How artists are coping with the impact of COVID-19

Three Melbourne-based artists share stories on how Victoria’s snap lockdown has affected their arts practice and mental health.
Melbourne’s fourth lockdown continues to devastate the arts industry as theatres, galleries and concert halls once again close their doors. But for individual artists there are hidden costs. Melbourne-based artists Bernard Caleo, Brent Lukey and Cristina D’Agostino share their stories on how they’ve been impacted professionally and personally and what measures they’ve taken to adjust to the impact on their livelihood as artists.

Hitting pause – for the fourth time

Independent freelance photographer Brent Lukey doesn’t have ‘leave’ to fall back on, or a job he can pivot to a ‘work from home’ Zoom arrangement. The snap lockdown means work stops, money disappears and his studio closes as a non-essential workplace. ‘It’s a small business disaster,’ said Lukey. ‘The momentum and confidence to host live in person events dwindles and may take months to build again.’
‘It may be months and months before work comes back in a full-time capacity.’

Brent Lukey, freelance photographer

Graphic novel publisher and partner at Twelve Panels Press, Bernard Caleo had the launch of his new title, Safdar Ahmed’s Still Alive: notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System curtailed by the snap lockdown – with only one (of three) book tour events going ahead. ‘Even though we “know” how lockdowns go now, with this fourth lockdown I note a weariness in my family, friends and work colleagues,’ said Caleo. ‘Tempers fray easily. There’s less resilience.’ For performer and creative artist Cristina D’Agostino the lockdown hit particularly hard, as her play, Savage in Limbo was set to begin its run of shows from 1 June. The production has temporarily paused due to lockdown, which was devastating news for D’Agostino who gave birth late last year and has spent the last two months knee-deep in rehearsals. ‘It’s been a disappointment to say the least,’ said D’Agostino, ‘considering it has taken a great deal of time and effort away from my new family of four to make the show happen. Not to mention the excitement of sharing our hard work with the public.’ Read: Creating a national arts plan

Home is no longer a sanctuary

One of the challenges of lockdown is that our homes have turned into a place of work and school with no distinct border between professional and the domestic, explained photographer Lukey. ‘I start to avoid looking at emails, then sadly replying with grace once I find some professional confidence once again,’ he said. However, Lukey is able to find inspiration and educate himself by looking at and reading about how other artist’s work. ‘This helps me develop ideas for the future and also reminds me that limitations have advantages too,’ said Lukey. Similarly, performer D’Agostino has found the value of communication throughout a lockdown and acknowledging the emotional and physical strain it can have on a daily basis.
‘It has been due to previous lockdowns that we have learnt that catastrophising isn’t a healthy option moving forward’

Cristina D’Agostino, performing artist

‘Talking about how we feel about potentially postponed or cancelled events means that we rarely harbour our negative feelings and instead are able to talk about them, which we have found to be fundamental in moving forward in such unprecedented times,’ she said.

Read: Arts funding in an interconnected ecology

Finding new ways to adjust and stay focused

Keeping creative helps with staying focused, according to Caleo, who uses the parallels between the current COVID-19 situation and his creative outlets to cope. ‘Drawing is really good because the unknown plays such a big part,’ he said. ‘Reading books is great in the absolute opposite way. The physical object means you have a strong sense of the length and where you are in it, as opposed to the radical unsurety of COVID life.’ For parents working in the arts, trying to juggle home-schooling and creative endeavours can be difficult. It’s important to find new ways to keep personal passion projects alive during lockdown, suggests D’Agostino, whose husband is also a performer. ‘We have a toddler and a newborn, so our time is filled to capacity on a daily basis. My husband and I share the responsibilities involved and make sure we take personal time out to reboot when things get overwhelming,’ she said. ‘Over time, we have learned that staying creative is a healthy option for our wellbeing personally and as a family. I have commenced a masters in counselling, which has been a passion of mine for a long time, and covid has given me the space to pursue that ambition.’

Looking to the future

As we try to get life back on track, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. Most people working in the arts are not doing it as a hobby but as a profession that needs to be supported when in crisis, Lukey explained. ‘The government is very good at major infrastructure funding, but not small, freelance funding.’ Comic artist and publisher Caleo also works casually at a bookshop and has been lucky enough to find comfort in colleagues who provide an invaluable, good-humoured community. ‘COVID conditions can help me focus on my immediate circles,’ said Caleo, ‘to concentrate on what is near and dear.’ In this lies the light at the end of the tunnel. Despite the devastation that COVID has brought, with it has also come a resurgence in building a strong network that sticks together. ‘I take solace in knowing that we are not alone in our thoughts and feelings and my fellow peers in the industry know and understand our journey due to their similar experiences,’ said D’Agostino. ‘We as an industry continue to build a resilience to the consequences of each lockdown, and albeit difficult, I have to believe that it is character building, and as a community we will continue to thrive, survive and gain further perspective of just how magical it is when we DO get to perform and do what we love.’
If you’re experiencing mental health issues we encourage you to use the following mental health support services: Lifeline: 13 11 14 Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 Support Act Wellbeing Helpline: 1800 959 500  
Giselle Bueti
About the Author
Giselle Bueti is a staff writer for ArtsHub.