Covid-19 containment measures have led to unprecedented shutdowns in the arts sector, with small companies and independent artists in the greatest jeopardy. By Alison Croggon.

Covid-19 and the arts

Director Sam Strong conducting rehearsals at MTC for Emerald City, which had its season cut short.
Director Sam Strong conducting rehearsals at MTC for Emerald City, which had its season cut short.
Credit: Charlie Kinross

The first pillar to fall was Dark Mofo, the annual June event run in Hobart by the Museum of Old and New Art’s David Walsh. “We’re killing Dark Mofo for the year,” he said in a statement on the gallery’s website. “Fear is the right response.”

Next was the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF), which confirmed on Friday, March 13 – reinforcing the fears of all triskaidekaphobics – that the second-biggest comedy festival in the world wouldn’t be going ahead this year.

The announcement was no surprise. MICF is Australia’s largest ticketed event, with audiences of up to 770,000 and hundreds of performers in often small, crowded and sweaty venues – simply put, an epidemiologist’s nightmare. It was impossible for any responsible authority to permit the event to go ahead.

The cancellations then began to cascade. On March 16, the Sydney Theatre Company and the Melbourne Theatre Company announced the immediate closures of their current shows, including the MTC’s production of David Williamson’s Emerald City, which had its opening night the previous Wednesday. Adelaide’s State Theatre Company of South Australia said last weekend that it was “awaiting instruction from regulatory authorities”, code for “we’re waiting for authorities to cancel, because otherwise our insurance won’t cover our losses”. By Monday it, too, had cancelled its next two plays. Others, at the date of writing, were taking a more robust route: the Black Swan State Theatre Company in Perth said it was “operating on a ‘business as usual’ basis” and had “no intention to cancel any public performances at this stage”.

Last Saturday afternoon, the Australian Music Industry Network and the Australian Festivals Association launched I Lost My Gig Australia, a website where small-to-medium businesses and independent contractors in the music industry could tally their losses. By Thursday afternoon, they had logged a total of 220,000 cancellations across the arts – a total lost income of $200 million affecting 400,000 people. Other organisations – such as the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance and the National Association for the Visual Arts (NAVA) – are also keeping similar tallies. But they all add up to the same answer: the coronavirus is a calamity for the arts in Australia.

NAVA’s executive director, Esther Anatolitis, says the Australian arts and culture industry faces the most catastrophic disruption in its history. “I include wartime in that,” she says. “I’m running out of ways to say how devastating and perilous it is. Last week, a visual artist told me that she personally stands to lose $60,000 because of an event cancellation. Given that the average Australian artist earns less than $20,000 per year from their creative work, this loss amounts to years’ worth of income.”

The prognosis from industry group Live Performance Australia (LPA) is even more dire. It estimates that the economic and cultural cost of the coronavirus shutdown for the live performance industry is likely to exceed more than half a billion dollars, and thousands of jobs, over coming months. In truth though, while everyone can see the writing on the wall, nobody really knows what it means yet, nor what the long-term impact will be.

Belvoir, announcing the cancellation of its successful show Dance Nation last week, said in a statement that the financial impact of closing was “unparalleled”. “I can’t say yet what the hit will be on us as there’s a lot we don’t know,” says Belvoir’s artistic director, Eamon Flack. “On the one hand, we haven’t cancelled a show since 2007, so this is a real blow. On the other hand, we began rehearsals yesterday as scheduled for A Room of One’s Own. Will we open on our scheduled date? I don’t know. But as soon as people can gather again, we will be ready to go.”

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s immediate response to closure was to live-stream its scheduled performance of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade to thousands of watchers. Many people are suggesting that streaming might be a viable alternative for all sorts of events, but how this might be monetised in order to cover expenses and pay artists remains an open question.

Watching Australian culture going dark in less than a week has been chilling. No one is arguing these cancellations aren’t necessary, but they leave arts companies – large and small – carrying huge losses, and they are devastating for the hundreds of thousands of arts workers who move precariously from one project to another.

After years of cumulative funding cuts, which have accelerated since 2013, the cultural sector was already struggling. Most industry insiders are now saying that, without assistance, even our major companies are facing an existential threat. Opera Australia, which receives by far the largest portion of arts subsidies from the government, derives 50 per cent of its income from its box office. Cancellation of its big-ticket events will, as it announced, hit hard. But Opera Australia has the resources to cover closures. Others do not. There are real fears many companies will close their doors during this crisis and never open them again.

“I fear that we lose hundreds of companies, venues and programs forever,” says Nicole Beyer, executive director of Theatre Network Australia (TNA). “Building the soft infrastructure of an industry takes generations, and without urgent government intervention we are facing a scenario where we basically have no community programs, we have empty buildings, no holiday programs, no shows to see, no books written, no movies to watch, no productions touring in regional Australia or internationally, no festivals in our major cities or in the regions.”

The Australia Council for the Arts announced last week that some of the federal government’s $17.6 billion stimulus package – the portion that will be directed to small-to-medium businesses – includes assistance for “eligible arts businesses”. It’s unclear how much of the package will be directed specifically to culture.

Meanwhile, LPA has been lobbying for an $850 million live performance support and stimulus package, which the group’s chief executive, Evelyn Richardson, described as “a program similar to farm relief to make access to social security payments available in the event of a sector shutdown or significant loss of trade”.

Over the past week, Arts Minister Paul Fletcher has held emergency roundtables with representatives from all sectors of the arts and state ministers. Despite, as one insider put it, “the industry communicating the urgency clearly and consistently”, the ministers reached no concrete decisions. State ministers were meeting with sector representatives late in the week and through the weekend.

“There are several options being tabled,” says TNA’s Nicole Beyer, “but whatever it is, it needs to be fast and significant.” She says TNA endorses calls for an $850 million stimulus package, and for the Australia Council to fund all the 162 small-to-medium-sized arts organisations that it has shortlisted to receive four-year funding.

“It would be a ready-to-go, super-fast way to create at least 200 new full-time jobs and up to 1500 casual jobs … around $16 million per annum additional funding,” she says. “This should be a part of any stimulus package, as should direct, easy-to-access cash payments for affected artists and arts workers.”

As always, the brunt is being borne by thousands of small companies and independent artists and ancillary workers – publicists, stage managers, technical staff, ushers, caterers and others. Many are in desperate situations, exacerbated by the fact that their major sources of alternative income – teaching, casual work in the hospitality industry and so on – have also dried up.

Anatolitis says that if an assistance package doesn’t include support for freelancers or independent arts workers, the entire industry will be in jeopardy. “They are the industry,” she says.

Singer, music teacher and composition student Clare Heuston cobbles together a living through performing, small commissions, teaching at three different schools and running a choir in an aged-care facility – figuring that if one option goes south, she will be able to survive on the others. But now all her jobs have vanished.

“Plenty of performing artists have prudently retained every job they could get for years, even if it caused them pretty intense stress,” she says. “Who could have foreseen that one thing could smash out all those jobs in one go?”

But that’s exactly what has happened to theatre designer Anna Tregloan, who has seen all of her work for the next year either be cancelled or thrown into doubt. “Everyone is reeling,” she says. “Everyone is suddenly set adrift.”

Freelancers are calling for institutions to pay out cancelled commissions, but Tregloan says that so far there isn’t much of that. “Speaking to colleagues, none are talking about the support they are receiving, just that they are suddenly without work or income.

“I worry that [the government’s] remedy may be putting money into the companies only and not the individuals. Individual artists and very small companies were already in such a precarious position due to the funding cuts of the last few years; it is difficult to see how many will survive this.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 21, 2020 as "Dark stages".

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