arts and design

Exhausted and broke: Melbourne artists in survival mode as galleries prepare to reopen


Galleries across Melbourne will open their doors next week. But the community at the heart of Australia’s cultural capital is exhausted – and many are broke.

The artist Fayen d’Evie’s show at West Space was the culmination of six years of work – and it was open for just 11 days.

The show, aptly named “We get in touch with things at the point they break down”, was about finding new ways to make art and come together through collaboration.

“The show closed almost as soon as it opened,” d’Evie says. “To work six years on something that was so ephemeral, it almost didn’t exist. I went into mental health collapse thinking about it, and what the point is.”

In the last year, four in five Australian visual artists earned less than $25,000 from their practice – which is $100 a week below the poverty line, according to research from the National Association for the Visual Arts (Nava).

Because of the pandemic, one in two visual artists experienced an income decline of between 20% and 100%, resulting in 18% of artists earning no income from their work last financial year.

And almost the majority – 86% – said the pandemic reduced their ability to make work, exhibit it and earn an income.

“We have survived, but we are still in survival mode,” says the West Space acting artistic director, Andy Butler.

Galleries like West Space act as incubators for the nation’s emerging artists. They are small, receive less funding and are often overshadowed by large institutions such as the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. But they are essential to the cultural makeup of the city.

The pandemic exacerbated funding cuts that have been going on for years. In 2015 the then arts minister George Brandis cut the budget for the Australia Council – Australia’s arts funding body – by $100m. The impact was instant – 65 arts companies went under and 70% of grants to artists were taken off the table.

It’s an ongoing trend. Commonwealth funding has fallen by 19% per person since 2007-08, according to the Monash University lecturer and Guardian Australia contributor Ben Eltham.

Tasked with helping to “bring the city back”, these galleries are currently staying afloat through the help of state government and local council funding.

Andy Butler of West Space
Andy Butler of West Space says there is ‘enthusiasm and excitement because of how amazing these artists are’. Photograph: Alana Holmberg/The Guardian

But set against a backdrop of years of shrinking funding, the pandemic lockdowns left the industry on its knees, Butler says.

“We have lost a generation of artists’ work,” he says.

Galleries have less funding to exhibit artists, and artists have fewer opportunities to put on shows, Butler says.

“We have just done one call-out for a significant opportunity to work with an artist over 12 to 18 months to develop an exhibition, but because of our delays we only have two spots in 2023.”

The gallery received 80 applications, which is far less than normal, and a mix of mid-career artists to those fresh out of art school.

But the drive to create is still there – and what keeps everyone going is the calibre of work coming out, he says.

“There are so many incredible Australian artists at the moment,” Butler says.

“We’re coming into the open period having worked non-stop for 18 months, we’re doing it with enthusiasm and excitement because of how amazing these artists are.”

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Australia’s creative and cultural industries contribute $111.7bn to Australia’s GDP, representing 6.5% of the economy. Before the pandemic, the arts employed 600,000 people across the country.

The Nava co-director, Mimi Crowe, says many artists are sacrificing fair pay for a career in the industry.

“We need to rethink our national understanding of how artists earn their living and ensure our industry standards reflect a respected and thriving arts sector,” Crowe says.

The Morrison government says it is investing $1 billion into the arts for 2021-22.

Part of that is the RISE emergency funding, which so far has invested $160m in 387 projects – so far 39 of those have been visual arts projects, which received almost $14m.

Diego Ramirez is the director of Seventh, a non-for-profit gallery that, like many smaller galleries, was forced to move during the pandemic.

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They found a new home in Richmond and he says it’s been hard for the gallery, but he has lost family in Mexico to Covid and he is happy to pay the price of “the most lockdowned city in the world” to keep his community alive.

“There’s a shift towards engaging in communities [outside of the arts]. We are part of that shift in terms of prioritising speaking to the people who live around us … how can we translate experimental art in a way they can understand?”

Up the road in Brunswick, Blak Dot is Melbourne’s only Indigenous-run gallery and showcases contemporary and traditional First Nations art.

Its artistic director, Kimba Thompson, says the gallery offers a space for artists who may not have the opportunity or money to exhibit work at the NGV yet.

“It’s our 10th anniversary this year and we haven’t had a chance to celebrate it,” Thompson says.

“The last four shows, we literally opened the exhibition and closed two days later.”

The gallery has picked up some funding, and has managed to negotiate with Moreland council to keep its space.

“Why can’t you throw money at us any other time? The pressure is on the art community to bring Melbourne alive,” Thompson says.

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Blak Dot also has an outdoor area, a stage for live performance, and a community garden.

“As much as we are a gallery, we’re also here for our community,” Thompson says.

In Carlton, the writer Zara Sigglekow made a bold move during the pandemic – with friend Steven Stewart she started her own gallery, Futures.

Sigglekow can count on her hand the number of days the gallery has been open across the last two years.

“It’s like being in a whack-a-mole game,” she says.

Commercial galleries have fared a lot better than their non-profit peers. Online sales for many galleries have been strong, as wealthy collectors reportedly bought art instead of overseas holidays.

For many commercial galleries, moving $100,000-plus paintings has been usual the last few months.

Futures will open with a solo show from Matthew Harris, who proudly identifies as a mix of “white bogan” and Yorta Yorta.

Despite no one seeing it in person, half of the show is already sold.

“But it’s still important it has a public viewing,” Sigglekow says.

Mainly, the pair are excited to have people wandering in off the street, she says.

“It’s reinforced the community side of having a gallery, having a space where people can come and meet,” Sigglekow says.

“It’s not enough for it to be a sales exchange. We’re really looking forward to being able to do that.”



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