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Art Handlers, Contract Workers at Galleries Faced Steepest Losses During Pandemic: Survey

Part-time and temporary workers were among those who suffered the most at galleries during the pandemic, a new survey by the Art Dealers Association of America reveals.

The ADAA surveyed 81 galleries from across the country, primarily ones from its membership but also ones who are part of the San Francisco Art Dealers Association and the Houston Art Gallery Association. Most said they were able to retain the majority of their full-time staffs, with 78 percent saying that they avoided layoffs altogether in 2020.

But losses have been steep for part-time and temporary workers. The extended closure of physical spaces led to many art handlers and contract workers—including editors, curators, conservators, web developers, and security officers—without jobs at galleries. 

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In 2020, employment of freelance workers and independent contractors at these galleries was 21 percent below pre-pandemic levels. Those numbers have continued to rise, decreasing to 31 percent of pre-pandemic levels through June 2021, according to the new survey. 

The newest survey is a follow-up to the ADAA’s “COVID-19 Impact on U.S. Galleries Report” from March 2020. That survey projected that 70 percent of contract workers and freelancers would lose work at galleries. At the time, 82 percent of surveyed art handlers and installers said they were laid off or had their contracts terminated.

In the new report, 70 percent of participating galleries said they experienced an overall decline in revenue when compared to 2019; on average, those who saw a decrease in revenue said it went down by about 35 precent. Conversely, 24 percent saw an increase in sales, with the average hovering around 21 percent more in sales. 

Access to federal relief funding and a pivot to virtual business helped sustain most businesses surveyed, with 90 percent said receiving the PPP loan attributed to their ability to retain staff.

The outlook for the remainder of 2021 is largely positive, however: 75 percent said that they plan to expand their artist rosters within the coming year, and 76 percent of them will return to in-person fairs. (Only 51 percent said they had plans to participate in international fairs.)

Most indicated a desire to scale back participation in online fair programming, with only 40 percent of surveyed galleries saying they were still interested in participating in these digital events. In 2020, 68 percent of these galleries participated in online fairs.

“While it is clear that galleries have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels of activity; the ADAA’s 2021 report also demonstrates just how nimble and innovative galleries continue to be, as so many quickly pivoted to virtual programs; found ways to sustain their physical spaces; and retained staff, through an unprecedented period,” ADAA president Anthony Meier and ADAA executive director Maureen Bray, said in a statement.

They added, “As the art world’s core group of small businesses, the outlook for art galleries has far-reaching implications for the entire cultural community.”

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