In March 2020, we knew something was cooking, obviously. For the past months, we were becoming more and more aware of the upcoming pandemic. The virus creeping closer from one degree of longitude to the next, we had to—as did every other organization, company, institution, family, and person—anticipate what that might mean for us and weigh the options.
Fortunately, through past and current professional experience outside of the art industry and observing other countries hit earlier and harder, we had a rough idea of what was coming on a nationwide scale. This allowed us to negotiate with our cooperators for upcoming projects swiftly and organize contingency planning for pretty much any imaginable scenario. If they hadn’t done so first, we reached out to the entities offering us financial support in order to share thoughts on how the situation might effect programming. Without exception, we were met with understanding and good will.
Hamlet is an artist-run organization, and therefore our surroundings and us were not only handing out cancellations and postponements but also receiving them. In the weeks leading up to the various lockdowns and shutdowns across the continent, we already started hearing of people so strongly affected by cancellations that they were losing entire annual incomes within less than a week. As an organization, we apparently had no trouble surviving; as artists, however, we were becoming aware of how deeply fucked we were. Given that many artists, especially in the stage in which the career is in development, still moonlight in other jobs to generate regular income, you’d assume that there isn’t too much to worry about. Obviously, artists with day jobs are rarely looking for a career in their salaried occupations, which leads to them taking on employment in low qualification and informal settings which are therefore also low-income and often paid by the hour or per gig. Industries like gastronomy and the event industry are often the go-to receptacle for artists looking for jobs with flexible working hours and the possibility to adjust frequency and involvement with respect to their individual work and projects. You can see where we are going with this: amongst the first branches that were shut down in most countries and for obvious reasons were all things eating, drinking, partying, and entertaining. So, there you are, thinking for a brief moment “Well, I might as well just go and put in some more salary work for the time being,” before quickly realizing that your employer has already sent you a text message saying that you’re out of work for the foreseeable future, and because you’re hired on an hourly or freelance basis, they don’t see any possibility to keep you on as long as the company can’t generate income.
For us personally, we knew that we’d get by one way or another. We were able to retreat home, in proximity to our families, to close friends, always knowing that there is a safety net we could rely on. And also not forgetting that we live in Switzerland as Swiss citizens with more or less Swiss sounding names which turns out to be an invaluable privilege, although this luxury is also one with limits as we would experience later. However, these limits appear easy to overcome in comparison to the situations other people found themselves in.
In anticipation of a lockdown in Switzerland (which would be decreed as of March 16, 2020), we moved our offices home and made ourselves as comfortable as possible given the circumstances. Our understanding of what our space can be has been readjusted time and again even within the short time it has existed. One constant, however, is that Hamlet can function as a relay for resources. Even as a small independent art space, we can bundle all sorts of resources as long as we are capable of sustaining the public impression of a certain degree of professionalism. However, bundling these resources is only interesting if we manage to find the right outlets to pass them on to. Suddenly, confronted with the limitations of running our space, putting on projects, and conducting public events, our resources lay inert. And if we couldn’t pass on our resources to the artists we work with, probably no one could. And then again, if no one could, no resources would reach the people we work with. The buck stops not at the top, but at the bottom, the socially and economically most vulnerable, exposing themselves and assuming risks on a project basis inside a gig economy full of opportunities but even more potential downfalls. The exact opposite to, for instance, athletic careers; with well-paid jobs early in life, but subsequently having to live off the earnings of these early careers, reinventing life plans at a stage at which many other people are already settled. Athletic careers ask for humongous sacrifices which are met—in the best case—with adequate remuneration in an early phase in life. Artistic careers, however, tend to be almost lifelong exercises in paying forward: investing in careers which might pay off at a very late stage in life. In many cases, a career in the arts, especially as an artist, is playing the long game. Again, the sacrifices made might be compensated by certain freedoms and flexibility but are in parallel accompanied by severely prolonged economic adolescence, making artists particularly vulnerable in moments of general peril. Although hopefully most artists are aware of their starting positions to their careers, this awareness doesn’t make them any more protected or supported by the circumstances surround- ing them.
While we can only make a subjective and halfway qualified statement about the situation and also only for Switzerland, artists as a group of professionals tend to lack organized political and economic representation. Up to a certain degree, it appears intuitively logical, as artists are usually self-employed, exploiting themselves and their resources seemingly by choice and therefore amiss of an entity, institution, or subsumable industry other than themselves to which demands could be addressed. At the same time, the only organization in Switzerland, Visarte, which self-identifies as a national interest group for furthering artists’ economic and political standing, has missed out on the past few decades in complete oblivion of new generations, new circumstances, new urgencies, and new situations regarding the accessibility to all kinds of resources. It is important to us to point out that we are quite sure that artists tend to be better off in Switzerland when compared to other parts of the world with an abundance of public grants and support, directly or indirectly. This changes nothing about the fact that entire economic, social, political, and welfare systems are in no way prepared for a workforce laboring in a gig economy, without fixed contracts, lacking the financial or structured administrative and bureaucratic resources of other self-employed people or businesses. According to one account, it turns out that the database of the Swiss unemployment agency includes the professions “art historian” and “art expert,” but it isn’t possible to register and file for unemployment as “artist.” While there are several layers of safety nets and welfare support systems in case of unemployment or distress in Switzerland, none are prepared to handle a logic of labor not based on a fixed, monthly income or, in the case of self-employment, realities which are based on a principle of paying forward, with incomes oscillating annually, and are therefore often inherently precarious. We can only assume that this situation is even more severe in places which are not Central Europe’s Disneyland.
On March 14, 2020 we drafted a letter to disseminate throughout one of our most important resources: our media canals. We released a call for donations in order to build a fund, as uncomplicated as possible, to offer artists in dire need support and relief. It turns out that we did this not one day too early. We were overwhelmed by both the incredible readiness of people in Hamlet’s vicinity and beyond to offer their help by sending money and entrusting us with delivering it to the people in need, as well as the immense response we received from exactly the people in need of this support. In retrospect, we aren’t surprised that the first person applying for money from our fund was a US-American national and resident who we’d never had contact with before. From there, applications started coming in, at times by the hour.
On March 20, 2020, the Swiss Federation announced that there was an extensive financial aid package being put together also for individuals working in the cultural sector. A syndicate consisting of a variety of organizations representing cultural workers’ interests in Switzerland, mostly musicians, was tasked with developing a process, processing the applications and paying out the “immediate relief ” [Soforthilfe] funds to artists in need. This organization, Suisseculture Sociale, of which the aforementioned Visarte is a member, went through the tedious work of developing a secure platform and fair process to handle the applications. We can only imagine what kind of extensive work was executed in such a short period of time; however, yet again, individuals working in the visual arts were confronted with a questionnaire and asked for records which are often impossible to provide, knowing the realities of visual artists. The platform was activated on April 6, 2020. For all we know, the first person we know personally who received “immediate help” had money hitting the account on May 12, 2020 after submitting an application as early as April 7th. It took more than a month and several rounds of insisting and explaining that certain documents were simply not available and a total of nearly two months after the Swiss lockdown was instated before the first person received relief. That is two months without income and, in the worst case, without money for rent, food, medical expenses, toiletries, or other basic expenses. Again, this is what was branded “immediate relief.” Dated April 16, 2020, the president of Visarte, born in 1955, sent out a letter to all members of the organization blathering about the worms in the garden of the home he owns and how artists must learn to say “no.” Often, “no” is a word one needs to be able to afford. While we too love watching the change of seasons and species in our respective gardens and would never want to take away or diminish someone’s joy over such things, the blindness for artists’ situations in less established and settled circumstances was symptomatic and, frankly, disappointing bordering on ridiculous and cynical.
Around the time of this letter, by mid-April 2020, after raising and paying out about 15,000 Swiss Francs, we started seeing donations declining rapidly. Of course, this sum is nothing compared to the 280 million Swiss Francs made available for the cultural sector by the Swiss Federation, but we do take some pride in the fact that up until then, we sent immediate relief to 35 individuals across Europe and the Americas. We hope that we were able to put some food on the table here and there, help with the rent or, in the most extreme and rare cases, help pay for insulin or gasoline to put in the car to bring children to school.
Confronted with an abundance of applications, we felt committed to continue raising money but knew that we had exhausted Hamlet’s network and the few media relations we had. We also need to point out that there appear to be significant cultural differences in how charities function and how people support them when comparing continental Europe to the Anglo-Saxon parts of the world. Nonetheless, we decided, with the generous help of a few friends, to set up an online platform for a benefit auction. And again, the support from within the art world itself was impressive: from art school students to blockbuster artists, works were consigned to our platform from artists directly. While collectors were able to buy art at a bargain, in some cases even almost absurd bargains, the auctions raised roughly an additional 25,000 Swiss Francs to distribute among artists in need.
In mid-June 2020, we phased out the Hamlet SARS- CoV-2 Support and Relief Fund for Artists. This, after making payments to a total of approximately 120 individuals across about twenty countries. Now, this doesn’t sound like much, but we do hope that we could at least help these few people.
Now, at the beginning of August, about six months after the pandemic started hitting Europe and the Americas with increasing force, we still have people reaching out for funds that we unfortunately cannot provide. We hear and read stories of Argentinians not being able to access their bank accounts to withdraw the money we sent them, Brazilians being left entirely alone, artists living in Switzerland who can’t access support from either the regular unemployment system or the process supposedly specifically designed for them and therefore have to rely on the social welfare system, artists residing in Belgium receiving significantly less support in comparison from the institutions they study in because they are not Belgian nationals and, of course, there are more stories.
All this being said; it is not all bad. But if anything, the structures, or lack thereof, at the foundation of a large part of the art industry appear to have been anticipating realities increasingly more people are experiencing in their professional and personal lives also outside of the arts. It is shocking to witness the lack of understanding with regard to these realities from state agencies, media, the broad public, schools, art institutions (with a workforce normally relying on fixed contracts), individuals in politics, and most of all the interest groups and organizations which are supposed to further artists’ interests and interest in artists. It goes without saying that our personal positions are privileged ones, even within the broader field of the arts. Although, knowing this and experiencing the pressure we did during these times, it must be insurmountable for many. Fortunately, there are ways of unlocking empathy, understanding, resources, support, and solidarity, but it involves a huge effort, and that is weight no one can pull alone.
Founded in 2018, Hamlet is a non-profit, artist-run exhibition and research project located in Zurich- Oerlikon, Switzerland. It is co-directed by Clifford E. Bruckmann and Cathrin Jarema. Swiss- American artist Clifford E. Bruckmann completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Fine Arts at ZHdK. Swiss-Polish artist, performer, and dancer Cathrin Jarema also completed her Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts at ZHdK. She obtained her MA at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, and she is currently studying at ISAC Brussels.