Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

Arts workers, unite! 

As the pandemic rambles on with no clear end in sight, the art world remains in constant flux. Everyday brings more news of lay-offs, budget cuts and restructuring, shifting calendars and postponed or cancelled events, OVRs and emerging forms of online programming — when the dust finally settles, the art world may look entirely different. 

At the onset of the pandemic, many professional art handlers, registrars, museum educators, and gallery assistants found themselves out of work. While some of those jobs have come back, the Delta variant is threatening this group of workers yet again. Unfortunately, for this particular class of professionals job insecurity is nothing new. In fact, their chosen career and ensuing reality can best be summarized by one word: precarious.

For those workers who also weathered the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession, the current labor market is like déjà vu, but coupled with a public health epidemic that makes the whole mess that much more dangerous, exhausting, and downright scary. And while history may not be totally repeating itself, it does offer hints as to what might come next.

In the wake of the Great Recession, the United States’ art industry witnessed a labor trend that harkened back to the Great Depression and subsequent New Deal — the rise of unions. That trend is back in a big way in the art industry, and it’s gaining momentum. 

A recent article in Bloomberg Law reported that unionization drives among museum workers in the States have dramatically spiked in the past three years: 

Pandemic-induced layoffs, furloughs, and pay reductions have accelerated museum workers’ ambition to unionize … Inequality in an industry tied to some of the world’s wealthiest people is a strong incentive to unionize, organizers said. And because museum workers are likely to have master’s degrees or higher levels of education, the comparatively low pay creates barriers to entry. The result is often a lack of diversity, and a perpetuated culture where workers are encouraged to feel lucky to have a job, academics said.”

Just last month, workers at the Brooklyn Museum of Art voted to unionize; however, even prior to the pandemic there was already a noticeable uptick in unionizing at US art museums. Such efforts were due in no small part to the nonprofit arts sector’s notoriously low pay and stagnant wages — a sobering list of those wages made the virtual rounds that same year via this google salary-sharing spreadsheet. More recently, a former staff member of the New Museum (which voted to unionize in 2019) published an harrowing expose detailing her experience as a labor organizer under the headline “Against Artsploitation.” 

Economic precarity has been linked to mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety. In academia, there’s been an ongoing and particularly tense debate on whether the so-called gig economy is actually better or worse for mental health than full-time employment.  Some workers report that the flexibility afforded by the gig economy boosts their mental wellness, while others lament the lack of stability as a major stressor. 

What’s unique about the art world is that both gig workers and salaried employees are suffering from the precarity of their chosen career paths, hence the rise in labor unions at US art museums, as well as new professional platforms for freelance art workers. 

Art Mavens is a new online platform that's geared towards arts professionals. Co-founded by Louise Hamlin and Deborah Najar in 2020 during lockdown, Art Mavens hopes to create a more sustainable network for arts professionals. The platform bills itself as a “global hub for art professionals and organisations to connect, collaborate and transact. It is the leading freelance marketplace for art professionals, with a community app that aggregates art world information, events and expertise,” according to its website.

Louise’s vision for Art Mavens is backed by more than a decade of experience working in the art world, with a focus on art business and the trade. She worked for 14 years at The Art Newspaper, the industry’s premier online and print publication.  After her tenure there, she co-founded the Art Business Conference in 2014, which has organized industry events in New York, London, and Shanghai. When the pandemic shut down in-person conferences, Art Mavens was born as a way of bringing that community together virtually, in the absence of live events, and building a new hybrid way of interacting and hiring. 

We sat down with Louise to discuss Art Mavens and her thoughts on the past, present and future of work in the arts sector. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Louise Hamlin and Deborah Najar, cofounders of Art Mavens.

AA: What is Art Mavens and why did you feel the art world needed such a platform? 

LH: Art Mavens Pro is the first dedicated platform for art professionals to seek freelance work, as a response to the pandemic and a shift in work patterns across the industry.

As part of our research in setting up Art Mavens Pro, we identified that one of the greatest issues and challenges for freelance art professionals is being paid and being paid on time — so, the platform we've created holds funds in an escrow account. This way, freelancers are paid immediately upon completion of a role, or on agreed-upon milestones, or weekly, etc. 

Art Mavens also plays a role connecting the art professionals and organisations.  It aims to bring together everyone who works in the gallery world and museum sector, art advisors, auctioneers, appraisers, etc. — to exchange knowledge and create opportunities. We want to enable art world professionals to digitally network, convene and interact — with an “art world feed” tailored to professional updates, content, events, etc. 

AA: How does Art Mavens Pro work? 

LH: For employers — it's free to list open positions on the Art Mavens platform. The freelancer lists their skills.. The prospective employer enters the budget they have for a project. And then our algorithms will match the two. 

Art Mavens Pro platform takes care of all the invoicing, messaging, and contracts. We are responding to that shift in working patterns, and enabling freelancers to find more opportunities. 

Employers love the fact that every candidate on the platform has been screened and vetted.

We also believe the platform will benefit employers looking to fill short-term art projects, whether they're looking for art technicians or installers, collection managers, or seeking additional help managing an art fair booth, for example. And, with the seismic shift to digital, galleries might be seeking extra help with digital marketing, social media strategies, image editing, etc. 

Currently, Art Mavens has no annual costs. It’s free to list and use the service as an employer with a 2% fee once the job is agreed. For the freelancer there is a 10% commission on any roles they complete. 

This commission is less than other freelance digital platforms and also ensures the freelancer is paid immediately on completion of the job. 

AA: Is Art Mavens focused solely on the western art world? Or is the platform global in scope?

LH: The community is a global marketplace — we have freelancers registered all over the world. We are very interested in emerging areas of the global art world, and we’re already working with a number of organizations in Africa and in South Korea, for example — places with growing art markets, where employers need that network of on-the-ground freelancers as well. 

Whilst some professions require their freelancers to be physically present — art installers, photographers, etc. — there are many roles that can be completed remotely, such as digital producers, social media, art historians and writers and translators. 

AA: Beyond timely payments, what other art industry issues will Art Mavens seek to remedy?

LH: The pandemic has led to widespread unemployment in the arts, and loss of revenue. As a global marketplace Art Mavens opens up new opportunities to professionals, to find freelance, consulting or contract work beyond their personal networks and immediate geographies.  Art Mavens looks to foster accountability across the industry, making sure all jobs are paid fairly, but also allowing freelancers to review their employers and vice versa.  Our candidate approval process is a crucial component - by interviewing all freelancers we ensure our employing organisations see only the best art professionals, with real qualifications and experience. 

This kind of transparency is important for Art Mavens to facilitate — if you're a freelancer working for different organizations, it will help you determine the kind of organization that you want to be working for. Or, as you become more senior and maybe set up your own business, you’ll be better equipped to implement ethical work practices for your own business. 

AA: Do you think that arts professionals are at a greater risk of burnout than workers in other industries? 

LH: I think the art world does have a bad reputation generally for low salaries, and very high expectations. There’s a lot of traveling and late nights — in terms of gallery openings, auctions, dinners, etc. — so there’s an expectation that you should go above and beyond the nine to five. I don't know how much that has shifted over the last year.

I think everybody is always quite grateful to work in this industry, because we're forever surrounded by beauty and creativity.  But that in itself is not enough to keep us all working — freelancers need to be paid, and they need to be paid on time. 

What we've seen in the last year will probably manifest in significant burnout. I think that's quite possibly indicative across a number of industries, however — I don't think it's necessarily exclusive to the art world. 

I've had colleagues across various industries confirm that, as a result of the last year, many companies have been reduced to core staff. That core staff must then take on responsibilities from other staff members — those who might have been on furlough, or been made redundant and then let go.

Consequently, the core staff is shouldering a lot of other work and I think this leads to significant burnout. The flip side of that, I suppose, is that travel has slowed down. 

A lot of gallerists and their teams were travelling two or three days every week, and they're no longer doing that. So maybe there's a slight rebalancing or recalibration, from that point of view. 

Pre-pandemic, I think that everybody felt like the wheels were coming off a little bit — it was just so busy, so hectic. The next two years are going to be really telling, to see how galleries in the art world rehire and whether that balance shifts again, and whether all the gallery staff are going back into travel mode. But, so much of this is reliant on what plays out with the pandemic and the vaccination program, of course.

This brings us back to freelancers and why we ultimately founded Art Mavens. We want to allow art workers to pick and choose what they do, and who they work for.

It's going to be a long journey … we're not going to change the entire system overnight. But, I think more and more people are thinking about a freelancing career and Art Mavens can help people find more opportunities to make a freelance career viable, financially and ethically.

To register as a freelancer on Art Mavens click here. To post a freelance job click here.

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