Melanie Burge

The pandemic’s immediate impact on performing arts in Australia

13 May 2020

Melanie BurgeMelanie Burge is an alumni of The Festival Academy (Gothenburg 2018). She has twelve years’ experience in programming, producing and operational roles in arts festivals and events around Australian and New Zealand, including Melbourne International Arts Festival, Brisbane Festival, Adelaide Fringe, Christchurch Arts Festival and Ten Days on the Island. She lives in Melbourne.

A time of writing, Australia is cautiously optimistic about its efforts to address COVID-19 as a national health emergency, but the impact of the pandemic restrictions has made the parlous condition of our arts sector impossible to ignore, and even more difficult to overcome. If there were any silver linings for Australian artists and arts workers, perhaps it is the possibility of new opportunities for local artists to connect with local audiences.

For those who work in arts, culture and entertainment in Australia, the situation we find ourselves in bears some metaphorical resemblance to the apocalyptic bushfires which raged across the country this past summer. Bushfires are always damaging, but the ravaged habitats were already severely compromised by years of higher drought. Similarly, the pandemic-caused devastation to arts and culture in Australia is compounded and amplified by years of underfunding and lack of federal support.

The Australian arts scene has been comprehensively, and some say deliberately, undermined by successive conservative federal governments in the last seven years. Since 2013, hundreds of millions of dollars have been slashed from the budgets of the Australia Council for the Arts, public broadcasters ABC and SBS, Screen Australia, and providers of vocational creative arts courses. Theatre critic Alison Croggon describes the Australian government’s relationship with its artists as “a conscious policy of hostility against the arts” (Witness, 23 April 2020).

A further significant inequity for artists in Australia is that while funding is comparatively secure for the largest performing arts institutions (those organisations with a public profile which allows them more ably to secure philanthropic and corporate sponsorship), for the independent small artistic companies, the ones who embrace more artistic risk, push boundaries, train and employ more artists and arts workers, engage with far greater numbers of audiences, and audiences in further-flung communities, the available federal governmental resources are only dwindling, as Ben Eltham describes in The Guardian (6 April 2020). Funding for these small companies and independent artists is tenuous, project-based rather than for a multi-year period, and not at all conducive to employing artists with confidence for any length of time. These companies and individuals are arguably the ones best positioned to nurture, train and employ the next generation of Australian artists, and they are the most vulnerable.

When the pandemic necessitated national lockdown, inevitably hundreds of thousands of people were made unemployed. The Australian federal government moved quickly to introduce financial measures to assist citizens, including a supplemented unemployment benefit, and a financial incentive for businesses to retain and pay staff. Yet thousands of artists and arts workers are ineligible for this support due to the precarious nature of their pre-pandemic employment structures, which are overwhelmingly contract to contract, gig to gig (with no additional entitlements such as superannuation, paid leave, etc). The federal minister for the arts, Paul Fletcher, is on record for having voted against legislation changes which would have made more artists and arts workers eligible for the new unemployment benefit (The Age, 11 May 2020).

Certain hard-hit Australian industries such as aviation have benefited from targeted governmental support. Arts and culture is “by far the industry hardest hit by COVID-19’s economic destruction”, according to Esther Anatolitis, the executive director of NAVA (The Guardian, 8 April 2020), but calls for urgent assistance have been resoundingly ignored.

With the lack of effective support for Australia’s arts industry, it is difficult and painful to imagine how artistic practice will survive the pandemic. When theatres and venues are permitted to re-open – whenever that might be – what work will even be available to present? Which artistic practice will have survived for the creating and presenting of work?

What opportunities could possibly exist in this atmosphere of uncertainty and despair? The only one I can think of is that, with international travel likely to be impossible for some time, Australian presenters will be much more inclined to programme the work of artists from their geographical community, and to foster activity which supports the connection of artists and audiences in authentic and intimate ways. If nobody can reliably or economically fly into, out of or around Australia, presenters will have little practical choice but to support and promote hyper-local artistic activity. Australia is a large continent, with its capital cities thousands of kilometres apart from each other, sparse regional arts venues with limited infrastructure, and inadequate rail networks connecting the country. For these reasons, up until recently it has been better value for money and audience development for Australian artists to tour internationally than tour within their own country. We understand some of the major arts festivals such as Sydney Festival are planning programmesof wholly Australian and predominantly local work. I would love to see flagship presentation venues expressing support and commitment to similar initiatives.

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Les Festivals de Wallonie, Rockerill © CPROD
Les Festivals de Wallonie, Rockerill © CPROD