The Arts and COVID-19

The nation’s arts in a time of pandemic

On the basic figures alone, the nation’s already vulnerable cultural sector has been brought to its knees by the advent of the coronavirus.

There have been 255,000 gigs or events cancelled, 500,000 people impacted and at least $280 million lost, according to the Lost My Gig website, since decisions were made to close venues, abandon festivals and close borders. The nation’s visual artists estimate their loss at $30 million.

Esther Anatolitis, Executive Director, National Association for the Visual Arts
Credit: Sarah Walker

The Australian screen industry has been struck by 60 productions either shutting down or being delayed, worth a total investment of $387 million in the nation’s film, television and media sectors. The Sydney Film Festival was cancelled, Bluesfest, the Sydney Writers Festival, the Melbourne Comedy Festival, Dark MoFo, Sydney’s Vivid Festival and plenty of others in regional and rural towns already struggling in the aftermath of bushfires have just been snuffed out. The total loss, across the vast range of exhibitions, performances, plays, musicals, books, music performances, and the closures of museums, galleries, libraries and cinemas, from Hobart to Darwin, and from Brisbane to Broome, is expected to amount to well over $500 million.

“Australia’s cultural life is being disrupted entirely right now in the most perilous way for generations,’’ Esther Anatolitis, Executive Director of the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) says.

The industry is united in pushing the Federal government for a billion dollar-rescue package.

The latest organization to add its voice to chorus is A New Approach, an independent arts and culture think tank supported by The Myer Foundation, the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation and The Keir Foundation.

ANA Program Director Kate Fielding said: “We encourage all levels of government to provide immediate, specific and proportional support for creative organisations and individuals who are so heavily impacted by the current crisis.

“Whenever order is finally restored it will be essential that our national recovery is well supported by our arts and culture which are such a valuable part of our national life.’’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s stimulus announcement on Sunday will provide some relief for cultural workers who have had their livelihood suddenly taken away from them, and there are indications that Australia Council grant funding conditions could be relaxed to free up extra funds for rent or wages.

Sophie Galaise, Managing Director, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

But arts industry leaders are clamoring for more targeted assistance.

In this febrile environment, when government support is under scrutiny and demand for help comes from multiple deserving communities, philanthropy’s role comes into sharp focus.

Long-term arts supporters are vital in such testing times.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra managing director Sophie Galaise says the organisation has had to rely on its supporters.

“We have to count on the support of philanthropists, patrons and the support of those who believe in the power of music and the power of the MSO to engage with its community,’’ she says. “We have decided that we would be embedded with our community, that we would be there for this community and we’re trying to keep the music going.’’

Although the MSO has mined a new vein of audience development with its live streaming of concerts, there is no way yet of monetising the initiative. If the current situation lasts until spring, Sophie predicts the MSO will be in a parlous position.

“The MSO is an organisation that has survived two world wars and is more than 100 years old, so it would be sad for it to go down but meanwhile, we’re trying to keep smiling and working on finding a solution,’’ she says.

Mitzi Goldman, CEO of Documentary Australia Foundation, urged philanthropists and the foundations who supported the creation of films that helped shape agendas and foster social change to continue their work. “We do need to work in partnership and continue to spread that love, even if it’s more thinly, across those sectors and across those issue areas, whether it’s storytelling or working with organisations that are servicing the need,’’ Mitzi says.

Mitzi Goldman, CEO of Documentary Australia Foundation

According to Creative Partnerships Australia’s Giving Attitude report released last November, private sector support for the arts – including philanthropic donations, grants, sponsorship and volunteering - was valued at $608 million in 2017. Of the overall funding mix for the nation’s art and culture organisations, government-provided 27 percent, the private sector 25 percent and earned income 40 percent. That earned income from box office and ticket sales are now for most performers and exhibitors - and the organisation hosting the event - wiped out.

The knock-on effect from the closures and cancellations is the impact on a range of jobs that support the arts and culture, most of them casual positions, from hospitality, to venue management, to ushering, to production staff.  Upward of 190,000 jobs are estimated to be impacted as a result of the shutdown.

“The industry itself is dependent on casual workers and artists themselves draw the bulk of their income from a range of casual sources and those are drying up,’’ Esther says. “So the industry is at risk of collapse.’’

Several state governments went early with their own stimulus packages for their local arts industry. The Federal Arts Minister Paul Fletcher has already met with representatives of 18 peak arts bodies and followed it up with a meeting of arts and culture ministers. However, the communique that was circulated after the ministerial meeting did little to address concerns within the industry about the need for an urgent solution. Some industry lobbying of the Federal government will continue, focusing on Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and some of his frontbench colleagues in an attempt to rally broader Cabinet support for action.

Those who are leading the public charge are aware that there are many Australians making appropriate and urgent demands for assistance from the government. In this health crisis, many are vulnerable. But the arts can at least point to its intrinsic value in times of national challenge. “We need to continue to make the case how important the arts are at times like these,’’ Mitzi says. “We need them desperately, we need comedy, we need to laugh. We need to share beauty; we need stories that make sense of this madness and the arts does all of that.’’

The Australia Council is providing a response package to support the arts sector

The Australia Council has suspended many of its investment programs to concentrate on providing a response package to support artists, arts practitioners, arts groups and arts organisations coping with the impact of Covid-19.

Australia Council chief executive Adrian Collette said, ‘We have freed up funds—as much as we are able—to immediately respond to the critical situation faced by Australian arts and culture. We are introducing new support and sector development programs. We are establishing virtual gathering opportunities and important conduits for sector feedback as we work together and codesign solutions to the host of new challenges we face. We are also working closely with the Office for the Arts and our Minister to provide advice and information to assist the Government’s response to this urgent crisis.’

For more information on the response package click here.

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