ARIs (Artist-Run-Initiatives) play a major role in the arts ecosystem when it comes to fostering early-career artists and engaging with the local community. They provide a bridge for art school graduates and those wanting to experiment, but arguably with more limitations than doing so in a commercial or institutional setting.

They are also mostly volunteer-run, making survival during COVID all the more precarious.

‘When COVID hit, I thought we would be screwed [because] we relied on exhibition rentals and artist studio rentals to cover our rent and our budgeted outgoings,’ said Jane Skeer from Adelaide-based ARI Collective Haunt Inc.

Skeer continued: ‘[Since opening in 2018] we have yet to be supported by any government funding. To begin business, we ran a fundraising event to help create the environment we work, and exhibit in, and we have had a couple more fundraising events since then to keep us active.

‘[During COVID] we had to stick to our exhibition program and really up the social media presence. Luckily for us, Adelaide didn’t lock down for long and the general public were buying artworks to support our artists. Somehow we scraped through,’ she said.

Read: ARIs and the challenge of online existence during COVID

Robbie Karmel, Australian National Capital Artists (ANCA) Gallery Coordinator in Canberra said: ‘There have been some notable shifts in the ARI space in the last few years. The disruption of COVID-19 and the related lockdowns was substantial, and continues to affect how organisations like ours function.’

ANCA was among the more fortunate spaces, receiving funding from artsACT to subsidise rent for studio tenants, but many projects had to be stalled or abandoned due to the lack of studio access during lockdown.

‘We are well supported in the form of grants in 2022, with some grants from 2021 being rolled over and renewed without requiring a new application round. [But now] there is some anxiety and trepidation about the future of funding as grants return to the competitive model, requiring work on applications with uncertainty of ongoing funding,’ Karmel said.

Artists are also facing increasing pressure to generate an income, whereas in the last two years ‘JobKeeper significantly subsidised the income of many artists during the early stages of the pandemic, which helped them continue to keep up rent payments for the organisation,’ Karmel continued.

Read: Points-based jobseeker system will compromise artists’ work

‘Again, the lack of continuation of such support has left many artists worried about their livelihoods in the coming months and years.

‘It has also been observed that artists returning to their studios are experiencing varied levels of burnout from the last few years and continue to struggle to make work and generate an income stream from their practices.’

What’s next?

The money factor is what will determine most ARIs’ ability to support artists into the future. Collective Haunt and ANCA are taking different approaches.

As Skeer explained: ‘Our aim [at Collective Haunt] is to work out how to get some funding so that we don’t have to charge artists to exhibit here.

‘Adelaide has very few places to experiment and exhibit art; we need to stay open to encourage the arts and culture here to thrive again. Our 2022 calendar is full and our exhibitions this year to date have experienced record crowds and good sales. We can only hope that this continues for us and our exhibiting artists,’ she said.

Currently, Collective Haunt Inc. hosts a gallery space alongside 16 studio spaces, and there is an open call process for artists to exhibit.

On the other hand, ANCA is ‘looking at ways to shift towards a more commercial model to increase income for our gallery, which will have an effect on our capacity to deliver experimental projects or support community projects,’ Karmel said.

He noted that transferring their exhibitions program online greatly affected the sales of works and audience enthusiasm, but ‘a positive outcome of this disruption is that we are now equipped to host shows both in person and live, deliver streaming of events, and sell artworks online’.

Moving forward, it will be about re-establishing that public engagement while building a more self-sustaining ARI model. But human resources remain a major barrier, and it all comes back to funding.