Ramaphosa’s R500-billion national relief fund or the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture’s R150-million pot, which Minister Nathi Mthethwa stated has a generous R20,000 payment ceiling per person. But more on that later.

This would function like a universal basic income, an idea already working its way into the national imagination. Their website also includes a comprehensive list of resources available to artists like the Business and Arts South Africa’s grants.

VANSA is casting a wide net to try to account for as many people as possible. They also provide essential advice on navigating the often complicated bureaucracy of financial aid and will be sending out a new survey to get an update at this latest stage of the pandemic.

Nobody can be sure when Level 1 of the lockdown will arrive and many in the creative industries have to sit tight, waiting until then to resume operations. Among these are artists who do not have access to their studios under current Level 4 restrictions, a situation that has stunted their practice.

“I predominantly work in sculpture and other three-dimensional mediums, so in order for me to be producing work, I need access to my studio in Paarden Eiland,” writes Tiago Rodrigues. “My production has come to a complete halt from the beginning of the lockdown.”

“Without access to my studio, I am unable to make anything in my usual practice. So in general, it has cut my productivity down by 90%,” says Michael Linders, another artist represented by SMITH Studio, Cape Town.

Linders has made art with neon lights, plexiglass and a vintage television. Not all easy work-from-home materials.

“Ideas and work flourish in the making,” he says. “Thinking about art is the start of the process, but without a physical output, it becomes meaningless.”

It also becomes profitless. The financial knock-on effect of halted production for contemporary artists will be felt months and years down the line.

“Making work does not equal income,” says Gerhard Marx. “Making work is a financial risk, it is an investment into potential future sales. If artists could make work now, they could buffer the future impact.”

Work, for this artist, has been a car fused with a string quartet to make a new instrument simply titled VEHICLE. Again, not an easy at-home project, given the space and equipment such an idea demands.


This is about more than solo artists. Security of work and income is important for these individuals, but it also depends on them. The so-called “art world” employs and pays many more people than painters, sculptors and interdisciplinary creatives. Numerous jobs function as part of the solar system of museums, galleries, auction houses, schools and studios that all revolve around artists.


With production from home limited, artists are losing out on commissions, exhibition prep, and development of their practice, not to mention the personal rewards and releases of art making. The costs are serious and multiple.

A group of artists predominantly based in Cape Town have had enough. In a brief two days, an open letter, initiated by self-professed “interdisciplinary knowledge worker”, Ralph Borland, circulated on WhatsApp groups, via word of mouth and in emails from arts organisations. As of today, it has appealed to over 140 signatories.

The government issued a call for feedback from creatives on 25 April 2020 with a deadline of 12pm on the following Monday. Artists, curators, educators and administrators including William Kentridge, Ben Orkin and Dan Halter, as well as Rodrigues, Linders and Marx, all responded to the narrow window and the letter was ready. Adding names up to the last minute, Borland said he submitted the letter at 12:02.

The reply was instant and automated:

Good day,
Thank you for your email on the COVID-19 Risk Adjustment Strategy for Level 4.
Kindly note the deadline for submissions have closed at 12:00pm today.
Thank you.

It’s unsure whether the letter will be considered, but its case should be known. Borland and others advocate for studio access under current Level 4 restrictions. It makes an economic case for the arts, explaining the micro and macro impacts of the shutdown, covering individual’s as well as the industry’s contribution to the GDP. With permission to access studio spaces during this stage of the lockdown, artists can produce now and be better positioned to earn later.

Studios are typically single-occupancy spaces so there is low risk of contagion and they provide essential materials, tools and specialised environments for artists to get back to work. Even in studio complexes, where multiple artists lease units, physical distancing and sanitation can be practiced as necessary.

This is about more than solo artists. Security of work and income is important for these individuals, but it also depends on them. The so-called “art world” employs and pays many more people than painters, sculptors and interdisciplinary creatives. Numerous jobs function as part of the solar system of museums, galleries, auction houses, schools and studios that all revolve around artists.

Consider the opening of a solo photography exhibition, for example. There are printers, framers, transporters, installers, curators, researchers, writers, marketers, educators, caterers, cleaners and security all involved in making the singular event of the show happen. Each of these people is earning money and contributing to economic activity and the artist fuels the whole enterprise.

“An individual artist has the ability to be contributing towards the income of 20 people,” says Nkomo.

Scaled up, that economic impact is massive. The multiplier brings GDP contribution of the creative industries soaring to as much as R233-billion or 5.7%. This cannot be frozen until Level 1, it affects too many people. Artists are arguing that they can act now to cushion the industry later.

Mthethwa is responsible for sports, arts and culture. It’s possible that with his wide mandate — which some argue favours athletics over aesthetics — he has neglected to understand the way the visual arts economy works. His explanation of the distribution of the department’s R150-million relief package seemed caring, but perhaps naive.

“We will have this cake to slice for many people, maximum R2o,000!”

On 4 May 2020, Mthethwa and representatives of the department and president held a briefing, broadcast online. It was a Covid-19 update for footballers, filmmakers, jazz players, and horse trainers and everybody in between, many depending on slices of cake from the government.

The briefing came one month after relief applications became available and the shortfalls of the system were a main topic. The bureaucracy has been a hurdle for independent artists.

The narrow criteria to get relief were:

  1. Have proof of a cancelled event (not a postponement).
  2. If not, be a contracted freelancer and have definitive proof of lost income due to the pandemic.

Both options are unrealistic for a large majority of artists whose financial dealings are often more informal than the ministry expects. Maverick Life approached the department for answers, but we hadn’t received any feedback at the time of publishing.

“Artists do not have unions, we are not represented by federations, we don’t always have fixed ‘events’ or definite contracts, or fixed salaries,” says Maja Marx, fortunate enough to have a home studio for her abstract painting.

The relief applications were announced hastily near the beginning of the lockdown on 29 March 2020. The ministry expected up-to-standard responses a week later, on 4 April. Of some 5,000 applications received from the creative sector, 1,050 had been judged, 603 of those had been denied.

The deadline has been extended to 19 June and the ministry is promising assistance to unsuccessful applicants. Though they still may be missing the point by leaving out independent artists and not planning for the whole sector.

For Maja Marx, the ministry has “limited insight” of the arts economy and Mthethwa needs to “take these systems seriously”. Tiago Rodrigues considers the department “severely misinformed”.

“We do not just need a mini-supplement to the income of a few,” Marx says, “we need a powerful injection into a dynamic ecosystem in order to continue supporting the existing systems, and allow the industry to support itself.”

Unfortunately, Mthethwa and his department are the officials accountable to this ecosystem. They need a grasp of all its economic machinery and to treat all parts with equal priority. Prioritisation and understanding are key.

Prioritisation means financial aid from the government and allowances for artistic production during the lockdown. Understanding means an arts economy that transforms during an economic crisis and survives afterward. All this means people with stable incomes living in a country with rich artistic and cultural life. Winning doesn’t have to stop. DM/ML