Art market

A Covid-19 silver lining? Let’s not return to family-unfriendly art business as usual

The industry could work better for mothers and fathers if it doesn’t go back to the out-of-hours, out-of-town way things were

The Covid-19 pandemic has piled on extra challenges for working mothers © standsome worklifestyle

The Covid-19 pandemic has piled on extra challenges for working mothers © standsome worklifestyle

Sorry to start 2021 on a downer, but to add insult to injury, the Covid-19 pandemic has piled on extra challenges for working mothers. Recent data from the United Nations found that since the virus struck, women have been doing significantly more unpaid, care-related tasks and were leaving the workforce much more rapidly than men. Simultaneous research conducted for the Freelands Foundation found that artists who are mothers have been hit with more than their fair share of the domestic burden during the pandemic.

It’s not just artists. The fragmented art world has a relatively high number of self-employed workers, myself included—a status that has historically suited parents. Increased flexibility is worth the sacrifices of a regular salary, paid holiday or sick leave (or at least it was until Covid-19—thanks again, pandemic).

So, mothers are now picking up more of the childcare pieces during lockdowns, while also juggling reduced income and prospects. And, let’s be frank, it wasn’t great before. We already bore the brunt and, notes the Freelands Foundation report, the “six to eight pm” preferred time of gallery openings and other art-world networking events clashes with “the immovable trinity of supper, bath and bedtime”. For older children, this is often the only period of weekday contact and (albeit limited) communication, via pick-ups and an attempt at a family meal. Before the virus struck, I only made it to evening and overseas events because I am divorced and share parenting responsibilities equally with my kids’ father.

That’s not my recommended solution, mind. In some ways, the pandemic lockdowns have helped a better way emerge, even in terms of finding paid work. I moderated more industry panels this spring than average, for example, simply because the logistics were relatively straightforward. And, while not ideal, it became happily acceptable for a home-schooled child to walk in on a livestreamed talk—gone are the days when we pretended such responsibilities didn’t exist.

Yet the juggle worsened again in the semi-lockdown, hybrid time. There was a renewed pressure to go to re-openings, almost as a mark of solidarity. And so much is still happening online, too. How am I meant to visit a gallery opening or auction preview in real life, and also watch a live-streamed sale, join a Microsoft Teams trustee meeting, browse an OVR and, most likely, be on deadline? Schools’ off-and-on Covid rules are a minefield with possible class quarantines and full closures constantly on the horizon. Meanwhile, they need support: child #1 has started a new school; child #2 has endured a brutal 11-plus examination process; and child #3 has taken fussy eating to a new level. They are all trying to negotiate the pandemic, too.

It’s exciting to see art and people again, but I for one hope that in the future any famine-to-feast return is contained. It seems to me that the art world could work better for mothers—and fathers, by the way—if it doesn’t go back to the out-of-hours, out-of-town way things were. That’s certainly my New Year’s resolution.