Arts sector continues to face challenges during COVID-19 pandemic

31 August 2020

With Melbourne’s concert halls and theatres closed indefinitely to audiences, the arts sector continues to face challenges shifting online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 13 March, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a ban on gatherings of up to 500 people. Just hours after Morrison’s announcement, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) announced that it “will not go ahead”.

“Cancelling the festival is heartbreaking but the only decision possible to support the community’s efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus,” said MICF director Susan Provan.

This was followed by a mass closure of festivals, opera houses, galleries and museums.

“For our sector; the velocity and enormity of this crisis is unparalleled,” said Melbourne Theatre Company Artist Director Brett Sheehy.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the arts industry faced the highest decrease in employment by 34.5%.
To remain connected to their audience and survive financially, companies have turned to digital media to cultivate a unique online presence. In April, Arts Centre Melbourne began a weekly live digital show with John Foreman and his Aussie Pops Orchestra. In May, Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre hosted table readings of award-winning theatrical pieces through Zoom.
However, the abundance of free streams and digital content has raised questions about the management of arts companies and the financial support for employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Early April saw the Australia Council for the arts cut funding for smaller cultural organisations, like First Nations Australia Writers Network and Warburton Youth Arts Centre. Arts Minister Paul Fletcher justified the decision by arguing that organisations can apply for JobKeeper.

“Most organisations in the arts sector are expected to meet the eligibility requirement of revenue having fallen by 30% or more, given that performances have been suspended and venues closed,” wrote Fletcher in a media release.

Regardless, many artists felt that they were not receiving adequate support. The musicians of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra have found themselves relying entirely on JobKeeper after their 50% wage cut offer was rejected by the executive board. The hibernation of musicians resulted in the launching of a petition that called for the government to stand down the board and managing director.

“This is abhorrent and weak minded when all other organisations even in the arts are sharing the burdens,” wrote one supporter.

In total, the Australian government has announced A$27 million to support the sector, however other governments have announced greater funding for the arts. The US through the National Endowment for the Arts has released US$75 million (A$118 million) and the UK announced a relief fund worth up to GB£162 million (A$319 million) for individuals and organisations.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has moved to introduce a $16.8 million survival package to further address the emergency in the Arts sector. The package contains a $13 million Strategic Investment Fund that will be shared by almost 100 non-government organisations, alongside an array of grants for individuals and micro-organisations.

“Ensuring that our cultural and creative sector gets through to the other side of this crisis will be critical to Victoria’s economic, social and cultural recovery,” said Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley.
“Victoria is proudly the creative state.”

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